Once again Stark is having to fly solo for this edition of Fleming Revisited, the quest to re-read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels in order of publication and discuss them here, at the Last Movie Outpost. You can read our previous entries here starting with Casino Royale, Live And Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, and From Russia With Love.
Now the sixth book in the series serves as the basis for the first movie and things go full-on Bond. Totally Bond. The Bond that movie fans know and love explodes from the pages of Fleming’s Dr. No.
Bond… James Bond
The convoluted world of James Bond continuity is in effect once again here. The sixth book is the basis for the first movie. The sixth book also follows directly on from the end of From Russia With Love, the fifth book, which would actually go on to serve as the basis for the second film. Got that? No. Well…
Once again the movie is a very, very faithful adaption of the book. As Goldfinger is often held up as the movie where all the classic Bond elements and ingredients came together for the first time, so it is with the literary 007 in Dr. No.
The villain with the nefarious scheme? Check. The villain with a fantastical lair? Check. A ticking clock, the countdown to a deadline? Check. The beautiful girl? The famous line? The Walther PPK? A car chase? Dangerous animals trying to kill 007? Exotic, tropical locations? Check, check, and double-check. Every single thing a casual Bond fan would know, love, and recognize as 007 is blended into this book.
That is not to say that it isn’t also classic Fleming and a top-notch espionage tale. However, you can also see that this is where the fantastical, pulp elements that the movie series would so gleefully run with, are starting to emerge.
It also marks an interesting cultural divergence. Bond was now huge in the US as well as worldwide thanks to a recommendation of the last novel by President Kennedy himself. However, when Dr. No was published it received a critical mauling in the UK.
Included in the widespread negative criticism in Britain was a review by Paul Johnson of the New Statesman who dismissed the book as one of “Sex, Snobbery and Sadism!” However, in the US the reviews were highly favorable.
Dr. No was not originally a 007 tale. In June 1956, Fleming was working with noted producer Henry Morgenthau III on a planned television series. To be called Commander Jamaica that was to feature a Caribbean-based character James Gunn who would work on behalf of the British Government in these colonies. It was based on Fleming’s deep knowledge and love of the Caribbean Islands, particularly Jamaica where he had his home at Goldeneye.
Come January 1957, he had published four Bond novels in successive years, and the fifth was now being edited.
Although he had given himself a potential way out from writing James Bond again with his chosen climax to From Russia With Love, he decided to return to the character and rework some of his Commander Jamaica ideas into the story.
He locked himself away at Goldeneye and by the time he returned to London in February, he had completed a 206-page first draft, which he initially titled The Wound Man.
In Fleming’s tale, three blind men on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica are revealed to be not quite so blind after all. They instigate the murder of Commander John Strangways, the head of MI6’s Station J in Kingston, and his secretary.
M sends for James Bond, recovering and recuperating after being poisoned and nearly killed by Rosa Klebb at the climax of his last mission in From Russia With Love. It’s an easy assignment, simply supporting the Royal Jamaican Police to find out what happened to Strangways. Suitable for a man still feeling the effects of his brush with death.
Bond is tracked down at a casino, locked in a game of Chemin De Fer with the beautiful Sylvia Trench, the first recipient of that famous line. Dropping everything, including a clearly available dalliance with Miss Trench, he returns to the anonymous building overlooking Regents Park with the Universal Exports plaque on the door. So the briefing by M begins.
A Farewell To Arms
Bond is briefed that Strangways had been investigating the activities of Doctor Julius No, a reclusive Chinese-German who lives on the fictional island of Crab Key just off Jamaica. He runs a guano mine on the island.
Guano is the accumulated excrement of seabirds and bats. It is valuable as a fertilizer due to its exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium. It is also sought for the production of gunpowder.
The locals believe a vicious dragon lives on the island. It is also home to a colony of rare roseate spoonbills birds. These are a protected species by the American National Audubon Society. The bird wardens have disappeared and two representatives sent to investigate died when their plane crashed on landing on Dr. No’s airstrip.
The Americans want answers but it is British territory.
Before Bond is dispatched he has a farewell to arms.
After Diamonds Are Forever was published in 1956, Fleming received a letter from Geoffrey Boothroyd, a Bond enthusiast and gun expert, who criticized the author’s choice of firearm for Bond:
“I wish to point out that a man in James Bond’s position would never consider using a .25 Beretta. It’s really a lady’s gun—and not a very nice lady at that! Dare I suggest that Bond should be armed with a .38 or a nine millimetre—let’s say a German Walther PPK? That’s far more appropriate.”
This exchange made it directly into the novel and, eventually, the movie. Boothroyd went on to give Fleming advice on a number of weapons for others in the story to use, and the Berns-Martin triple draw shoulder holster that Bond would use.
