Sunday, April 11, 2004

James Bond: Double Oh Mary Sue



"Bond is what every man would like to be
and what every woman would like to have
between her sheets."
~Raymond Chandler

I've started reading Casino Royale, the first of Ian Fleming's Bond novels as a way to relax at night from the stress of Grad School. So far I'm about six chapters in and a few interesting things have already struck me. Structurally, the book is quite modern. We meet Bond in the Casino, then zip back to M and read the memos over his shoulder, which gives us a quick exposition of the set up: A mysterious rich posure named Le Chiffre, working as a Russian agent is heading for calamity, SMERSH, the Russian uber-secret arm of the KGB (think Nixon's Plumbers, but with a decidedly Russian sense of pride concerning their job). The thing is, it would better serve NATO if Le Chiffre were kept alive, at least long enough for Bond to beet him at bacharach, ridiculing him in public and exposing his financial failings. This would undermine him as a viable agent and put a stop to his nefarious underworld dealings without MI6 having to get their hands dirty. of course, we know this is just the set up, that their will be double and tripple dealings along the way. This is a Bond Book and Ian Flemming did invent the double bind durring his carear in British Intelligence. At several intervals we jump around the timeline. These are only brief jaunts and mostly they are a way to show how several things are happening simultaneously. But it's a rather sophisticated literary tool, one I hadn't expected to see, given what that the book was written in 1953, back when these modernist tropes were still looked down upon with suspicion by many.

What struck me most about the character of James Bond is how much his literary incarnation differs from his film incarnations. Bond of the novel is quiet, introspective and disgusted by violence. When a pair of Bulgarian hitmen blow themselves up by mistake and Bond is splattered by their remains, he rolls over and vomits. It's hard to imagine Sean Connery or Roger Moore doing this. They would stand, adjust their tie and stoically walk away from the carnage. But Bond is shaken, visibly.

James Bond is also a misogynist. This is no real surprise, feminists have been making this claim for years. But seriously though, he hates women.

Bond was not amused. "What the hell do they want to send me a woman for?" he said bitterly. "Do they think this is a bloddy picnic?"

~Ian Flemming, Casino Royale, p.25-26

And when we meet the Girl from Headquarters, Mademoiselle Lynd, Bond immediately writes her off as cold and distant, though attractive. It isn't until a short time later, when his comrade gives him a subtle cue to ask her on a date that Bond becomes excited. Because he's going to fuck her. He knows this, because he's James Bond and he's heard his praises being sung by Mr. Chandler.

Which made me realize something: James Bond is a Mary Sue*. A rather mild one by all accounts, but still, there's a little too much of the author in his personality for him to be taken too seriously.

In May of 1939, Fleming started a more formal attachment to the intelligence service, working with Naval Intelligence. Soon, he was full-time assistant to the director, taking the rank of Lieutenant, and later Commander. Fleming became the right-hand man to one of Britain's top spymasters, Admiral John Godfrey.

The war was good to Fleming, tapping his imagination, forcing him to work within discipline. Fleming schemed, plotted, and carried out dangerous missions. From the famous Room 39 in the Admiralty building in London's Whitehall, Fleming tossed out a myriad of off-beat ideas on how to confuse, survey, and enrage the Germans.

In a 1940 trip into a crumbling France, Fleming supervised the escape from Dieppe, juggling the security needs of his country against the crush of refugees seeking escape from the Nazi machine. With Fleming flair, he spent one of his last evening eating and drinking some of the best food in the country, and one of his last days coordinating the evacuation of King Zog of Albania.

The "Fleming flair" proved to be his greatest strength in Naval Intelligence. He dined at Scott's, White's, the Dorchester, plotted intelligence operations, many of which were absurd, and many of which proved ingenious. Yet, Fleming understood the business side of the war. He understood his practical job, and the tight constraints of man-power, money and supplies. He did not take his assignments lightly, always gravely aware of the real human risks involved.

The "Fleming flair" also proved valuable in one other aspect: writing. As assistant to Admiral Godfrey, Fleming wrote countless memos and reports. His style and elegant arguments, plus his seemingly limitless knowledge of his subjects made the usual dry missives a pleasure to read. Eventually, Fleming wrote memos to William "Wild Bill" Donovan on how to set up the OSS, forerunner to the CIA. For that bit of work, Fleming received a revolver engraved with the thanks: "For Special Services." [John Cork, The Life of Ian Fleming]

Not that anyone does take James Bond seriously, at least form what I can tell. The reason he has become an avatar for so many is precisely this element of wish fulfilment. As Raymond Chandler pointed out, he is everything we as a civilization want in a hero. At least within the confines of a Cold War era espionage thriller. It's when Bond leaves this familiar territory that he becomes a parody of himself. Just watch any of the Bond movies made since the fall of Communism and you'll see what I mean: Bond has quit smoking, drinks far less and as required by Political Correctness, must fall in love, as much as Bond is capable, with at least one heroine, every other movie (though, promptly killing her is an acceptable way to allow him to grieve in the arms of the next slutty double agent with a sexy accent). But this takes us out of the scope of James Bond, the myth and legend. For all his faults as a human being, he is the epitome of the cold war adventure hero, a little morally ambiguous, a little hard of heart (but he did experience WW II first hand, so he's also a vet) but that's OK. That's what we like about James Bond, he gives us the license to Kill, to sleep around, to hate and love and then go for a quiet ride in a restored 1933 gun mettle gray, Bentley convertible.

Which is why I deeply wish that, for the future bond films, they'd go back in time and do them as period pieces. Cold war thrillers, set in the late fifties and early sixties, with the gee-whiz gadgets, the flirty sexuality, the sly wink and the hard drinking, hard smoking man of action that we miss so very much in the real world, where things aren't quite so black and white, just red all over.

_________
*MARY SUE (n.): 1. A variety of story, first identified in the fan fiction community, but quickly recognized as occurring elsewhere, in which normal story values are grossly subordinated to inadequately transformed personal wish-fulfillment fantasies, often involving heroic or romantic interactions with the cast of characters of some popular entertainment. 2. A distinctive type of character appearing in these stories who represents an idealized version of the author. 3. A cluster of tendencies and characteristics commonly found in Mary Sue-type stories. 4. A body of literary theory, originally generated by the fanfic community, which has since spread to other fields (f.i., professional SF publishing) because it's so darn useful. The act of committing Mary Sue-ism is sometimes referred to as "self-insertion."

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