Friday, August 01, 2014

Thunderball by Ian Fleming

The creation of Thunderball is notoriously complicated. If most of For Your Eyes Only was the result of Fleming’s trying to bring Bond back to television, Thunderball was the result of his trying to get a film made. In late 1958, he teamed up with a few people including Irish writer/director Kevin McClory, hoping to create a Bond movie. Fleming and McClory weren’t the only people involved, but they were the two who ended up in court, so I’ll focus on them. Not that I’m going to spend much time on that drama, but it’s important to see how the book developed.

According to Wikipedia, Fleming’s confidence in the potential movie fluctuated throughout its development, in part because one of McClory’s other movies bombed at the box office around that same time. So Fleming was more involved at some times and less at others, but between him and the other writers, close to a dozen different treatments, outlines, and scripts were created with lots of different titles. It’s impossible to verify who created what exactly, especially when it comes to the story’s most famous contributions to Bond lore: Ernst Stavro Blofeld and SPECTRE. Though the courts gave those elements to McClory for years, there’s a strong case to be made for Fleming’s contributing to them, especially since Diamonds Are Forever and From Russia with Love clearly show that he had a fondness for the word “spectre.”

Regardless of who contributed how much and which parts, Fleming was certainly on ethically shaky ground when he turned the collaboration into a novel with just his name on it. Once McClory got wind of that, he petitioned the courts to stop publication. That was denied, but the courts left the door open for McClory to pursue later action, starting a long, bitter feud between him and Fleming (as well as future caretakers of Bond’s adventures).



None of that would be important if Thunderball were a lousy or even mediocre book, but it’s not. It’s one of the best in the series and it’s worth wondering how much is due to Fleming’s evolving voice and how much is outside influences. It’s also futile to wonder about that, which is the frustrating thing, but from the direction that the Bond series had already been headed in, it’s safe to say that Fleming plays a major role in making Thunderball the masterpiece that it is.

A large part of that is because of Fleming's sense of humor. He was always a charming, funny man as made evident in a letter to cover artist Richard Chopping where he wrote, "The title of the book will be Thunderball. It is immensely long, immensely dull and only your jacket can save it!" That humor is what made Goldfinger great and it's back in this book, starting with the bit about Bond's being sent to Shrublands to get healthy. Fleming reveals that Bond smokes 60 cigarettes and drinks a half bottle of 60-70 proof alcohol every day, but the real reason Bond goes to the resort is because M's on a health kick. It's played for laughs with Bond's not wanting to go and Moneypenny's joking about M having a new bee in his bonnet. According to her, M gets interested in the latest fads a lot, whether it's this or exercise programs or dream analysis. It seems out of character for M, which makes me wonder if that's something another writer came up with, but it could just be Fleming's trying to lighten things up further.

Another new, out of character element is that Moneypenny explicitly has a crush on Bond. That's never been brought up before, but out of nowhere she and Bond are flirting and carrying on like they do in the movies. It's jarring, but it's still funny, as are M's whims and Bond's attitude before and after Shrublands. Before he goes in, he gripes like a sulking teenager, but once he comes out he's completely insufferable as he becomes a stuffy workhorse in the office and won't shut up about things like the benefits of proper chewing. Some of it had me literally laughing out loud.

We get some minor character development during this stuff, too. As much as Bond drinks, he's apparently not an alcoholic, because he gives up liquor for quite a while without any apparent effort. Fleming also reveals that Bond doesn't have as much of a car fetish as Casino Royale implied. That book called Bond's Bentley his "only real hobby" and talked about a neighborhood mechanic who fusses over the car, but Thunderball clarifies that Bond doesn't pamper the vehicle and even parks it outside in front of his flat instead of in a garage.

One element of Thunderball that I suspect had some non-Fleming involvement is its mystery plot. Apparently, McClory and his cohorts came up with the idea for hijacking a bomber with its nuclear cargo, so I wonder if they didn't also suggest how the case might be resolved. It's very different from Bond's previous investigations. I've written a lot about his "blunt instrument" approach and even though it was less of a conscious tactic in Doctor No and Goldfinger, Bond still wound up getting himself captured in both of those novels and then beating the villains from inside their own organizations through sheer resourcefulness and toughness. That never happens in Thunderball, which is pretty much a straight procedural with actual detective work.

