You can read all of our previous entries here starting with Casino Royale, Live And Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, From Russia With Love, Dr. No, and Goldfinger. Last time around we tackled the wildly different short story collection For Your Eyes Only.
Now it is time for the main event as we get into the James Bond story that finally introduced what would become Bond’s most famous adversaries. This story would also be responsible for very nearly killing off James Bond as a movie franchise more than once in its history. Outside of the book itself, it would spark a tale of backstabbing, legal wrangling, and an altercation that would run for decades. This novel has a lot to answer for.
This novel is Thunderball.
He Always Runs While Others Walk
Where to start with this one? Might as well get the legal out of the way first. This book was originally written as a screenplay for the first-ever James Bond movie, way back before the Brocolli family were involved and before Dr. No was even conceived as a movie.
In mid-1958 Fleming and his friend, Ivar Bryce, began talking about the possibility of making a movie based on Fleming’s character of James Bond. Bryce introduced Fleming to a young Irish writer and director, Kevin McClory. The McClory name will come to haunt Bond throughout history. They formed Xanadu Productions as a concept, but never officially formed it as a company.
In May 1959, Fleming, Bryce, their friend Ernest Cuneo and McClory started a series of meetings in which they thrashed out a story outline. That story featured a plane full of celebrities and a female lead called Fatima Blush, a name Bond fans will recognize immediately.
McClory had a keen interest in the ocean and pushed to include a lot of sub-surface action in the screenplay. Ten different versions were created on the journey from their first idea to what eventually became recognized as Thunderball. Titles considered included SPECTRE, James Bond of the Secret Service, and Longitude 78 West.
Fleming was fickle, and when McClory’s film The Boy and the Bridge flopped at the box office, got a critical mauling, and failed to make an impact at the Venice Film Festival, Fleming began to have doubts about McClory’s abilities.
In October 1959, Fleming was spending less time on the project, largely due to this. McClory introduced experienced screenwriter Jack Whittingham into the group. Fleming was, by then, traveling around the world on assignment for The Sunday Times, and using the trip to create material for his book Thrilling Cities.
He remained in contact with the rest of the group and eventually, in December 1959, Fleming met with McClory and Whittingham for a script conference. The finishing touches were put into the script and Fleming liked the finished article, although he insisted the title be changed from Longitude 78 West to Thunderball.
The intention was to deliver the script to MCA with Fleming and Bryce putting forward McClory as producer. From January to March 1960, Fleming then writes the novel Thunderball, based on the screenplay. The MCA production had eventually come to nothing, and by this time Albert R. Brocolli was pursuing a movie franchise based on Bond, and Harry Saltzman was acquiring the movie rights.
In March 1961, McClory read an advance copy of the book and was furious. He felt he and Whittingham had been removed from this Bond universe and was well aware of other efforts being made to bring 007 to the screen. He and Whittingham immediately petitioned the High Court in London for an injunction to stop publication. This failed and allowed the book to be published, although it left the opportunity open for McClory to pursue other action at a later date.
He did so in November 1963 just as the James Bond franchise was really taking off, with three movies in three years hitting the big screen. The case lasted three weeks. The stress of the case, combined with a lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking, took its toll on Ian Fleming who became unwell. He suffered a heart attack.
Bryce, deeply concerned about his friend, convinced Fleming to settle out of court. McClory gained the literary and film rights for the screenplay, while Fleming was given the rights to the novel, although the novel had to be recognized as being:
“…based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and the Author”.
This left McClory with a constant toehold back into the world of the cinematic James Bond that would come back on the franchise again and again.
Fleming never truly recovered from the stress of the trial. Nine months later, on 12th August 1964, Fleming suffered a second heart attack and died at the age of 56.
Never Say Never Again
Eon Productions were deep into their cinematic 007 franchise by this point and had struck a deal with McClory in exchange for a producer credit on Thunderball. He would not attempt to exercise any of his rights in regards to Thunderball for at least ten years after the release of Thunderball as a movie.
Within minutes of the deal expiring, McClory sprunt into action. He started work on a Thunderball remake called Warhead. By this time Sean Connery had fallen out with the producers of the official James Bond franchise and accepted an offer to work on the script alongside spy author Len Deighton.
After many issues, delays, legal wrangles, changes of team, and arguments, this version would eventually see the light of day as Never Say Never Again, a remake of Thunderball featuring femme fatale Fatima Blush. The title was suggested by Connery’s wife Micheline after he said he would “Never Again” play James Bond after Diamonds Are Forever.
A final attempt by Fleming’s trustees to block the film was made in the High Court in London in the spring of 1983, but this was thrown out by the court and Never Say Never Again was released.
