Of [In]human Bond[age]: The Adaptation of Dr No: How a Squid Helped Define James Bond

drnoAdaptation is a tenuous business. To use a recent example of high-stakes adaptation, consider the cinematic choices made at the beginning of the Harry Potter series. Consider how those choices carried on throughout the 8-movie cycle, the design of the Hogwarts castle, the casting choices for primary roles, the score, etc. Even though Harry Potter used the books as blueprints whenever possible, the movies required concrete visual and aural choices to translate a book to the big screen. This is all the stuff your vivid imagination filled in as you read the books. None of it conscious injection.

While anticipation for the first James Bond movie did not rival that of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Dr. No, nonetheless, required some calculated decisions on the part of it’s tag-team producers, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli. Where the Potter team had unlimited visual possibilities through CGI technology and an inherently screen-ready source material, the screenwriters for the first James Bond adaptation had a character. A character populating a series of spy novels with unfilmable scenes of sex, nudity and, with regard to Dr. No in particular, a fight with a giant squid. (The squid will return in a bit.) More importantly, the James Bond of the Fleming novels was troubled, nuanced and a bit morose. Put simply: an impossible cinematic action hero in a film that aspired to be escapist fare.

The world fell madly in love with a sociopath.

Saltzman and Broccoli always intended to turn these Ian Fleming spy novels into a series of movies. (The story of acquiring the rights to James Bond is fascinating and far too complicated for the space I have reserved here. Read the Vanity Fair article here. It’s more than worth your time.) They may not have considered a 23-film series, but they certainly understood that the choices made in Dr. No regarding Bond’s character could terminate the series before it even began. Watching Dr. No with this in mind, I was shocked to note how many elements from this very first Bond film became permanent fixtures. The gun-barrel opening, the pre-credit sequence, Monty Norman’s timeless theme, “Bond, James Bond.” All of these tropes we associate with Bond were on-the-fly creative decisions, not adaptation.

First, let’s look more closely at how material from the novels was used to create the Bond character. The many screenwriters that had a hand in creating the Dr. No screenplay seemed to understand that the Ian Fleming novels lacked some necessary humor. (The original, and soon dismissed, writers made Dr. No a villainous monkey.) The spy is dour, calculating and far more professional than his cinematic counterpart. One might say that cinema Bond is book Bond’s counterparty. (Laugh track optional.) Cinematic James Bond runs a car of assassins off the side of a cliff. A bystander asks where they were headed in such a hurry. Bond says, “I think they were on their way to a funeral.” The one-liners, the glib entrendres were purely cinematic inventions to soften Bond and provide a spoonful of sugar for the violence inherent to stories of international espionage.

When it came to the novel’s sexual content, the producers had no choice but to remove, excise and revise. Perhaps oddly, however, in downgrading the overt sexuality, they turned James Bond into an overt sexual predator. The novel depicts famous Bond heroine Honey Rider emerging from the water completely naked except for her knife belt. Of course, Bond is lustful, but he hardly expresses his desires to Honey Rider, fearing he might spook her. In fact, he spends much of this moment in the novel dissecting the way her crooked nose both detracts and enhances her beauty. In the Dr. No film, the perfect, pristine Ursula Andress, famously, makes her entrance from the water in her legendary white bikini (nudity, not optional for light 1960’s cinema).

James Bond: Don’t worry. I’m not supposed to be here either.
Honey Rider: Are you looking for shells too?
James Bond: No, I’m just looking.

Throughout the novel, in fact, Honey throws herself at James, at times begging openly for sexual relations. Bond refuses, despite his lucid desire for her, because he must stay hungry and alert while on a mission.

WHAT?

If we know one thing about cinematic Bond it’s that he’ll do the girl. Is she good, evil, somewhere in between? Time of crisis or calm? It really doesn’t matter. He’ll do her. But in Fleming’s Dr. No, James Bond shows repeated restraint and focus. Until the end, of course, when they shag like animals in a sleeping bag. The production team for the movie chose, deliberately, to depict Bond as the aggressor, the would-be sexual predator… as in he would be a sexual predator if he weren’t so damn handsome, confident and crassly poetic. We’re more than happy to overlook his sexual deviancy as a quality rather than a character flaw. Why is that?

Examine Bond’s cinematic introduction – a scene created specifically for the movie (and partially lifted from the first Bond novel, Casino Royale). Sean Connery appears at a casino table in a tuxedo, playing chemin de fer and smoking a cigarette. He’s winning big and flirting with Slyvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), a woman created to be pure liquid sex.

