Saturday, March 04, 2006
Ian Fleming's 1953 novel Casino Royale introduced James Bond to a world that was very much ready for such a character, a Cold War hero who could kick ass and go through HELL with the aid of a few gadgets and a beautiful babe at his side. It was a big success. Casino Royale sold so well that it was made into an episode of Climax! Theatre the next year. Fleming wrote about a dozen more James Bond novels before his death in 1965, and these novels – and the iconic character they portrayed – spawned a film series that soon made James Bond into one of the great fictional characters of the modern world.
I enjoyed the book Casino Royale. It has a minimalist quality, sparse descriptions, one exciting action sequence, and a very tense card-playing scene.
It's easy to see why Casino Royale was a hit among English-speaking readers in 1953.
It's also easy to see why early television pounced on it and adapted Casino Royale so quickly.
But I'll be damned if I can see a James Bond film in there anywhere! I CAN hear Roger Moore saying some of the dialogue. (I absolutely can not see or hear Sean Connery doing any of this.) It's VERY EASY to see why the filmmakers who translated James Bond to film passed on Casino Royale and filmed Dr. No as the first Bond film in 1962. Casino Royale - the book - is lacking a little of that sparkle that makes the 007 movies so much damn fun.
The situations in Casino Royale develop on a much smaller scale than even the most sedate Bond films. There's a very suspenseful card-playing scene. One sequence - involving a chase, a fight and TORTURE - very much evokes James Bond-ish action.
And there's a scene very early on where the bad guys try to kill Bond with a bomb. In the movies, this scene would have taken place at the Eiffel Tower or Westminster Abbey and Bond would have chased them in a hang-glider or an invisible car or a rickshaw. In Casino Royale – the book – Bond survives by hiding behind a tree. And the bad guys are killed by their own bomb because they are Bulgarian. (You think I'm joking.) One of their associates is picked up by the police and Bond hears about it later.
Briefly, Casino Royale – the book - is about James Bond, of the British Secret Service, traveling to the casino district of northern France to play baccarat with Le Chiffre, a Soviet agent. Le Chiffre has made some bad investments, he is deeply in debt, and he hopes to use Soviet funds to gamble at Casino Royale and win enough money to pay off his debts. If he fails, he will be killed by SMERSH, the Soviet spy-hunting organization. If Bond, an expert at baccarat, can defeat Le Chiffre at the tables, it will be very embarrassing to the Soviets and a low-cost propaganda victory for the West. He is helped by several other agents from various nations, including the attractive Vesper Lynd and the CIA agent Felix Leiter, who is in several more of the books and also appears in several of the movies.
One of the strengths of the book is all the background information provided at several points. The history of the area where Casino Royale – the place – is located is very interesting. What's really great is the dossier on Le Chiffre that Bond looks at early in the book. His back story is one of the most interesting bits of exposition I've ever seen in any Bond-related work. (And it's possibly the inspiration for Dr. Evil's hilarious origin from the Austin Powers movies.) Le Chiffre is French for "The Number," and he took that name because he was an inmate at Dachau who suffered (or pretended to suffer) from amnesia and never regained his memory. The physical description offers many interesting details, such as: "Ears, with large lobes, indicating some Jewish blood." Le Chiffre "does not laugh," "smokes incessantly Carporals, using a benzedrine inhaler" and is an "expert driver of fast cars."
Best of all – this is one of the elements used very cleverly in the TV version – he "carries three Eversharp razor blades, in hatband, heel of left shoe, and cigarette case." Le Chiffre is awesome!
The best scene in the book is the big baccarat game between Le Chiffre and Bond at Casino Royale – the place. In Casino Royale – the book – the baccarat game takes up several very suspenseful chapters. It's the best part of the book. Maybe it's easy for me to visualize this scene because I've seen it portrayed twice with such great actors – Peter Lorre and Orson Welles – playing Le Chiffre. In the TV version, the baccarat game is very exciting (and the best part of the program.)
But, considering the non-stop action, the shooting, the chases and the fights that have come to be associated with the James Bond films, the big baccarat game in Casino Royale – the book – is not dripping with dramatic potential for the cinema. (They played it for laughs (or tried to) in the 1967 film version of Casino Royale, with Peter Sellers as James Bond (sort of) and Orson Welles as Le Chiffre. It's a weird scene. Hollywood legend tells us that Sellers and Welles were filmed separately because of ego problems, and Sellers had his own set of writers who re-wrote the screenplay without consulting anybody. Watch the scene and you'll believe it.)
Much more compatible with the big-screen Bond is a later sequence from Casino Royale – the book – where Le Chiffre and his men kidnap Vesper Lynd – Bond's assistant – and Bond chases them in his Bentley. They set a trap for him, he wrecks the car and he is captured. Then they torture him for awhile and he is eventually rescued by ... The Russians! (They are agents of SMERSH, which was a real organization, a part of Soviet intelligence agency. SMERSH stands for
Smyert Shpionam," Russian for "Death to spies." The purpose of SMERSH was to root out and destroy corruption and double-agents within the other branches of Soviet intelligence.)
