Saturday, March 10, 2012

Operation Thunderball

As I've read my way through Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, it's been fun comparing the films that were made out of them. Some books are faithfully transposed from page to screen, others bear almost no resemblance. Plots and characters from one book might be used in the film of another.

Thunderball is different. It was adapted into more than one movie – Thunderball (1965) and Never Say Never Again (1983), with plans for a third called Warhead 2000 AD. But the book is itself a novelisation of a screenplay: it was meant to be the first James Bond film, the script written by Fleming himself and a gang of pals. Does that make it different from the other novels?

First, is the plot any more cinematic than previous Bond books? A new super-team of villains nicking atomic bombs and holding the US and UK to ransom does seem a movie sort of plot. Compare it to some Bond books and it’s a lot bigger and more visual. Casino Royale is all about a card game, From Russia With Love is mostly taken up with the bureaucracy of the Russian secret service and Moonraker is set in rainy Dover. But Thunderball isn’t bigger or bolder than Doctor No (so no wonder that was chosen to be the first movie when rights over Thunderball got tricky).

What's more, the structure of Thunderball is really odd. It starts with Bond being sent to a health farm by an evangelical M, who's on a health kick himself. I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of Bond eating yoghurt. The films concur and both tack on a more exciting opening sequence before Bond goes to the farm.

The farm is still a big problem. While there, Bond just so happens to stumble into a chap with a crucial part to play in the bomb conspiracy. As I said a hundred years ago:
“It's a whopping great coincidence in Thunderball that Bond happens to be in the same health farm as the baddies. That is, unless either a) it being right next to a NATO base means the Secret Service can get a discount, or b) M has had a tip-off.

Though the latter seems not to play when Bond phones in his suspicions about Count Lippi's tattoo: Moneypenny reminds him how he's on leave.”
Me, Oddfelt, 23 August 2006.
It’s a pity that Bond is suspicious of Lippi based on little more than that he's of mixed race but drives a nice car. He’s not the greatest of villains either, his uncontrollable temper almost ruining SPECTRE’s plan. Fleming himself seems a bit unsure about,
“this rather childish trial of strength between two extremely tough and ruthless men, in the bizarre surroundings of a health clinic in Sussex”.
Ian Fleming, Thunderball, p. 43.
Later, when Felix Leiter helpfully guesses how the man Bond fought at the health farm might be connected to the conspiracy, Bond says it’s the sort of nonsense one might dream up on mescaline (p. 122). This is not the only time Fleming undermines his own plotting.

Perhaps, I thought, the health farm is there to inject new life into the old Bond – who must be a bit battered and scarred after so many wild adventures (he, er, died at the end of From Russia With Love). Or it’s a canny way of excusing any changes in the character on screen – his being younger, less grumpy, more fun.

Except that Bond’s new-found good health only lasts a few pages before he’s back to his hard-drinking habits. What’s more, he and M being healthy horrifies the women around them. In Chapter 7, Bond's housekeeper and secretary are both appalled by him eating yoghurt and looking good. But Miss Moneypenny promises that, like M, he'll soon be on the “champagne cure” again, so hungover and difficult once more. She says:
“‘It's really the best for men. It makes them awful, but at least they're human like that. It's when they're godlike one can’t stand them’”.
Ibid., p. 65.
Bond’s record of health, as spelled out by M, is not so far from the author’s: too much smoking, boozing and good food, too little due care and attention. So perhaps this is an acknowledgement of Fleming’s own inability to change his unhealthy lifestyle.

There’s also something different about Moneypenny. When we first met her in Casino Royale, she was cool and sure, and almost seemed to run the secret service:
"What do you think, Penny?' The Chief of Staff turned to M's private secretary who shared the room with him.

Miss Moneypenny would have been desirable but for eyes which were cool and direct and quizzical.

‘Should be all right. He won a victory at the FO this morning and he's not got anyone for the next half an hour.' She smiled encouragingly at the Head of S whom she liked for himself and the importance of his section.'"
Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, p. 23.
She’s always kept her distance from Bond and the other 00s – knowing they don’t survive long. But in Thunderball, we’re told she “often dreamed hopelessly about Bond” and there’s perhaps a hint of girlish fussiness in her having a beloved poodle (p. 14). Whereas before she seemed unattainable (and therefore strong), now she flirts openly with Bond – although I’m not sure “flirts” is quite the right word. For example, Bond tells Moneypenny that he smokes because,
“it's really only that I don't know what to do with my hands”.
Moneypenny responds,
“that's not what I've heard”.
Ian Fleming, Thunderball, p. 15.
I think that’s meant to suggest he knows his way around a lady, but it made me think at first that she'd called him a wanker. He then threatens her with a spanking, and though she gets the last word she’d also have a case for workplace harassment.

Is the change in Moneypenny a result of this being written for the screen – it’s cinema not prose that demands her subservience? Or is it the result of Fleming working on the original screenplay with a bunch of other (male) writers, so that something of his original character got lost? Or would she have been diluted anyway, a slow erosion book-by-book of her original character?