To be fair, there's an extraordinary amount of hunch-playing in solving the mystery. Unlike the movie version, the literary Bond goes to the Bahamas on a hunch of M's. Bond thinks he's wasting his time, but of course takes the assignment seriously and works whatever angles he can find. Some of those are based on hunches he comes up with on the scene, and some are hunches of Felix Leiter who - thanks to the seriousness of the nuclear threat - has been drafted back into the CIA and assigned to work with Bond. These hunches all pay off, naturally, but it never feels like the characters are simply intuiting where the plot wants them to go. Instead, it feels like they're investigating the heck out of their corner of the mission and come up with leads based on solid evidence and intuition.

I guess this is a good place to talk about SPECTRE and Blofeld. Though there is a strong case for Fleming's creating those elements, it seems like a big coincidence that with all this writing help he suddenly and unceremoniously jettisons SMERSH as the series' major bad guys. SMERSH was a real organization that operated in the final years of WWII, but it only lasted three years and dissolved in 1946, well before the time period of the Bond novels. According to Thunderball, Fleming's SMERSH dissolved in 1958, which would have been shortly before the events of Goldfinger. That doesn't make sense though, since Goldfinger was said to be a major source of SMERSH funds, but maybe Goldfinger actually takes place in '58 (instead of 1959, when it was published) and the seizing of Goldfinger's bullion is what led to the ultimate destruction of the organization.

At any rate, SMERSH no longer exists and some of its top members have now joined SPECTRE. As Fleming introduces Blofeld, he also gives some logic to a couple of elements that aren't explained really well in the films. First of all, the numbering system for SPECTRE's leaders is rotating and designed to confuse anyone trying to figure out the group's structure. For instance, during the events of Thunderball, Largo is Number One and Blofeld is actually Number Two (though he's still very much in charge). Another thing Fleming explains is Blofeld's device of pretending he's going to kill one underling before surprisingly murdering someone else. The films love to repeat that trick until it becomes a joke, but it has a very specific purpose in the novel. Blofeld is a careful, fastidious man and doesn't like unnecessary drama, so he puts his real victim off guard with a distracting, false victim. (Incidentally, I've decided that Alfred Molina would make an awesome Blofeld as written in Thunderball.)

One of my favorite things about Thunderball though is Domino Vitali. I suspect this is all Fleming, partly because of the care he takes in bringing her to life, but partly because of what she represents in the development of Bond's relationship with women. At the beginning of Thunderball, Bond is all fun and games with Shrubland's Patricia Fearing. He likes her, but like Jill Masteron in Goldfinger, it's just sex for both of them. (Incidentally, the literary Bond isn't as creepy as the movie Bond in this story. Instead of blackmailing Pat into sex, he takes the blame for his "accident" on the traction machine; and the infamous mink glove belongs to her, not him.)

In Nassau though, he befriends Domino and we see the other side of Bond. He manipulates a meeting with her because she's a possible way to get close to Largo, whom Bond vaguely suspects as being a possible lead in his case. But he's quickly smitten with her, as was I. She's a wonderful character: confident and sexy; not afraid of danger. And unlike Pussy Galore or Judy Havelock, she stays that way until the end.

There's a little Liz Krest in her too, since she's the kept woman of an uncaring millionaire, and Bond plays much the same role with Domino that he did with Liz. With Domino, there's a flirtation right from the start (and it's a charming, funny, and dead sexy one), but there's also a lot of kindness on Bond's part. Enough so that I briefly wondered if that weren't just part of his game, but I decided it's not. We've never seen him take that approach before and the early Bond was written as mostly just getting by on his looks. There's a lovely scene in Thunderball though where Bond listens patiently and even encourages Domino as she tells him a fairy tale that she made up as a child about the artwork on the package of Player cigarettes. As tough as she is, he's gentle with her and when he eventually tells her that he loves her, I believe him. I think this could be his first, real, healthy relationship and I'm going to be sad to move on to the rest of the series without her.

Speaking of moving on and leaving characters behind, I feel like Fleming missed an opportunity by having Bond operate in the Bahamas and not meet the governor from "Quantum of Solace" again. Bond interacts with underlings instead and it's fun to think that the governor may be purposely avoiding Bond after their awkward dinner the year before. But it would've been even more fun to continue that relationship and let the governor see that his story has appeared to have a lasting impact on the womanizing secret agent.
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