Promiscuous Flirtations: On Bond and his Many Lives

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Sebastian Groes remembers his youthful encounters with the James Bond stories, and reflects on how we remember novels that are adapted for film.

Ian Fleming has got a lot to answer for.  

Not only did he inspire one of the most successful film franchises ever – one that I consumed voraciously in my teens – but movies such as Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me and Live and Let Die helped me get addicted to reading.  

When I was a teenager in the eighties, I viewed the spy movies with Sean Connery and Roger Moore pretty much obsessively.  I wanted more of the exotic, exciting worlds Bond offered because I was growing up in a deadly boring farming village in Holland.  So I bought translations of the Bond series at a flea market in Amsterdam.  

The Fleming translations had been published in 1965 and had unforgettably beautiful cover art by Dick Bruna, the inventor of Miffy.  I remember objecting to the translation of some of the titles.  How could you render Goldfinger as The Man with the Golden Fingers?  Though the translation of Moonraker as High Stakes was a nice find.  I remember the novels being less spectacular but also more clever and subtle than the movies.  I found the translation a bit stale; the rhythm of the language staccato.  The gender politics were obviously politically incorrect and completely outdated though at that time the world seemed not to have learned much – these were the days of the macho gaze of Schwarzenegger and Stallone.  

I read the Bond novels from cover to cover looking for ways to escape my dreary existence. So the James Bond movies have been an exception in my life as a reader because the adaptations inspired me to read the original novels.  Usually a bestselling novel is turned into a movie, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to Emma Donoghue’s Room. However, it can happen the other way around as well: Narinder Dhami turned Bend it Like Beckham into a novel and John Gardner wrote a series of James Bond spin-offs.    

How do adaptations affect the way we remember novels?

Last year we launched a study into the way that people remember fiction, inspired by the 100 titles selected for the BBC’s Novels That Shaped Our World project.  This study explored participants’ memories for the events, characters and dialogue of influential novels, as well as their memories of the emotions linked to that novel, and the wider personal events that were happening at the time of reading. One of the variables we wanted to explore was whether people remembered novels differently if they had seen adaptations.

In our study of the novels that had been adapted for the screen (which was true for about half the sample), a third of participants had seen an adaptation after reading the novel.  Only 12% saw an adaptation first and then turned to the original story. 

When asked how easily they could separate the novel and the adaptation, around 63% noted they have no problem separating the novel from the adaptation. 75% of the participants said they could easily distinguish between the novel and screen version of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies and 71% for C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Almost 30% of people are not sure if they can separate the original from the adaptation or admit that the novel and adaptation are one big blur.  A minority admits that they think they remember the adaptation more than the novel. 

Of all the novels we studied, Jane Austen’s work is an exception: only 50% of the public said they could easily separate Austen novels from their adaptations.  This could be because the Austen franchise is constantly producing new versions of the fiction and you’re bound to see an adaptation on TV when you’re young – before you’re reading the novels in secondary school and university. 

The Peter Jackson blockbuster adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is even more interesting.  Whereas on average 9% of people said they remember the adaptation more than the original novel, this was 23% for the Tolkien adaptations. 

Promiscuous flirtations

I suspect the same must be for Bond, especially the later stories.  Whereas Austen adaptations continue to remain (mostly) faithful to the original, it is only the early Bond movies that stick close to Fleming’s script.  After increasingly promiscuous flirtations the movies took a wholly unfaithful flight of fancy by adapting the Bond concept to new contexts, political developments and technological innovations.  These powerful movies have come to overshadow the earlier fiction.  

I’m not sure how many people read Fleming now, though Sebastian Faulks’ highly successful continuation novel Devil May Care (2008) follows the style of Bond’s creator rather than the spectacular spectacular of the movie franchise.  This may suggest a nostalgic appetite for old-fashioned spy stories that are subtly understated.  However, analysing at recent bestseller lists, as the Big Book Review project has been doing, it is clear that crime fiction and thrillers in many shapes and forms remain extremely popular.  

To help us understand the enduring appeal of suspense stories, please go to the Big Book Survey and let us know what popular contemporary fiction you truly enjoy, and why.  

Sebastian Groes is Novel Perceptions’ Principal Investigator.

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