The books’ attitude to women is as fascinating as it is odd. Fleming (or Bond) often compliments women by likening them to men: the best Bond girls have boyish buttocks and masculine attitudes. In introducing new Bond girl Domino in Thunderball, we’re told that she drives like a man. And just in case we don’t fully understand this compliment:
“Women are often meticulous and safe drivers, but they are very seldom first-class. In general Bond regarded them as a mild hazard and he always gave them plenty of road and was ready for the unpredictable. Four women in a car he regarded as the highest potential danger, and two women nearly as lethal. Women together cannot keep silent in a car, and women talk they have to look into each other's faces. An exchange of words is not enough. They have to see the other person's expression, perhaps in order to read behind the other's words or to analyse the reaction to their own. So two women in the front seat of a car constantly distract each other's attention from the road ahead and four women are more than doubly dangerous, for the driver not only has to hear, and see, what her companion is saying, but also, for women are like that, what the two behind are talking about.”
Ibid., pp. 109-10.
My pet theory is that Fleming worked this stuff into his books for his own entertainment and perhaps to annoy his wife, who looked down on the trashy adventures that financed their expensive lifestyle. But there’s plenty of evidence that he’s also just (to use a line from a later film) a sexist, misogynist dinosaur.

We can see how out of touch he is early on, when Bond chats to the young taxidriver taking him to the health farm. This kid, feels Bond (who served in the war), doesn’t know how lucky he is.
“He was born into the buyers' market of the Welfare State and into the age of atomic bombs and space flight. For him life was easy and meaningless.”
Ibid., p. 16.
I love the idea of Bond thinking life is easy for the young folks because they could be blown up at any moment. And yet, by page 17, Bond and this kid are equals – and can discuss the important matters of the day. It reminds me of the end of David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon, where the old man goes to a young people’s party. It’s a desperate attempt to suggest that the old guy is still relevant, still hip. But the more effort put into convince us, the more plainly it doesn’t hold true.

A page later, the taxidriver tells Bond about a local prostitute who’s done well out of the healthfarm’s rich clients. It’s an unusual bit of social realism from Bond – a sense of the strange and dirty goings on every day beneath the respectable veneer of austerity Britain. With its reference to Brighton gangs, it's a little like something by Graham Greene.

References to Rosemary Clooney (p. 19) and North by Northwest (p. 85) add a touch of realism and set the book firmly in it’s time. Bond also gets a fashionable shag in a bubble-car. And we get a hint of an as-yet untold Bond adventure, when he jumped for the Arlberg Express to escape someone called Heinkel in 1956 – during the uprising in Hungary.

The events of Thunderball occur in May and June of 1959 (p. 70) – two years before the book’s publication. May 1959 seems to be when Fleming met with the other collaborators to work on the screenplay, long before it became a novel. (The screenplay was written by Fleming, Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Ivar Bryce and Ernest Cuneo – the book is dedicated to the latter.) So for all its efforts at relevance, it’s set explicitly in the recent past. Bond films seem to be set just a little in the future, where technology is more advanced. Fleming seems to be taking a leaf from the Sherlock Holmes stories – telling us a ‘true’ story once it’s safe to do so.

Except that it isn’t safe. The nuclear bombs are recovered but the big, new villain gets away – indeed, he’s barely seen after he’s been introduced.

We learn on page 47 that Ernst Stavro Blofeld was born on 28 May 1908. That’s Fleming's own date of birth, but the likeness to Fleming quickly ends there. We're told, straight away, that Blofeld was born in Gdynia to a Polish father and Greek mother – another villain of mixed heritage. There then follows pages of description: his life and looks (he has feminine eyelashes), that he doesn't drink, smoke or have sex. He’s the opposite of Anglo-Saxon Bond (we’ve not yet learnt about Bond’s parents not being entirely English). References to Mussolini, Hitler and Rommell mixed in with the description help suggest Blofeld's in the same league.

Like From Russia With Love, there's lots on the villains planning their diabolical crime and the pains they've taken, to make it seem all the more impossible for Bond to beat. Chapter 5, which introduces Blofeld and SPECTRE, is full of authoritative detail: names of people and organisations that make it seem real and researched. I almost felt I ought to recognise some of these references. Fleming is almost saying to the reader, “As you know...”, making you complicit, making you agree.

The film Thunderball uses the same telling moment when Blofeld kills one of his underlings in the midst of a meeting. But in the book version, the underling’s mistake is that his team “violated” a girl they had kidnapped and ransomed. Blofeld insists that:
“SPECTRE shall conduct itself in a superior fashion”.
Ibid., p. 56.
As well as killing the underling, he apologises to the girl’s family and send back half of the ransom - I’m sure that would make them feel better. But this odd, fussy detail is just a more extreme example of Bond’s views on Windsor knots and the correct way to make omelettes. It's meant to show he's exacting, precise but edges – or leaps – into camp. Or is Blofeld bothered because he finds all that sex business beastly?