As a sign of his appreciation, Fleming gave the MI6 Armourer the name Major Boothroyd in Dr. No. This name stands to this day as the real name of the character Q, the gadget master of MI6 and the Head Of Q Branch.
Once Bond travels to Jamaica it becomes clear that Strangways was onto something, and Bond is soon on the receiving end of the same kind of attention. His hotel room is searched and a basket of poisoned fruit is delivered to his room. A deadly centipede is placed in his bed while he is sleeping, changed to a spider in the movie.
He teams up with his old friend from Live And Let Die, Cayman Islander Quarrel, to visit Crab Key and find out what is going on and why this Dr. No seems to hold so many locals in some kind of grip of fear.
On the island, he meets the beautiful Honeychile Rider and learns that Dr. No is a SMERSH agent working with the Russians. Burrowed into the mountain at the center of the island, no doubt the inspiration for Blofield’s volcano lair in a later movie, he has built a technology facility. From there he is interfering with American test missile launches in nearby Florida.
A sadist with a fascination with how the human body endures pain, Dr. No forces Bond to navigate his way through an obstacle course constructed in the facility’s ventilation system.
Watched every step of the way, Bond is given electric shocks, burns, scalds, sent through a web containing large, poisonous spiders, and eventually even directed to a fenced-off cove containing a captive giant squid.
The pulp elements of Bond are at the forefront as his adventures resemble, at times, a Roger Moore adventure rather than a Sean Connery variant.
The aforementioned Paul Johnson of the New Statesman who labeled it “Sex, Snobbery and Sadism!” went even further in his vociferous criticism:
“I have just finished what is, without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read. By the time I was a third of the way through, I had to suppress a strong impulse to throw the thing away”
He recognized that Bond now represented:
“…a social phenomenon of some importance…”
However given that he worked for the New Stateman, a very left-wing publication with highly progressive attitudes at the time, he saw this phenomenon as:
“…all unhealthy, all thoroughly English: the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical, two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult.”
The British bien-pensant, bourgeoisie metropolitan left being present even as far back as the 1950s. Vast swathes of their number were in thrall to the Soviet Union, with an idolized and romanticized vision of glorious global socialism.
Bond represented something British that they openly despised, while they considered America as the enemy rather than an ally. Fleming openly considered this kind of person as a useful idiot and would not be troubled by their criticism.
Underneath The Mango Tree
The character of Honey Rider, in both this fifth book and the first movie, is a strong statement against other misguided Bond critics. The pastiche of “Bond Girl” is often used to imply outdated attitudes towards women, who are feeble, second-class creatures.
Once again the ladies are short-changed by this criticism. Honey Rider is one of three women in the Bond canon who have been scarred by rape, along with Tiffany Case (Diamonds Are Forever) and Pussy Galore (Goldfinger).
In all of these cases, they have channeled the event into a powerful driving force, in many cases exacting revenge along the way. This is totally at odds with 1950s attitudes towards survivors of sexual violence.
Honey is also Bond’s superior in the matter of all of the island wildlife, and it is her deep knowledge and calm head that ultimately saves her when her planned demise under observation by Dr. No, to be picked apart by ravenous migratory crabs, is put into play.
Honey, as with many other “Bond Girls” follow a familiar pattern from Fleming, in that the girls he encounters are radically different from the 1950s and 1960s norms. Cultural historian Jeremy Black believes this gives Bond an opportunity to help and save both Rider and the others without them being standard damsels in distress.
Other cultural historians Janet Woollacott and Tony Bennett, discuss Rider in some detail in their in-depth analysis of the women in Fleming’s Bond novels and conclude:
“[Rider] is not archetypically feminine, but is constructed according to the formula of ‘equal but yet subordinate’.”
One amusing aside is that Honey Rider is described in the book as having buttocks like a boy. Fleming’s close friend, Noel Coward, observed:
“I was also slightly shocked by the lascivious announcement that Honeychile’s bottom was like a boy’s. I know that we are all becoming more broadminded nowadays, but really old chap what could you have been thinking of?”
You are just a stupid policeman…
Jeremy Black has also written at length about Bond villains throughout Fleming. He observed:
“Fleming did not use class enemies for his villains, instead relying on physical distortion or ethnic identity … Furthermore, in Britain foreign villains used foreign servants and employees … This racism reflected not only a pronounced theme of interwar adventure writing, such as the novels of [John] Buchan, but also widespread literary culture.“
Dr. No follows this formula. He is physically disfigured. Standing 6 feet 6 inches (1.98 m) tall, he has steel pincers for hands and has dextrocardia, meaning his heart is on the opposite side.
