Sunday, July 15, 2007

What I've Read - The Spy Who Loved Me

One of the many benefits of summer is that you are allowed -- nay, expected -- to read trashy genre fiction. People who spend the rest of the year reading books approved by the Pulitzer committee, Michiko Kakutani, or Oprah are now free to spend their days immersed in thrillers, mysteries, romances, and other assorted mass-market paperbacks. With that in mind, I just finished reading The Spy Who Loved Me. I've seen a good number of the James Bond movies, but never read any of Ian Fleming's novels, so I picked a title mostly at random and set out to read it without any preconceptions.

Boy, was I surprised. For one thing, James Bond doesn't show up until the last third of the book. The whole novel is told from the point of view of Vivienne Michel, who could best be described as the "Bond Girl" of the story. What's more, the first hundred pages or so contain nothing but backstory, filling us in on how our narrator got her heart broken a couple of times before buying a Vespa and going on a road trip through America, picking up some temporary work at a motel along the way. When the plot finally does kick in, Bond shows up by pure chance. Once he does, though, the action picks up. The day gets saved, the girl gets bedded, the end.

So, not really what I was expecting, which is actually good. The Bond movies are possibly the most formulaic film franchise in history, so it was great to read a book that was obviously going out of its way to dispense with that formula. One of my favorite moments is when Bond is telling Vivienne about the mission he just finished, a violent affair involving a Russian defector, an ex-Gestapo assassin and the ever-present SCEPTRE. In short, it's much closer to your typical Bond plot, but it's related in a single chapter over coffee, with Bond repeatedly interrupting himself to make sure Vivienne isn't bored hearing it. Fleming's writing does just what it should: moves you along through the plot without needing to call attention to itself. And refreshingly, the book was free of gratuitous gadgetry, ridiculous character names, and awful post-mortem puns.

While I was reading the book, I couldn't help but wonder how it was ever adapted into a movie. You have a hero who's absent through much of the book, a heroine with a rich and detailed non-spy backstory, and a plot that does not involve the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Then, I got my answer:
The only common story elements between the novel and the film are its title and two henchman Jaws and Sandor who are loosely inspired by the book's villains Horror and Sluggsy. The film is considered as the first Bond film whose story is completely original.
Apparently Fleming wasn't pleased with the final result of his book and wouldn't allow the plot to be carried over to the film. It was probably a wise decision for the franchise. After all, more people are interested in seeing Hamlet than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

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