My Word is My Bond: When Writers See Their Creations on Screen

Sean Connery's portrayal of James Bond influenced Ian Fleming's later books
Sean Connery’s portrayal of James Bond influenced Ian Fleming’s later books

We’ve all had the sensation of seeing a film adaptation of a favourite book and thinking that the characters aren’t being portrayed as we’ve always imagined them; that the story isn’t being told properly. For the authors who first wrote the words the sensation must be much stronger and stranger, and there have been adaptations both loved and loathed by their original creators. The difference for writers is that they get the chance to respond in their own writing.

I started to think about this again recently as I came to the end of my sequential read-through – interspersed with plenty of other more nutritious reading – of the original Ian Fleming Bond books. I’d read a couple before out of sequence, but it’s fun watching Bond change and yet stay the same across a decade of stories. He never stops being a snob, a sadomasochist, a misogynist, a xenophobe, a homophobe: as Blofeld calls him, “common thug, a blunt instrument wielded by dolts in high places”. And until things start to fall apart for him towards the end of the series, he rarely displays the levels of character complexity that he does in his debut Casino Royale.

But something curious does happen in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. That something is the film version of Dr No that was being shot in Jamaica whilst Fleming was writing OHMSS at his home on the same island. And so, in OHMSS, Bond discovers his Scottish roots and Ursula Andress gets a brief cameo. Then in You Only Live Twice, as Henry Chancellor writes: “James Bond does seem to have become more relaxed – more like his film persona, and less like Ian Fleming.” And in the final full length Bond adventure that Fleming (almost) completed before his death The Man with Golden Gun, more of the gadgetry of the films finds its way into the prose. Then Fleming dies, escaping the cartoon character that his creation would soon become.

Illustrator John McLusky's version of Bond
Illustrator John McLusky’s version of Bond
Ian Fleming's idea of Bond, commissioned for the Daily Express
Ian Fleming’s idea of Bond, commissioned for the Daily Express

The worlds of book and film had in fact been blurring for Fleming for some time. He had long envisaged Bond as a possible screen hero: he had flirted with various producers through the late 1950s, and the tenth book, Thunderball, started life as a film treatment, bringing with it the screen adversaries SPECTRE who would replace Bond’s traditional enemy SMERSH. And although Fleming said that he regarded Bond as a cipher for the projections of readers, he was nonetheless very specific about what he looked like, giving a good paragraph of description in From Russia With Love, and in 1957 commissioning a picture of Bond for the Daily Express’ comic strip of the character. I’d been aware of this image for some time, but whilst searching for it I learned that the illustrator John McLusky didn’t like the old-fashioned look, and redrew Bond. His version, as if presciently, is suggestive of Sean Connery. But as Fleming wanted, his own commission has hints of Hoagy Carmichael, David Niven and Fleming himself.

Niven had been Fleming’s original choice to play Bond on screen, and he did eventually get the chance (sort of) in the 1967 spoof Casino Royale. This makes David Niven’s cameo in You Only Live Twice as the name of Kissy Suzuki’s fishing cormorant (yes really) a very odd moment. Fleming was clearly not afraid of a little self-referential fun. Bond’s “obituary” in the same book talks of “a series of popular books [that] came to be written around him by a personal friend and former colleague of James Bond. If the quality of these books, or their degree of veracity, had been any higher, the author would certainly have been prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.” At one point in From Russia with Love Fleming even has Tatiana Romanova tell Bond that he looks like an American Film star (Bond’s response: “That’s the worst insult you can pay a man!”) He is never, however, a lazy enough writer to say in prose which film star he most resembles. Unlike Dan Brown, with this Robert Langdon looking like “Harrison Ford in Harris Tweed”. I wonder if in the forthcoming Inferno Langdon will be described as “Tom Hanks in twill.”

Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlow: not very tall
Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlow: not very tall

Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman wanted Cary Grant for Bond, which sounds more like the beginning of a sketch than a franchise. And if that seems screwy, Raymond Chandler, who would later become Fleming’s friend, wanted Cary Grant to play Philip Marlowe. Instead, the first adaptation Murder, My Sweet (1944) brought us a the oddly baby-faced tough-guy Dick Powell. Much more daring was Lady in the Lake (1947) which embraced the first person narrative fully with the film shot almost entirely from Marlowe’s point of view. As in the books, the reader/audience sees only what Marlowe sees and doesn’t have to spend time worrying if Robert Montgomery looks right as the famous shamus. The screen Marlowe everyone remembers is Humphrey Bogart, but there are a few things wrong with him if you’re a purist, not least the height. That exchange in The Big Sleep when Carmen Sternwood says: “Tall aren’t you” and Marlowe replies “I didn’t mean to be” is rendered as “You’re not very tall are you?” / “Well I, uh, I try to be.”

By contrast, I don’t expect Tom Cruise apologises for his height in Jack Reacher, despite the fact he’s playing a character written as six foot five. Lee Child was at least generous about the casting. “With another actor you might get 100% of the height but only 90% of Reacher,” he said. “With Tom, you’ll get 100% of Reacher with 90% of the height.” (Child’s maths is also a little generous.)

It’s unlikely that Reacher’s going to shrink in future books, but Child would be forgiven for incorporating some elements of the adaptation into future works. Once a film is out there, it’s hard for it to not infect literary sequels. Arthur C Clarke wrote 2010 as a follow-on to 2001: A Space Odyssey the movie not 2001 the book, and eventually settled on the notion that 2010, 2061 and 3001 weren’t really sequels, rather “variations on the same theme, involving many of the same characters and situations, but not necessarily happening in the same universe.” And while Gump & Co owes something to the 1994 adaptation of Forrest Gump (as I’m sure do its sales), Winston Groom was annoyed enough at his treatment by the movie producers that he included in the first paragraph of the sequel: “But take my word for it – don’t never let nobody make a movie of your life’s story.”

Stephen King is due to release a sequel to The Shining this year, but that certainly won’t have anything to do with the Kubrick adaptation. King so loathed that film that he ended up making his own TV version. “Kubrick just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel,” said King. Or perhaps he just didn’t want to make a five hour plodder with animal-shaped topiary that comes to life.

Maybe the best thing for authors is not to look at all. In last year’s BBC Imagine documentary, Ian Rankin admitted that he has avoided watching either TV versions of Rebus. Noting that Colin Dexter gave into the temptation to write Morse more and more as John Thaw played him, Rankin prefers not to be influenced by the screen personas.

I don’t think I could ever be that disciplined. The chance of any of my characters ever being adapted for the screen are slim, but it’s hard for any writer not to at least daydream of who might play them. But it also does writers good to remember that how they see their characters is not necessarily how readers interpret them. Every reader has his own casting director, and the chances are that they’ve already given the part to someone you wouldn’t approve of.

Oliver Francis

Oliver Francis

Oliver Francis was born in Bristol, studied Human Sciences at Oxford and lives in Cambridge. Having escaped from the NHS after nearly a decade, he now works for a public health research group and writes fiction. When not doing either of those things he can be found in front of a film, behind a camera or making up tunes on the piano. Represented by Matthew Hamilton at Aitken Alexander Associates.

Oliver Francis was born in Bristol, studied Human Sciences at Oxford and lives in Cambridge. Having escaped from the NHS after nearly a decade, he now works for a public health research group and writes fiction. When not doing either of those things he can be found in front of a film, behind a camera or making up tunes on the piano. Represented by Matthew Hamilton at Aitken Alexander Associates.


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