This saved his life as was a member of a Chinese Tong, but embezzled money from their treasury. He was found out and the leaders had No’s hands cut off as a warning to others. They then shot him through the heart but missed as they shot the wrong side.
Bond describes him as:
“..a giant venomous worm wrapped in grey tin-foil…”
Bond continuation author Raymond Benson considers him a wickedly successful villain and the best since Hugo Drax in Moonraker.
Fleming’s inspiration for the Doctor No character was Sax Rohmer’s villain Dr. Fu Manchu, who featured in books Fleming had read and enjoyed in earlier years.
As usual, Fleming does not date the event within his novels, John Griswold and Henry Chancellor, both published by Ian Fleming Publications, have dated all of the novels based on clues in the text. Chancellor put the events of Dr. No in 1956. Griswold concurs and points to February and March of that year as the precise time.
This would match with Fleming’s own travels. In March 1956 Fleming and his friend Ivar Bryce visited a flamingo colony on Great Inagua in the Bahamas. They were guided by Robert Cushman Murphy of the American Museum of Natural History and Arthur Stannard Vernay of the Flamingo Protection Society.
The island has a dense mangrove swamp and salt flats, home to flamingos, egrets, and roseate spoonbills. This was clearly the location that inspired Crab Key. They even traveled around the island on a swamp vehicle. This was a Land Rover with over-large tires that became the model for the dragon vehicle in the story.
Fleming borrowed names from his friends and associates, as usual, to flesh out the other characters. Ivar Bryce’s housekeeper, May Maxwell, became Bond’s Scottish “treasure” of a housekeeper May.
Blanche Blackwell was the inspiration for the name of the guano-collecting ship Blanche. Blackwell would later go on to become Fleming’s lover, so naming a ship full of bird sh*t after her may be considered to have been an act of deflection by Fleming.
His friend Patricia Wilder found that her nickname of Honey Chile was used for the heroine, while his friend John Fox-Strangways from his gentlemen’s club White’s, became the MI6 station chief in Jamaica.
Quarrel, who previously appeared in the novel Live and Let Die, was based on a Jamaican fisherman who often took Fleming shark fishing.
That’s A Smith And Western And You’ve Had Your Six…
Stark: Wow, where to start? Well probably with the wildly different tone to the previous novel, From Russia With Love. Knowing the history, it is clear that this book had its genesis in the Commander Jamaica story before being converted to Bond. As a result, it’s a world away from Cold War espionage across Istanbul.
That said, it’s clear why Brocolli and Saltzman chose this as the first movie adaption. It’s highly cinematic and the fantastical elements scream “Movie” when you read it. You can also clearly pick-out details in this novel that basically underpinned the Bond mythos on the screen, or inspired later Bond scenes and adventures on the screen, such as villains with big plans, and expansive lairs.
The dangerous animals come into play quite a lot. The centipede (spider in the movie), Honey’s fate with the crabs, and the giant squid all read like something out of a Tarzan story, or Doc Savage. Bond has pulp roots so this is no issue. It does feel a little jarring after From Russia With Love though.
Very, very enjoyable though. Fleming seems to relish returning to Bond after nearly killing him off in the last adventure. The story doesn’t drag and Bond continues to develop. He is now a long way from the slightly gullible agent so easily fooled by Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale.
There are changes between page and screen in No’s plan. In the novel, he is interfering with the American’s testing of ballistic missiles at their range in Florida. In the movie, he is using the same technology, but against the American space program out of Cape Canaveral. This was highly topical at the time.
Similarly, No’s death is changed. In the movie, he is pushed into his own radioactive fusion pool. In the book Bond coldly dispatches him at his own guano processing plant, buried alive in tons of bird dropping.
Bond doesn’t even hesitate or, afterwards, reflect. Dr. No wronged Bond and wronged Britain. Bond kills him. Job done.
I hadn’t read this book for more than 20 years and it was a delight to discover it again after all that time and look at it with fresher, but older and wiser eyes. It is a touch sadistic but a lot of that is driven by Dr. No so Bond reacts to that.
The fantasy elements work just fine, even when they are bordering on the ridiculousness of pulp, for example, the giant squid sequence. Fleming’s slow reveal and Bond’s mounting terror push the insanity of the concept to the back of your mind.
You can clearly see why it would be left out of the movie though. A 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea-level of squid F/X would have destroyed Bond’s credibility as a franchise at the first hurdle.
The novel also builds out Dr. No considerably as a villain, with his Tong backstory, disfigurements, and unsettling addiction to studying humans suffering pain.
A world away from the novels Casino Royale, Moonraker or From Russia With Love. More akin to the movies of You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me at times… but it just works!
Next time we tackle 1959’s Goldfinger.