Legal arguments would continue for many years. After Diamonds Are Forever it would be many years before SPECTRE would appear in a Bond movie again, as the rights were held by McClory. Blofeld was only implied, never named in the opening title scene of For Your Eyes Only.
For years McClory would overestimate his rights, insisting that the rights he held gave him permission to create a whole rival James Bond franchise. Every time he tried, Eon Productions would block him in the courts, limiting his rights to simply remake Thunderball again and again. He tried to get another remake off the ground several times.
McClory died in 2006, and in November 2013 MGM and the McClory estate formally settled the issue with Danjaq, LLC – a sister company of Eon Productions. MGM acquired the full copyright film rights to the concept of SPECTRE and all of the characters associated with it, leading to the movie Spectre in 2015.
We Do Not Tolerate Failure In This Organisation
Up until this point, the James Bond of the novels had always fought the real-life Russian organisation SMERSH. They were behind Vesper’s betrayal in Casino Royale, Mr Big was their man in Live And Let Die, even Goldfinger was on their payroll.
In the movies, this was very different. The Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion AKA SPECTRE was behind the plots in Dr No and From Russia With Love. Goldfinger was a freelancer. By the time the fourth movie, Thunderball, rolled around they were back as the bad guys.
In the books, Thunderball is their first appearance in what becomes a very tight trilogy of novels that actually sets in motion the connected narrative arc for most of the final James Bond books. We are on the final leg now. There are not many Bond novels remaining in this series.
However, what an appearance it is! With Fleming’s now-legendary eye for detail, they are introduced meticulously and given a very convincing backstory, beyond just a mustache-twirling evil organization. The mysterious leader of the movies is given a full backstory that explains why he now leads this organization.
Ernst Stavro Blofeld is written by Fleming as having been born on 28 May 1908, the same day as Fleming himself. He was born in Gdingen, Imperial Germany (now Gdynia in Poland) to a Polish father called Ernst George Blofeld and a Greek mother named Maria Stavro Michelopoulos.
After World War I, Blofeld became a Polish national and had a strong academic record in social sciences, natural science, and technology disciplines. He graduated from the University of Warsaw with a degree in Political History and Economics then gained a second degree in Engineering and Radionics.
He went to work at the Polish Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs and was appointed to a sensitive communication position. He used this position to his own advantage, seeing early indications of financial movements, therefore buying and selling stocks at the Warsaw Stock Exchange to make himself wealthy. This gave him a taste of the real rewards that intelligent criminality could bring him.
Understanding clearly that war was on the horizon, Blofeld made copies of top-secret wires and sold them for cash to Nazi Germany. On the day before the German invasion of Poland, he meticulously destroyed all records of his existence, then fled to Sweden. There he moved to Turkey where, under the cover of working for Turkish Radio, he began to gather around him a private intelligence-gathering organization. He sold information to both sides for profit.
Here we can see the inspiration for the Daniel Craig version of Blofield and his plot in Spectre. Sitting at the heart of worldwide signals intelligence, gathering up information for profit.
At the end of the war, Blofeld then moved temporarily to South America and founded SPECTRE.
Although Fleming himself never confirmed it, it is generally thought by Bond scholars that the character of Blofeld was based on real-life Greek arms dealer Basil Zaharoff. He took the name from English cricket commentator Henry Blofeld’s father, whom Fleming went to school with.
The organization is likewise explained in great detail in Thunderball. There are 21 executive members made up of ex-KGB, ex-Gestapo, splitter from various criminal enterprises such as the mafia, all under the rule of Blofeld in return for money from their various schemes.
Members are typically referred to by number rather than by name, assigned at random, and then rotated up by two digits on a once-a-month basis to prevent detection. So unlike the movies, there is no permanent Number One.
This mirrors real-life revolutionary organizations, wherein members exist in cells and are numerically defined to prevent identification and cross-betrayal of aims. This also protects the true leader by masking their position.
One aspect of the novel that did make a direct transition to the movies is the sheer ruthlessness that SPECTRE uses to deal with transgressions. At the first meeting, the reader observes, one member is found to have sexually molested a kidnapped girl he was guarding. He does not make it far into the meeting. Others are strangled with a garrote or shot through the heart with a compressed-air pistol. The second in command also executes another member when he begins to show signs of betrayal by shooting him in the face.
But who came up with the concept of SPECTRE? The legal battles gave McClory the rights, but the facts are still debated to this day!