Le Chiffre was a very likely victim for SMERSH, and it seems odd that Bond and Vesper were left alive by SMERSH. This, however, is explained later in the book and I don't want to ruin it for you. Still, it's a rather disappointing "escape." Bond is supposed to get out of perilous situations using his own wits and ingenuity. (Like in Casino Royale – the TV show – where he takes advantage of Le Chiffre's carelessness to take the razor blade out of the cigarette case and cut the ropes and escape from the bathtub. James Bond is not supposed to be rescued by the Russians! Jesus Christ! Who wrote this drivel? Doesn't Ian Fleming know ANYTHING about James Bond?
The last quarter of the book is Bond recuperating from the torture. (He's in the hospital for several weeks, so he seems to have been messed up pretty bad. The torture scene in the book is not explicit, but it sounds like it was a lot worse than the scene with the pliers in the TV version.) Bond and Vesper spend several days at a small rented home somewhere near the coast in northern France. Bond thinks of asking Vesper to marry him, but she is acting REALLY WEIRD, and somebody is spying on them. (If the big romance between Bond and Vesper seemed to pop out of left field in this review, well, my only defense is that it's like that in the book as well.)
Does it all work out in the end? What is Vesper's tragic secret? Who is the mysterious figure that keeps showing up and upsetting Vesper? Is this romance doomed? Will there be a second James Bond novel?
I won't spoil the ending. You'll have to struggle through the last fifty or sixty pages of the book on your own.
I really hope the new Bond film – the first "official" adaptation of Casino Royale – doesn't follow the book too closely, but I also hope that they make sensible changes and don't load it up with a bunch of really dumb shit. (Die Another Day, don't try to hide in the back row. You know I'm talking about you.) I heard a rumor that they changed the baccarat game to a poker game. If true, I have very low hopes for the success of this film. It's such an arbitrary and stupid change, that I have my doubts about the good judgment of the filmmakers. Why the change? Do the filmmakers feel that Americans are so stupid that they would not be interested in a movie about baccarat? Obviously, in a country where American Idol is the highest rated TV show, where George W. Bush can "win" the presidency – twice! – it is easy to see why the makers of Casino Royale would not want to confuse American filmgoers with the rules of a foreign card game. Most Americans probably think Baccarat is a city in Iraq. Imagine all the easily-offended conservatives remarking, "HEY! My cousin died in the siege of Baccarat! Ain't it just like them European froggies to name a card game after a place where Americans died? I cain't believe they would have a great American like James Bond playing a sissy game like that anyway. I ain't going. I'll see Brokeback Mountain before I'll see this!"
(If this rumor is not true, please disregard the previous paragraph.)
A faithful film version of Casino Royale might be good, but it wouldn't be a good James Bond film. It needs to get "the treatment." Le Chiffre will just have to jettison his great Cold War origin as a concentration camp survivor to be ... shell-shocked Vietnam War veteran? He can no longer be a Soviet operative; he will be a major operative of some kind in terrorism circles. Vesper Lynd will be joined by two or three more Bond girls. The casino will be moved from northern France to Ronald Reagan's head in the NEW, IMPROVED Mount Rushmore. Bond will got to Rio de Janeiro and Indonesia and Dubai for no good reason.
Le Chiffre is being played by a European named Mulch Mucusman, who has appeared in such films as Blinkende Lygter and De Grønne Slagtere. He is from Denmark or Holland or Belgium or some place like that. Belarus? Estonia? East St. Louis? All joking aside, he is from the Netherlands, which is a part of Holland. He is following in the footsteps of Peter Lorre and Orson Welles. I am a little dubious about this casting, but they probably ruined the character anyway by updating him for 2006. I do not envy Mr. Mucusman.
I don't know who is playing Vesper Lynd. There was no Vesper Lynd in the TV version. There was a female character named Valerie Mathis, played by Linda Christian, who is a composite of Vesper Lynd and the French intelligent officer who is helping Bond. Casino Royale - the 1967 film version - featured Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd, but she is a very different character from the Vesper Lynd in the novel. (One suspects that the Vesper Lyn in Casino Royale – the book – was just playing a role as part of an assignment.) In the 1967 film, Vesper Lynd is a much more interesting character, a lot like Modesty Blaise.
The actress who plays Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale – the 2006 movie – will just have to deal with the fact that she is following in the footsteps of Ursula Andress, which is pretty tough. (It helps that the 1967 version has such a bad reputation.)
I have no idea what the modern version of Casino Royale will be like. It definitely sounds like it's going to be quite a bit different than the James Bond we are used to from the earlier movies. Which is probably a good thing. A little variety can't hurt in this ever-changing world in which we live in.
And speaking of Live and Let Die, I'm reading it at present and I think I will have a few words to say. Watch this space!