Thursday, January 15, 2009

casino royale

<--Vesper Lynd (the dress is more '30s than '50s, but too bad)

Casino Royale was really not what I expected at all. James Bond on film has almost universally failed to move me—the Sean Connery film my ex showed me years ago (I can’t even remember which one it was!) was agonizingly boring, and Die Another Day was watched in my Race, Gender, and Ethnicity course in order for us to dissect its possible sexist and racist qualities. Casino Royale the film changed all that and finally made me understand (maybe) what all the fuss was about. Forgive me, then, if before reading the book I focused on those negative elements and somehow failed to take into account that there must have been something entertaining about the Ian Fleming books in order to make them as popular and long-lasting as they are.

Because entertaining is how I found Casino Royale. It’s short and in many ways, quite dissimilar from the film. But in others, it matches up and certainly makes a strong debut for perhaps that most famous of spies. The early structure was shrewdly conceived by its author. Forget linear narration—it makes the most of Bond’s self-confessed attention to detail and his surprising imaginative streak. As the title suggests, we begin in the Casino Royale where Bond is on his mission to defeat LeChiffre, handpicked for this role because of his talents for gambling. As he takes stock of his surroundings and imagines what the other players are thinking, it makes a seamless introduction for some exposition. We learn that Bond is a serious smoker, familiar with Jamaica, and He was a secret agent, and still alive thanks to the exact detail of his profession.

It’s this attention to detail that I think most surprised me about the book. It shares with maybe my favorite book of all time, Beauty by Robin McKinley, a real sensuousness in describing food, clothes, d├ęcor, and even the physical attributes of people (especially women, it must be said). As Bond confesses, having to eat alone a lot has made him into a real gourmand, and the superb descriptions of all the food in Casino Royale made me ruefully think about the best meal of my life (at l’Anticipation in Lyon in 2005). Bond seems to have an obsession with toast and taking cold showers (he never takes a hot shower throughout the course of the book!).

In order not to bore us with unnecessary dialogue or exposition, we are given the lowdown on Bond’s mission and adversary in a flashback to the head of the organization, M, being briefed by dossier. To me, M has always been and always will be Judi Dench. Similarly, I find Daniel Craig more attractive than all past actors to play Bond put together. So, with a little literary legerdemain, I can imagine that both of these roles are filled by the actors I want, and similarly, LeChiffre is not a fat mixture of Mediterranean with Prussian or Polish strains but Mads Mikkelsen. Sorry, Ian—that’s how it’s got to be.

Bond’s mission is a daring one, coming down to a few days at the baccarat table (most of the explosions, etc, in the film were invented for a film audience). This is very effective and makes for tense, page-turning reading. There are no shortage of edgy moments—Bond really has to think outside the box at the baccarat table in order not to get himself killed instantly or give up on his mission, and the torture scene was every bit as brutal and cringe-worthy as in the film. Bond uses Vesper’s apparent unfamiliarity with baccarat in order to describe to her—and the equally unfamiliar audience, in my case—the way the game is played, and a little of the strategy involved. Even though I’ve written scenes of gamblers around the table with a lot to lose, I’d never read it so well-described before. The scenes of high-stakes gambling and Bond’s internal monologues are easily the best parts of the book. Fleming’s surprisingly eloquent (and death-themed) descriptions of the card games—lifting up the corpses of the seven and the queen—made me wonder something about an entirely different fandom. The Joker’s iconography has always been playing cards—but from all the graphic novels and comics I’ve read, he’s never described as actually gambling. Hmmm. Food for fan fiction.

What little I remember from the Bond films I’d seen before Casino Royale were uncomplicated, objectified women characters—is not that the essence of a Bond girl? Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, on the other hand, was allowed to have a character, complications, and tragedy along with her sex appeal, so that you could understand why Bond might fall in love with her. Vesper Lynd in the book is still a product of 1953 and of Bond’s—not to say Fleming’s—attitudes toward women. Bond is annoyed when he finds out he has a female partner. Women were for recreation, and he calls her a bitch before he even meets her! Blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men. I try to remind myself what I said in my review of Gone with the Wind, that attitudes espoused by characters as accurate representations of what people thought in 1860 or 1953 can’t be held against the book as a whole—but it’s difficult not to fling the book across the room when I read stuff like that. While I am, as I say, impressed at the detail in describing clothes, one has to see that there’s no parallel in describing Vesper’s lasciviously tight over her fine breasts frock—if Bond’s trousers are as tight as David Tennant’s, we have no way of knowing—it’s not the sort of detail Fleming wants to share with his audience which, fair enough, he must suppose to be men. (Though he did decide to tell us that a hairy Sicilian hit man would be “obscene” were he naked!)

Vesper makes decorative, vaguely amusing conversation at table, but is nowhere near as incisive as the character played by Eva Green on film. The section I think where Fleming falls down in the course of describing people’s interactions with each other is Vesper’s tearful reactions during Bond’s recovery from his torture ordeal and their subsequent idyll on the coast in France. While Bond is considering proposing matrimony to Miss Lynd, I can hardly see why given her vacuous behavior. Oh, I suppose there’s a “reason” for all her actions, but it’s nowhere near as well-rendered as in the film, and her demise is pathetic and cowardly in comparison to the film and would seem not to inspire the “inconsolable rage” that it does.

There are a few other surprises. Though Bond intends to resign from the service after his torture ordeal in the film, it’s for different reasons than presented in the book. In the book, the hitherto patriotic Bond has a crisis of belief. He suggests that while they’re fighting Commies at the moment, the tides could turn. I was also surprised at the graphic nature of some of the love scenes. Not that we’re talking soft porn here, but it made me feel a bit more virtuous in my own writing! And may we wonder whether the Daniel Craig swimming trunks incident had a bit of inspiration from the latter part of the book where Bond spends days on the beach swimming in his “pyjama-coat”?

I’ve declared several times that I’ve found the 1950s to be a very dull decade indeed, and I kept getting annoyed that so many Doctor Who stories were set then. Clearly, though, from Bond’s perspective, they were anything but. My favorite spies, I suppose, have always been Percy and Marguerite Blakeney from The Scarlet Pimpernel, a wholly different book from Casino Royale. Still, I’m glad I read the book, and I’m even tempted to read more of Bond’s adventures. Reading Casino Royale was an interesting and overall very surprising experience.

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