In the films, we learn of SPECTRE and Blofeld piece-by-piece. The film of Doctor No mentions the organisation over dinner, and SPECTRE then seeks to avenge his death in From Russia With Love. Goldfinger doesn't mention either SPECTRE or Blofeld, but when we get to Thunderball we already know what they're capable of. That killing of an underling is perhaps less shocking because we've already seen what they're capable of.

Having been introduced to Blofeld in the book, we then leave him behind. The theft will be handled by his second-in-command, Largo – a pirate complete with an eye-patch. Largo’s clever scheme is based on the Olterra,
“that merchant ship off Gibraltar during the war? The Italian frogmen used it as a base. Big sort of trap door affair cut in the hull below the waterline … One of the blackest marks against intelligence.”
Ibid., p. 133.
Fleming again seems keen to play it real. We’re told at some length about the kind of boat Largo uses and exactly where it was built. Later, Bond wants Domino to signal to him from her ship by turning the lights on in her cabin. She responds:
“‘That is a silly plan. It is the sort of melodramatic nonsense people write about in thrillers. In real life people don't go into their cabins and switch on their lights in daylight.’”
Ibid., p. 189.
Unfortunately, she's not such a natural secret agent, getting caught by Largo when she takes photos with the lens cap still on her “camera”.

We learn that Domino is the sister of Giuseppe Petacchi – the pilot who steals the bombs for Largo and is murdered for his efforts. In both films that's part of Largo's plan – he's manipulated Domino and her relationship with her brother cynically. Yet in the book it's a coincidence that her brother is mixed up in the plot.
“Probably even Largo, if Largo was in fact involved in the plot, didn't know this”.
Ibid., p.158.
Bond uses the death of Giuseppe to turn Domino against Largo. But, as I said, she gets caught and is tortured – and is left all tied up. So it's again a lucky coincidence that she escapes just in time to save Bond at the crucial moment and avenge her brother by killing Largo. All plots are contrivances, but this feels too much like cheating – and it undermines all the excitement Fleming has brewed up so far. If the resolution all hinges on coincidence and good fortune, then the ending is down to destiny rather than the skill of James Bond. He – and Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor – are at their best when they win by being smart and brave, not absurdly jammy.

Bond calls in the big guns for the chase at the end – he and Felix pursue Largo's yacht in a nuclear submarine. Captain Peter Pedersen rails against the madness of the nuclear arsenal in his charge – enough of them to wipe out England. He's meant to be the voice of ordinary common sense, offering Bond tea and tales of his idyllic wife and kids. That's reasonableness is not helped by him repeatedly using the word “niggerheads” to describe a type of coral (from p. 199). And when he tells us (on p. 212) that the interior of the nuclear submarine is multicoloured and optically interesting to stop the crew going mad, it's not exactly reassuring. Perhaps there's something of Neville Shute's On The Beach about it - published four years before.

Bond likes Pedersen – we can tell because he doesn't find petty ways to undermine him, as he sometimes does with those in authority. When they're first establishing their credentials, Bond admits,
“I was in intelligence – RNVR Special Branch. Strictly a chocolate sailor”.
Ibid., p. 195.
Which is not, in turns out, another way of saying “sea bent”. When Bond leaves the sub to swim after Largo, he has a big number one painted on his wet suit – which would surely make him quite a target. In the book, he's in a standard black wetsuit, but the film puts the villains in black and the goodies in friendlier orange. Bond doesn't even wear the leggings – and the more naked he is as he goes into battle, the cooler he seems.

I said of Casino Royale that it's the villains who have the gadgets – and, effectively, cheat. But Thunderball is most like the films in giving Bond a lot of cool toys and vehicles to call on when he needs them. Again, I think Bond's at his best when being smart against the odds, without this Batman-like gadgetry.

On the whole, the films follow Fleming's book. Both films split Domino in two. Domino is a nice, demure girl who'd never drive dangerously. And then there's Fiona Volpe and Fatima Blush – bad girls who die not long after Bond's shagged them.

But a lot of the cool sense of humour and innuendo in the films is Fleming's. Some of it edges of the filthy, as when Domino treads on a poisonous spine and Bond offers to help eat out the poison.
“This is the first time I've eaten a woman. They're rather good”.
Ibid., p. 184.
The film has Bond and Domina make love underwater rather than in a beach hut, which I'm informed by a diving chum isn't possible (cos man bits shrivel up in cold water).

The other big change is that Blofeld doesn't have a cat in the book – when we don't see the man's face in From Russia With Love and Thunderball, the cat makes him much more identifiable.

Blofeld's a great and intriguing character, introduced as a big deal at the start of the book, then vanishing halfway through (except for a couple of phonecalls to update him on progress). That's nicely done – creating a sense of scale that reaches wider than book and promising a rematch. Looking forward to the next adventure is something new to the series (where From Russia With Love killed off Bond. It's what the films will do, but here with a slight twist:

The end of Thunderball, but Blofeld will return...

1 comment:

Clemmo said...

Very much enjoying your Bondathon. I like to think that you are reading these books so I don't have to.