Sixty years ago a former British naval intelligence officer published a spy thriller that would eventually spawn one of the most popular and successful book-and-film franchises in history.
When Ian Fleming first penned ‘Casino Royale’ he could never have guessed that his fictitious creation, James Bond, Agent 007, would become a global pop culture icon and generate billions of dollars in revenue -- indeed, an entertainment colossus that is still going strong six decades later.
In many ways, Fleming -- not Sean Connery nor Daniel Craig -- was James Bond. Like his famous protagonist, Fleming was tall, handsome, patrician, elegant, snobbish, arrogant, always exquisitely dressed, with a drink in one hand and a filtered cigarette in the other, and fond of adventure, gambling and serial womanizing. Both Fleming and Bond were also both officers in the Royal Naval Reserve.
Between 1953 and his death in 1964 at age 56 from a heart attack after years of heavy smoking and drinking, Fleming produced twelve ‘007’ novels and two short-story collections. Critical acclaim was slow to come.
The first few ‘Bond’ novels were viewed as “slightly up-market thrillers with a sophisticated veneer, slick entertainments, but not really to be taken seriously,” said James Chapman, professor of film studies at the University of Leicester in England. And in 1958, with the publication of “Dr. No,” criticism turned toxic when Paul Johnson of the New Statesman newspaper vociferously attacked ‘Bond’ as a purveyor of vulgar sex, class snobbery and even sadism.
Fleming had the last word on this, though. Thirty years later, the Times of London ranked Fleming as the fourteenth greatest British writer of the post-war era.
However, Fleming’s climb to the top was arduous – his father, Valentine, a banker and member of parliament, was killed in the first World War in 1917. Fleming subsequently lived in the shadow of his elder brother Peter, a war hero, explorer, adventurer and successful travel writer.
Meanwhile, Fleming – enamored with the louché lifestyle of wine, women and song -- struggled to find a suitable career for himself, bouncing from school to school in Britain and the continent, finally suffering the humiliation of getting rejected by the Foreign Office.
Following intervention by his mother, Fleming secured a job with the Reuters news agency, a position that allowed him to travel, including an excursion to Moscow where he witnessed Joseph Stalin’s show trials of the early 1930s.
But it wasn’t until 1939, on the eve of another global war, that Fleming finally distinguished himself – as a naval intelligence officer under Rear Admiral John Godfrey.
Fleming excelled in espionage, counter-intelligence, surveillance and military sabotage – he engaged in a multitude of operations, including designing a successful plot to lure German U-boats to minefields. By 1942, Fleming commanded a vast Allied intelligence network in Spain devoted to undermining the Fascists and Nazis operating there.
‘Casino Royale” was based on his wartime intelligence experiences, and initially met resistance from British publishers. Fleming’s debut Bond saga was eventually published by Jonathan Cape – but only with the assistance of elder brother Peter.
As the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, the Cold War provided a rich vein of inspiration for a succession of ‘Bond’ novels, each of which attracted an increasingly larger readership, at least in Britain. By 1957, when ‘From Russia With Love” hit the bookshelves, the British public was completely infatuated with ‘007.’
For a grey, post-war Britain burdened by grim austerity, food rationing and declining power on the global stage, Bond provided an antidote to all the gloom and doom -- Agent 007, a quintessentially upper-class Anglo-Saxon, British, masculine, heterosexual superhero who defeats foreign villains, especially Russians, Germans, Central Europeans or Asians.
Alan J. Porter, the British author of the upcoming ‘James Bond Lexicon,’ said that the ‘Bond’ books differed from earlier spy thrillers like ’39 Steps’ and the ‘Bulldog Drummond’ series by introducing the reader to far-away, exotic and beautiful locales most Britons could never hope to visit.
“Despite Bond’s upper-class persona, his adventures appealed to people across all social classes in Britain,” Porter added.
In 1961, when American president John F. Kennedy included ‘From Russia With Love” as one of his favorite books in a Life magazine article, sales of all Bond novels finally took off in the United States.
By the following year, the first Bond film ‘Dr. No’ starring Sean Connery was released. Adjusted for inflation, it has since grossed $441 million. A year later, the next offering, ‘From Russia With Love’ hit the movie screens – it has tallied up an even more impressive $576 million in box office receipts.
The success of these initial films pumped up book sales, and a genuine global phenomenon emerged.
Connery, incidentally, took some getting used to on Fleming’s part. With his heavy working-class Scots accent, the burly Connery was an odd choice to play the elegant Englishman Bond. Fleming reportedly wanted either Cary Grant or David Niven for the lead role. Considering that Connery is still the second most successful Bond by film receipts, after the current Bond, luckily for the franchise, Fleming had little or no input in the film productions.
To date, Fleming has sold at least 60-million Bond books worldwide while films based on ‘007’ have grossed in excess of $6 billion (second only to the ‘Harry Potter’ series on the all-time box office gross lists), according to The-Numbers.com. The latest film entry ‘Skyfall’ has already passed $1-billion in ticket sales -- although it should be noted that the Bond franchise’s aggregate revenues spans almost two dozen films, while the “Potter’ series comprised only eight.
Meanwhile, ‘Bond’ books written by other authors (like Kingsley Amis, Christopher Wood, John Pearson and John Gardner) since Fleming died, have sold more than 40-million copies worldwide.
However, the Bond franchise suffered through a down period in the 1980s when films starring the likes of Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton generated tepid box office. It was by them a tired and aging story, as Connery at 53 (already bored of playing Bond) took on the role once more in ‘Never Say Never Again’ in 1983, his last ‘007’ performance. Moore was almost 60 in ‘1985’s ‘A View To A Kill’. The creaking series had to contend with high-tech movies boasting a new wave special-effects, blockbusters like ‘Alien’ and the ‘Star Wars’ series.
By the 1990s, however, when 42-year-old Pierce Brosnan took over the role, the films seemed to catch on with a new generation of fans. Brosnan’s Bond debut ‘Goldeneye’ in 1995, has grossed $529 million worldwide, and received far better reviews than his predecessor, Dalton, whose Bond was dark and relatively humorless.
Since Brosnan’s final Bond, ‘Die Another Day’ in 2002, the franchise has rebounded nicely with Daniel Craig as the 007 of the 21st century (each of Craig’s films have generated in excess of $600 billion in box office gross).
Craig, only 5-foot-10 and with the looks of Arian blonde, is hardly the tall, dark, handsome type – and was considered a poor choice for helming the franchise.
But some people saw Craig’s value early on. Roger Ebert said of Craig’s first Bond venture, which was, ironically, a remake of ‘Casino Royale’ that it presented a new, fresh and revitalized version of the ‘007’ saga.
“Craig makes a superb Bond,” Ebert gushed. “Leaner, more taciturn, less sex-obsessed, able to be hurt in body and soul, not giving a damn if his martini is shaken or stirred.”
And, unlike previous Bond films of the post-Connery era, Ebert said that Craig’s version seemed more human, flawed and realistic, with the plot and action sequences less contrived.
“I never thought I would see a Bond movie where I cared, actually cared, about the people,” he said. “But I care about Bond.”
But, why have we cared about ‘Bond’ for six decades – a lengthy period of extraordinary technological and political change across the world?
It turns out that the formula of exotic locales, beautiful women, high-tech gadgets and compelling musical scores works, even in an age as cynical as the 21st century.
“Bond remains a heroic archetype of masculinity and a certain idea of ‘Britishness’,” Chapman said.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.