Saturday, May 28, 2011

James Bond creator Ian Fleming: Happy Birthday!

Ian Fleming was born 103 years ago today.

Fleming, who passed away on August 12 1964, was born on May 28, 1908. Fleming wrote his first James Bond novel, "Casino Royale", in 1952, in the span of about 2-3 months, at his Jamaican winter home Goldeneye.

A year later, the book was published and thus began his yearly cycle of writing new 007 thrillers until his death in 1964. His final book, "The Man With The Golden Gun", was published a year after his death, in 1965. A 14th book, "Octopussy", was published in 1966,  collecting a few short stories he had written over the years. Sadly, he passed away only a few months before the release of the 3rd James Bond movie, GOLDFINGER, which became the breakthrough box office hit for the film series.

Fleming's health was in decline in his later years, only aggravated by his high-living. He smoke and drank as much as Bond, and really could not see himself slowing down. In the novel "You Only Live Twice", when it seemed that Bond died in Japan, his secretary in the 00-section offered a quote for Bond:
"I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time".  

Fleming, with Sean Connery, on the set of the first James Bond film, DR. NO (1962).

Fleming lived life to the fullest, and in the end it may be what did him in. But in that life, he created a fantastic body of work. Most people will know James Bond through the long-running film series (which will be approaching it's 50th Anniversary next year). I first experienced Bond mainly through television, when ABC would run the films on their Sunday Night Movie slot throughout the 70s. I did see THE SPY WHO LOVED ME on the big screen though, back in 1977. But it wasn't until my years in high school that I read my first Fleming novel

It was this edition of the 1960s Signet paperback that totally caught my eye. I knew of Bond through the movies, and always noticed Ian Fleming's names in the credits, but seeing the books in front of me really caught my attention. These Signet paperbacks today are still favorites of mine, with their minimalist design, but well conceived visually and with just the right flamboyant flair with the synopses. I went on to collect the entire set by scouring the various used bookstores that at one time where within a block or two of one another in the Uptown Whittier shopping district.

While the Bond films remain my favorite movie series, it's the novels that provide me with the most fullfilling immersion into the world of Fleming's imagination. A professional journalist, as well as Naval intelligence officer during WWII, Fleming infuses his stories with very descriptive, tantalizing narratives, weaved in with real-life experiences on war and espionage. A self-admitted 'overgrown adolescent', Fleming's books are clear cut battles between good and evil (West Vs East), with strong doses of sexuality and violence, but also with a witty, urbane flair for melodrama and fun. 

Fleming remains my favorite writer, only made more evident by my current re-reading of "Casino Royale". Here's a passage from Chapter 7: 

"Bond has always been a gambler. He loved the dry riffle of the cards and the constant unemphatic drama of the quite figures round the green tables. He liked the solid, studied comfort of card-rooms and casinos, the well-padded arms of the chairs, the glass of champagne or whisky at the elbow, the quite unhurried attention of good servants. He was amused by the impartiality of the roulette ball and of the playing cards-and their eternal bias. He liked being an actor and a spectator and from his chair to take part in other men's dramas and decisions, until it caqme to his own turn to say that vital 'yes' or 'no', generally on a fifty-fifty chance."

As a 17 yr. old Mexican-American kid living in a working class suburban home in the 80s, I couldn't be further from the 1950s European landscape that Bond dealt in, moving among the gambling palaces and high-dining experiences while chasing super-criminals across the continent, usually with a femme fatale or stunning beauty in tow.

But Fleming's evocative and nuanced writing, fantastically conceived plots and unforgettable characters captured my interest and imagination. And that's the best thing I can ask of any artist working in the mass media. Fleming's own musings on his writings consisted of such thoughts as these:

‘I am not an angry young, or even middle-aged, man. My books are not “engaged”. I have no message for suffering humanity and, though I was bullied at school and lost my virginity like so many of us used to do in the old days, I have never been tempted to foist these and other harrowing personal experiences on the public. My opuscula do not aim at changing people or making them go out and do something. They are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, aeroplanes or beds.’

Fleming has mentioned that he writes to have an audience, and to make money. A very practical approach. But he was a tremendously talented artist, employing an innovative and dynamic flair for language that makes the Bond books much more than just spy capers. As a creator of my own comics, I take a lot of how Ian Fleming approached his work and career and apply it to my own work, in the ways that best suit what I want to achieve. He cranked
out each Bond novel over his 2-3 month stay in Jamaica every winter, writing about 4 hours a day and never looking back on the previous days writing. He wouldn't even work from an outline. Just getting the story down onto the paper first and foremost. Only when he went back to England for the remaining  9 months would he polish and edit the manuscripts. But really it was his fertile imagination, and a life-time of human experiences, that propelled his stories of James Bond. And maybe a little wish-fulfillment as well.

He often claimed he wrote his first Bond book to get over the shock of getting married at age 43! Well, it that's the case he left us one heck of a therapy session. While for the most part the Bond films have deviated greatly from the majority of his books, they are still adaptations of his works, and it's really the films that have secured his place on the world stage. For almost 60 years now, his books have been reprinted numerous times throughout the world. In the 1950s the Daily Express obtained his permission to produce comic strip adaptations of his novels, eventually leading to all new strips featuring brand new stories, well beyond Fleming's death.

Fleming also wrote the classic children's story, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", which he produced while recovering from a heart attack. 

Among his greatest achievements in his work for Britain's Intelligence Service was his creation of the 30 Assault Unit, a top secret commando team that would scour a captured enemy base for any and all intelligence material. This highly valued unit is the subject of a new film called AGE OF HEROES, with Fleming himself portrayed by actor James D'Arcy.

Quite prolific in his 11 year span as a published author, but like all great works, the legacy lives and flourishes far beyond it's original life. I'm not a heavy drinker at all, but if I was one, I'd toast Mr. Fleming with one of Bond's vodka martinis.

Happy Birthday, Ian Fleming.

 (If you're reading this via Facebook, this vidoe clip of Ian Fleming may not be visible. Visit my blog to see the clip.)


Greenblatt the Great! said...

There's a rap song on the Wu Tang-Clan's THE W album that expertly samples Monty Norman's iconic theme as the backing track. They don't sample the famous riff but they loop a snippet of brass and that calming little down note at the very end of the theme. It's a track called One Blood Under W, and there's just enough theme song to recognize it but not too much as to be obvious. Anyway, it's very jazzy and I'm bumping it now in my house in honor of the great IF.

Birthday. Happy birthday, Fleming...Ian Fleming.

Jason Martin said...

Impressive write-up sir!
With insights into Fleming, and yourself ;)