Tuesday, 19 July 2016

vs Ian Fleming's "Dr No"

"Dr. No" by Ian Fleming

Once you get past the misogyny and the racism - which you can’t because neither are particularly subtext - the problem with reading James Bond is that James Bond is a dick. His plans frequently require innocents getting killed; he generally blames the women; he is unable to treat women as adults; he antagonises and insults his captors instead of playing clever; he sulks when he doesn’t get his way. 

As presented by Ian Fleming, if this is an exemplary example of their agents it is a wonder the British Secret Service resolves anything. Head of the Secret Service, M, seems equally dickish, apparently only happy throwing his agents into serious danger without proper forethought. Assumedly, he is meant to be the stern paternal type, but he too seems like an idiot. For example, in “Dr No”, M16 agent John Strangways fails to send his daily message to headquarters: Fleming goes into great detail how Strangeways follows stringent routine every day, mentioning how even the keyboard he uses can pick-up his particular typing technique so recognise whether anyone unauthorised is making a report, etc, etc; and yet, when Strangways fails to report in one day, his superior M’s first reaction is to simply dismiss the matter on the assumption that Strangways has eloped with his female co-agent. It is only because Bond needs an easy assignment to help him recover from a previous mission that M thinks he might as well send someone to investigate, despite being certain that Strangways has simply done a runner for some sex. If I was a secret agent, I would surely hope for a little more concern and support. 

And when Bond arrives in Jamaica to pursue the disappearance, he arrives to find they have provided him with Strangways’ car… not so good at secrecy and subterfuge, this Secret Service. Well, let’s not forget that Bond uses his real name all the time upon arrival anyway. Most hilariously, when finally captured by Dr No – in a secret base that treats its prisoners like hotel guests – and his captors ask him for “next of kin”, he gives them M’s real name, we are told. And before that, he simply arrives in Jamaica and assumes Dr No’s guilt due to a mixture of xenophobia and local gossip; oh, there are certainly clues for concern about Dr Julius No, a Chinese-German, and his army of Chigroes (that people of mixed Chinese-Negro heritage, according to the book) but Bond jumps to the conclusion that the Doc is up to no good on his reclusive island almost from the off. He hires a local boatman, Quarrel, as his sidekick – not sure what training and qualifications Quarrel has for such covert operations, but…. - and Bond manages to survive a couple of assassination attempts, most memorably one involving a poisonous centipede crawling over his crotch and up his body. But what to do about being such a recognisable target in Strangways’ car? Well, Bond gets Quarrel to hire a couple of look-alikes to drive around in the car to see what happens: and the unfortunate impersonators are both promptly murdered. How about that? 

Anyway, Bond convinces Quarrel to take him over to Dr No’s island, despite the native’s fear of a dragon that is meant to prowl upon it. It is here, apropos of nothing but happenstance, that Bond meets his love interest Honeychile Rider. She is on the beach, collecting shells to sell. But this complicates things: what is what Bond to do with this luscious lovely? And more, how can he possibly ignore the deformity of her broken nose? Yes, the book stresses, this is such a “deformity” for a female; but luckily, like all other disabilities, after a while you hardly notice it! And this is exactly the kind of thing to distract Bond on his adventures. For her part, Honey has had a tough time of it, orphaned and raped (and that’s how the nose was broken) and now living off of her own wits. She has managed to avoid Dr No’s army and collect her shells for some time, and yet as soon as Bond turns up, she becomes a simpering female, clutching to him for protection. She is out of her teens and yet there is a passage where Bond takes time to wrestle with his conscience about whether to treat her as a “girl” or as a “woman”. Well, Fleming evidently makes the decision and for the rest of the book she is simply “the girl”. Doesn’t stop them from closing the book by having what she amusingly (and degradingly) calls “slave time”.

Fleming is quoted as saying, "I write for about three hours in the morning ... and I do another hour's work between six and seven in the evening. I never correct anything and I never go back to see what I have written ... By following my formula, you write 2,000 words a day."  And it shows: the plotting is purely whimsical, its consistency wavering, the plotting and ideas the kind to be expected from a hormonal teenager with all the cruelty, lack of discipline and unintentional humour that comes from that. We are a long, long way from John Le Carre’s George Smiley.

Dr No himself is a remarkable construction, the result of extensive plastic surgery and other physical modifications, let alone the fact that he is “one in a million” with his heart on the right side of his body (which saves his life). He is a heady mix of Chinese-German ancestry, Fu Manchu super-villainy in a Jamaican island hideaway. He also seems to think that Bond is the only one worthy of hearing his masterplan, which means he probably needs to get out more. Well, he thinks this one moment and then tells Bond he is not as clever as he thinks he is the next - which is both true and in keeping with the inconsistency of Fleming’s characterisations. For example, one minute Honey is a resourceful and admirable female presence and the next a weak sex interest in need of Bond’s protection; and the next she has the presence of mind and stamina to wait out an awful mass-crab attack. Bond is meant to be a super-agent, but that doesn’t mean he won’t sulk when imprisoned by a super-villain and when his plan to acquire a weapon falls flat (a plan, it might be mentioned, that features Honey getting a manicure). In one moment, Dr No’s soldiers are ruthless and efficient killers; the next they are intimidated and dissuaded from raping Honey by some vague and unfounded threats from Bond. It is all a little up and down and all over the place. It is as patch-work at Dr Julius No himself.

And it may well all be fun enough if its misogyny and xenophobia didn’t lead the book by the nose. These are not incidental traits as much as a watermargin through every viewpoint, and Fleming is simply not a good enough writer to circumnavigate these weaknesses. If you are not that way inclined, these might be insurmountable obstacles to enjoyment.

It is true that the film of “Dr No” manages to mitigate many failings of the book. M treats Strangway’s disappearance seriously from the start; there is much more detective work from Bond in the first half which is necessarily padded out more, particularly with assassination attempts. Bond is a jerk still, but he is also witty and far more enigmatic; more an anti-hero. The film is no less silly, but it delivers its nonsense with some flare. It is indeed remarkable to see how many of the defining traits of a Bond film are all present in his cinematic debut: the Bond-down-a-gun-barrel inset, the groovy opening titles, that theme tune, a sense of the  tongue-in-cheek rather than the campiness that would overrun the series later: all this dresses up Bond in a far more appealing aesthetic. 


ejh said...

"with some flare"?

Buck Theorem said...

Oh yeah, the film certainly improves on the book, making Bond less
of an asshole and more capable. Maybe my "with some flare" doesn't give it enough due credit for defining action pictures and fight scenes, for example, but it does seem surprising that it's so obviously pulp sci-fi and yet tied up so determinedly with British patriotism. The book I can happily dismiss but my reservations for the film are in no way nearly as strong. It has an enjoyable stylishness I can't locate in Fleming. But I am more a Harry Palmer sort of guy.