James Bond: I admire your courage, Miss…?
Sylvia Trench: Trench. Sylvia Trench. I admire your luck, Mr…?
James Bond: Bond. James Bond.

Thus the famous introduction is born, first uttered, curiously, by someone other than Bond. Moments later the two are shown, post-coital. This moment; the high-stakes gambling, flirtation with and subsequent bedding of an arbitrary woman; defines Bond, not only for the film, but also for the entire series. Sex becomes the character’s expected right and privilege. We worship Bond, like a god among men, for his confidence, his ability to woo a woman with a raised eyebrow and witty banter. It is not depicted as aggression, despite the conquering (although, a notable scene in Goldfinger suggests otherwise) because the women in question are more than complicit.

The actor playing Bond, of course, had a huge impact on the cinematic direction. The reality of Sean Connery is this: a course everyman cleaned up and stuffed in a monkey suit. He is both appealing and relatable but also unfathomably attractive, boasting the carriage of a demigod. These traits carry over to Bond, the cinematic character. The narratives portray Bond also as a predictable slave to his many vices. Risk. Danger. Liquor. Women. This moment defines not only the James Bond of Dr. No but also the James Bond of 22 subsequent films. Each actor that has filled 007’s shoes has derived their treatment of the character from these first few minutes of on-screen presence.

But now back to the giant squid for a moment.

Ian Fleming apparently channeled Jules Verne for the climax of his novel. Imagine screenwriters sitting down in 1961 to discuss a treatment of Dr. No. “A ripping yarn for sure, but what about this hubbub about a giant squid?” An impossible task that, if put on film, would have made Bela Lugosi wrestling the killer octopus in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster seem like high art. In the novel, Dr. No has devised a series of tests for Bond’s escape, culminating in a face-off with the giant squid, during which Bond clings to a fence while the ancient beast grabs and rips at him with its tentacles, beating it back with a knife he smuggled out of dinner in his trousers.

Imagine audience reaction to this scene, no matter the staging quality. Most likely, the film’s low budget removed all consideration for the squid scene or the prior, convoluted challenges created by Dr. No to test Bond’s will to suffer, to endure pain. Instead, movie Bond escapes from a conveniently placed air duct (a supremely inane escape twist considering the supposed evil genius of Dr. No), steals a radiation suit to go incognito, offs some bad guys and rescues the girl. Standard operating procedure. Quick, easy, painless. His shirt’s torn and sweaty, but that’s the extent of his struggle.

In the book, Bond endures deep second-degree burns on his hands and knees, cuts himself deeply across the chest in defense of the squid, passes out repeatedly from pain and fails to save the girl because Honey has already freed herself by the time he arrives. These things, these bumps and bruises, these moments of surrender to pain, they are human concerns, not the troubles of a demigod. Scene to scene, we are ever-faithful that James Bond maintains total control of the situation. Signs of weakness or doubt might shatter the illusion. And though later movies and different incarnations of the character will begin to tear at the fabric of his godly suits, we expect James Bond to survive, to sleep with the girl, to win the day.

Do we owe this expectation of impregnability to the giant squid that forced the producers and screenwriters of this first cinematic James Bond adventure to entirely excise Dr. No’s torturous obstacle course? I’m suggesting we do. And it’s about time the giant squid got its due recognition.

[All together now.]

Thank you giant squid, for without your absurdly bizarre inclusion into the Ian Fleming novel, and the subsequent forced removal of huge sections of the book from the screen adaptation, James Bond might not have returned in From Russia With Love and our half-century love affair with a sociopath might not have been possible.

James David Patrick has a B.A. in film studies from Emory University, an M.F.A in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine, and an honorary Ph.D. in bullshitting about literature and cinema from the College of Two Pints. His writing has appeared in PANK, Monkeybicycle, Specter Literary Magazine and P.Q. Leer. While he does not like to brag (much), he has interviewed Tom Hanks and Daniel Craig and is pretty sure you haven’t. He bl-gs at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com.

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3 Responses to Of [In]human Bond[age]: The Adaptation of Dr No: How a Squid Helped Define James Bond

  1. Pingback: Of [In]human Bond[age] #2: The Dr No. Adaptation and the Curious Case of How a Giant Squid Helped Define James Bond | Thirty Hertz Rumble

  2. Pingback: The Dr. No Adaptation: How a Giant Squid Defined James Bond - Of Inhuman #Bond_age_ | Of Inhuman #Bond_age_

  3. Pingback: Dr. No: How a Giant Squid Defined James Bond - #Bond_age_

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