The original storyline of an airplane full of celebrities in the Atlantic included elements such as ships with underwater trap doors and a battle between scuba divers. The Russians were the villains, then the Sicilian Mafia. Fleming biographer Andrew Lycett, and scholar John Cork both note Fleming as the creator, Lycett saying that:
“[Fleming] proposed that Bond should confront not the Russians but SPECTRE …”
Cork has an original memorandum in which SPECTRE is first mentioned by Fleming:
“My suggestion on (b) is that SPECTRE, short for Special Executive for Terrorism, Revolution and Espionage, is an immensely powerful organisation armed by ex-members of SMERSH, the Gestapo, the Mafia, and the Black Tong of Peking, which is placing these bombs in NATO bases with the objective of then blackmailing the Western powers for £100 million or else.”
Cork also notes that Fleming used the word “spectre” a lot in the previous novels, both for the name of the town in Diamonds Are Forever called “Spectreville”, and for the “spektor” machine in From Russia With Love.
Goodbye Mr Bond
Inspiration for other plot points was drawn once again from real life. The novel opens with Bond being chided by M for the toll that too much smoking, drinking and fast living are having on his body. He wants his agent in tip-top shape and sends him off to the health spa Shrublands to recuperate. It is here that Bond first comes into contact with a SPECTRE operative, although many aspects from the movie are not present in the book, such as the plastic surgery on a pilot. In the novel, the pilot is simply paid a vast amount of money to betray NATO.
The visit to the health clinic was inspired by Fleming’s own 1955 trip to the Enton Hall Health Farm near Godalming, Surrey. Bond’s medical record reflects Fleming’s own at the time. If only Fleming had taken notice of it. Shrublands was the name of a fine country house owned by a family friend.
Bond’s examination of the hull of Largo’s ship, the Disco Volante, was inspired by a mystery surrounding a mission from 19th April 1956. An ex-Royal Navy frogman “Buster” Crabb was asked by MI6 to examine the hull of the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze that had brought Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin to Britain for talks. Crabb disappeared in Portsmouth Harbour and was never seen again.
The design of the Disco Volante was inspired by Fleming’s long conversations with Italian luxury yacht designer Leopold Rodriguez.
The title Thunderball came from a code name used by the US for one of their atomic tests.
Largo’s cover as a treasure hunter looking for sunken riches was inspired by the same treasure hunt Fleming had observed while traveling, which was also referenced in The Hildenbrand Rarity, part of the For Your Eyes Only collection of short stories.
The underwater fight, following a submarine stalking, is a scenario Fleming had often considered building on his own love of snorkeling and skin diving near his Jamaican home, Goldeneye.
You Will Not Meddle Again, My Friend
Out of all the Bond novels, this one feels the most cinematic. Clearly, this is from its genesis as a screenplay. There is also a lot of Fleming’s own life creeping into the story. Bond is bored, tired, and drinking too much, much as Fleming had become on some of his writing assignments. M’s clear-headedness about Bond’s health maybe reflects Ivor Bryce’s concerns for his friend even before the court cases started.
There is also a theme of loyalty running throughout the book. Bond and Leiter are loyal to one another, and Bond never questions his duty even when he is on a downward slope. Domino has a fierce loyalty to her brother, which is what makes her susceptible to becoming Bond’s ally.
SPECTRE represents the flip-side of the coin with a very hypocritical view of loyalty. Blofeld is loyal only to himself and answers to nobody. However, he demands unquestioning loyalty from all who serve in SPECTRE. Each member is expected to put SPECTRE above their own needs, and yet Blofeld takes little risk himself, it is his subordinates that are doing the heavy lifting.
Yet without question SPECTRE double-crosses Giuseppe Petacchi, the Italian pilot who steals the plane and the nuclear bombs for them. Loyalty in the SPECTRE organization, it seems, only goes one way.
The book is also very straightforward. It teases SPECTRE’s scheme early on but then unfolds it logically and with the minimum of fuss. From then on it is a straight race between Bond and Leiter, and SPECTRE as the deadline looms. Bond and his CIA friend thought they were on a wild goose chase assignment together, sitting out the main action of Operation: Thunderball, when it suddenly dawns on them that they are in a front-row seat.
Like in many of the Bond books, 007 is absolutely put through the wringer physically and is lucky to survive, with the closing chapter taking place in the hospital.
It is an effective 1960s pulp thriller. The single biggest thing it does is introduce Bond’s greatest adversary, his nemesis, and one that will have a profound impact on his life as we wrap up 007’s adventures.
There are only 4 books and one short story collection left to go, and Blofeld will have a considerable impact on most of them.
The SPECTRE trilogy does not, however, continue straight away. First, there is a small diversion into Fleming’s strangest, most experimental Bond adventure yet.
Fleming Revisited will return with… The Spy Who Loved Me.