Friday, November 10, 2006

More on Casino Royale

Casino Royale is by far and away the best novel Ian Fleming ever wrote.

Written in 1953, after marriage and heart trouble retired him to his beautiful Jamaican beach house, Goldeneye, Ian Fleming set about writing 'a fantasy of sorts' featuring a rough, rugged spy by the name of James Bond. A common piece of trivia is that the name James Bond was stolen from an author of a book on Bird of the West Indies. Fleming liked it because it was plain and simple, just like his character.

Very much a product of it's time, the story was set in the Normandy town of Royale les Eaux and featured a gripping cold war plot. Russian agent Le Chiffre has invested Soviet funds into a failed string of French brothels and he had only days to recover the money before his embezzling was found out and the agents of "anti-Spy" unit SMERSH put a bullet between his eyes.

A skilled gambler, Le Chiffre rolled up at the Casino of Royale les Eaux (the eponymous casino of the title) in order to desperately raise money through a high stakes game of baccarat.

Somehow, the British Secret Service caught wind of this desperate scramble for cash and devised a plan. The best gambler in the Service would be dispatched to Royale les Eaux with one mission in mind. Bankrupt Le Chiffre.

Once Le Chiffre was broke, he'd be eliminated by SMERSH and the Soviet infrastructure in France would be dealt a serious blow.

The agent selected for this mission was James Bond. A recently promoted field agent, he was a 'double-o.' One of the few agents who'd killed in cold blood in the field. Described as a 'blunt instrument,' James had few passions. Women, alcohol, his 4 & 1/2 Litre supercharged Bentley Le Mans and gambling. Whatever the game, he was reknowned as the best gambler in the service.

That set the scene for Casino Royale and a tense card game, a thrilling car chase, a scene of horrific torture and an expected betrayal established the psychology of Bond for the books to come. It was famously On Her Majesty's Secret Service in which James Bond got married. However, this was the first book in which Bond fell in love.

Prior to next week's latest Bond film, Casino Royale has hit the screen twice before. First, as a TV special in America during the fifties. James was replaced by American card shark "Jimmy Bond' and Peter Lorre stared inexplicably as Le Chiffre.

Believe it or not, however, the massacre of Ian Fleming's magnum opus was made even worse in 1967, when the owner of the rights to Casino Royale (which hadn't been sold when the rest of the Bond titles had) put up the cheesy monstrosity that was 1967's Casino Royale.

David Niven and Woody Allen star in one totally ridiculous film. Peter Sellers and Orson Welles star in another, reasonably accurate version of the Fleming Story. Then both films are spliced together, buggered up a bit more with lazy editing and released to the unsuspecting public like nerve gas.

The result was horrific. Great soundtrack though.

After that day, the film makers thankfully left the beaten corpse of Casino Royale and the best of the Bonds remained in book form. Until somebody figured it was time to resurrect the old bones and see if there was some life left in them.

After all, the James Bond film franchise had been resurrected quite successfully since the days of Goldeneye and they needed to find a storyline somewhere that didn't involve an evil genius building a superweapon and holding the world ransom like they'd done before.

2004's Die Another Day was Pierce Brosnan's final outing as James Bond. Breathtakingly original, the film was a box office smash, raising over $400 million in profits. It was always going to be a tough nut to crack and it was decided that a follow up wouldn't be able to beat the all-action adventures of Pierce and Halle. So somebody had the bright idea of going 'back to basics' and showing us where Bond came from.

This is where it all threatened to go horribly wrong.

Now, I will reserve judgment until I've seen Casino Royale, but I'm worried. It is the best James Bond book. It's my favorite James Bond book. It's a brilliant, tight story and it deserves to hit the big screen as it was written, without being buggered about with. But buggering about with things is Hollywood's stock in trade.

Take for example, their star.

Ian Fleming knew exactly what James Bond looked like. Jazz musician Hoagy Carmicheal (yes, folks. He was named after the sandwich.) Black hair, blue eyes... Handsome and dark. Kind of like Pierce Brosnan in fact.

But in Casino Royale, James will be played by Daniel Craig. Who is blonde, with blue eyes... Face like a bouncer. Nothing like James Bond as he appears in the book. But quite close to what Ian Fleming looked like, to be honest.

Will this be a good choice to play Bond? I'm not sure. I like Daniel Craig. He's tough and rough and he was good in Tomb Raider (even better when he was dubbed into French) and he was the best thing in Guy Richie's Layer Cake. But Britain's top secret agent? We shall see.

He might not fit the description, but Daniel Craig makes quite a convincing 'blunt instrument.'


No comments: