The James Bond Phenomenon
By Leslie Charteris (The Saint Magazine, March 1966)
The following article was specially commissioned by a new American magazine, Diplomat, and in it will be found all my reservations about the assignment and my reasons for finally accepting it.
I have decided to reprint it in the British edition of the Saint Magazine [Dec. 1965] so that all the other English-speaking readers who are patient enough to listen to me may have the same opportunity of hearing my views on a subject which I have hitherto thought it more discreet to evade. And I may ultimately decide that I should have done better to remain discreet.
But discretion can be carried to the point of dreariness, and I have finally felt it better to be true to my own obnoxious self.
Otis L. Guernsey, jun., a former drama critic of the New York Herald Tribune, and now editor of the Arts department at Diplomat, wrote me when he received it: "I enjoyed the article hugely, it has exactly the arrogant good taste which makes it fun to read." I hope the rest of you will see it in the same light. -- L.C.
For several years now, reporters in many places and different media have been asking me "What do you think of James Bond?" The gleam in their eyes telegraphs only too clearly that they are hoping for a headline, which of course means something disparaging, because nothing makes such good copy as a feud. And knowing that anything less than fulsome praise could be twisted or selectively misquoted to make me sound snide, petty or jealous, (the regrettable delight of a great many interviewers) I have always steadfastly declined to answer on the grounds that "I don't think an author ought to discuss his competitors." This of course was strictly a weasel out. But having been invited here more or less to write my own interview, I can at least be sure that anything that may be held against me will be something I did say.
It would be nonsense to raise the question of "bad taste" in connection with my temerity in discussing James Bond. The crime-story reviewer of no less a paper than the New York Times, Anthony Boucher, is the author of a number of published mysteries. It could be argued that he seems these days largely to have retired from creative production (to my personal regret) but I have never heard any writer complain that a Boucher panning was influenced by Boucher's status as an author. In fact, it could logically be argued that the man best qualified to review a detective story is an established detective-story writer. At any rate he has demonstrated that he can practice what he preaches, and has indeed successfully done so. I wish I could disfranchise any dissenting nit-think by stating that I am really immune to "professional jealousy," that I love to see any writer make money with anything (there are so few who do), and that I feel that even in these days of television-whittled literacy there is still room for all of us.
In a milieu even more enthralled by star-mania than the world of books, that Jack Lemmon may top the latest box-office poll does not mean that Gregory Peck should go out and shoot himself. Without any sickening false modesty, therefore, I must say at once that I am well aware that I, like Ian Fleming, am the creator of another successful continuing character with a world-wide following; a character who also became something of a household word and who inevitably would (and did) evoke comparisons that could hardly hope to avoid a taint of rivalry. I realize that I must probably be talking to the wind when I try to say now that I have outgrown any feeling of competitiveness in my profession; that the racket has been extraordinarily good to me and I need not begrudge anyone else anything they can get out of it; that the fame and fortune of Mr. Fleming never had any more impact on my life than those of Mr. Onassis or the Beatles, so that I can come out and talk like anybody else with what might be termed impartial professional judgment.
When I accepted the invitation of this space I probably knew less about James bond than practically anybody. The reason is that for many years I have avoided reading anything whatsoever that approaches my own line of country, out of a somewhat fanatical desire to avoid the risk of unconscious imitation. I had still never read one of the Bond books when the movie Dr. No came out. I went to see it, attracted more by the physique of Ursula Andress than by the fact that it was a James Bond picture. Later, believing that it would not be fair for me to hold an opinion of James Bond based solely on a movie version, I made a point of reading the first Ian Fleming novel I came across, which happened to be Goldfinger. When I accepted the present assignment I had to do a crash course of reading, which, through trying, may have had the advantage of concentrating my impressions in a way that could never have happened if I had been assimilating the books as they came out, at the calendrical rate of one a year. As my notes rapidly accumulated, I discovered that, as a perhaps tedious perfectionist about my own details, I was collecting a list of accusations against Fleming as a sloppy writer of English and an ignoramus about a number of subjects, in some of which he tried to present himself as an authority.
Fortunately my conscientious research also led to the discovery that the James Bond fad had already generated a (to me) bizarre literature of its own, ranging from The James Bond Dossier, by Kingsley Amis, himself a British novelist of some distinction, to paperbacked 007 James Bond, a Report, by O. F. Snelling, and For Bond Lovers Only, a complication of shorter magazine and newspaper effusions by various commentators. Among them, they pinpricked nearly all the technical errors which I had red-pencilled, and made up for the others by throwing in another crop which I had missed. So now I am free to say, without being called personally picayune, that for all his pretensions of thoroughness Fleming indeed spattered his books with boners which have been documented by other students before me. I mean the type of clanger which has a sailor talk about "getting to leeward of the stink" when he means he wants to get away from it; not knowing the medical difference between a fracture and a dislocation, and saying that a Swiss bank would readily confirm whether a certain person had an account with it. Mr. Amis had even beaten me to the dissection of a majestic passage which I had tucked away as a potential grenade: "As a woman, he wanted to sleep with her..." (Casino Royale).
I could multiply these examples, but the job has already been down on a much more comprehensive scale than we have room for here, by experts who also profess to be admirers. But the great and increasingly fascinating question, to me, is: how and why did this Bond character, whose best friends seem to delight in tearing him down, achieve this incontrovertible eminence which he has lately enjoyed?
With an almost fevered desire to find good reasons without truckling to a cult, I have performed spine-cracking backbends in the effort to find something laudable. And I have to confess failure. I cannot with honesty rate James Bond as anything but a tiresome slob. I will acquit him of responsibility for all the environmental errors with which Fleming has burdened him, but for his personal picture we can only refer to Fleming because this is the only text. And this portrait is not one which I can personally admire from any angle. Despite Fleming's own publicized experience in war-time Intelligence, and his plausible preoccupation with the minutiae of the British Secret Service (about which I know precious little), the agent whom he depicts would surely have flunked out of the OSS. For example, this unenlightened clot goes to bed with a pistol under his pillow (the silliest place to keep it, I recall being taught). In the broader plan, he habitually commits tactical blunders which can hardly be diagrammed in much less space than Fleming took to work them out, but which must regularly have his brighter audiences squirming for him. To be sure, no matter what bloopers he makes, he has only the simpletons of SMERSH or SPECTRE or whatever to worry about. In this he is unlike other operators in the field who have had to cope with jeopardy from the Law as well; operators such as the Four Just Men, Bulldog Drummond (with whom Amis and Snelling both persist quite irrelevantly in comparing Bond), or even, if I dare mention him, the Saint.
Is he, then, endearing? Not, apparently, to the devoted commentators who have taken time out from their own work to study him with such profundity. They concede that his material snobberies, the lists of capitalized product and purveyors which make some pages of the books read like thinly disguised radio commercials, may begin to grate on sensitive ears. They admit, not without pride, that "he treats women badly," this being a modern symbol of masculinity and independence, but his selfishness is forgivable because he does physically belt them in the chops, like some of his cruder predecessors.
There is a perilous temptation to theorize from incidental data. The first book of what was to become a sequence of hardy Bond annuals appeared in 1953, and lit no candles in the sky. Nor did the next two, although their sales maintained a reassuring growth. It was in 1957 or '58, as best I can determine from the bibliographies, that the reprints began to accelerate. Then, in 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States, and amid the mass of obiter dicta attributed to him was the statement that his favorite author was Ian Fleming. Immediately the James Bond sales charts rocketed into the upper margin.
This may have been sheer coincidence. President Eisenhower, in his time, was reported to be an avid reader of Westerns, which did nothing perceptible to resuscitate the long declining sale of Westerns in reading (as distinct from movie or television) form. It would be illogical to claim that the Kennedy seal of approval transformed a moderate success, overnight, into a global best-seller.
There is no doubt that the movies triggered and continued to power Bond's second great leap forward. To skillful assemblages of Technicolored hokum, starring an excellent and personable actor, they added a visualization of Bond's women which is still a monument of inspired casting, and which undoubtedly brought the books to the attention of many million people who would otherwise have never opened one. I feel that most of those new-found readers should have been disappointed when they discovered that Fleming's literary style was neither as suspenseful nor as sexy as the technique of the film photographers, yet the book sales suggest that an awe-inspiring percentage of them stayed on to become addicts of the original books. How, then, can we rationally assess the global hysteria which has taken up this Bond cult and given him the biggest sale of any fictional character of our time, a popularity reaching from presidents to peasants, and made him a household word even in countries and cultures utterly alien to everything he stands for?
He is not likeable as a personality (I repeat, I am talking about the James Bond of the books, not Sean Connery) and even the women who are supposed to keel over before his virility never get fond enough in their most passionate moments to call him anything more familiar than "James." His Epicurean veneer still leaves him a Mike Hammer in an Old Etonian tie. He is not clever, he makes the most amateurish mistakes and falls into the oldest and most obvious traps. Finally, he has no sense of humor.
I think the contrast I must make, much as I should have preferred to keep the Saint out of it, is that I have more than once called Simon Templar "a man born out of his time," whereas James Bond is unmistakably and rigidly a man of his time. Ian Fleming was actually a year younger than I, but he did not give birth to Bond until he was 45, long after World War II and even after the Korean sequel. I wrote the first Saint a full generation, 25 years, earlier, when I was under 21. I began in an era when I could be unreservedly fired by the swashbuckling zest of a picture like Douglas Fairbanks' The Three Musketeers, and wished that I would have lived in such a colorful world or that some of its spirit (as interpreted by Fairbanks) could be brought back. Fleming started in middle age, after he must have outgrown any daydreams of that kind. He seems to have shared the disillusion and pragmatism of that decade. The Saint was a deliberate attempt to create a hero in the antique heroic sense: James Bond is the calculated contemporary non-hero, just as the Beatles are non-music--and he is enjoying the same vogue.
Raymond Chandler, a literary landmark in his own right, has called Ian Fleming "the best thriller writer since Eric Ambler"; yet to me Ambler always seemed to preserve some of the romantic glitter which Fleming did his best to extirpate. Fleming set his sights and welded them in place on the last page of his first book (Casino Royale) when, after spending the last third of the book developing the tender side of an affair between Bond and the girl, he has her write what to my old-fashioned sentimentality was a moving confession that she has always been a double agent, but for love of Bond she can't go on, and the only way out for her is the overdose of sleeping pills which she takes. Fleming, irrevocably riding the nouvelle vague which he has adopted for his own, has James Bond speak the most brutal epitaph I have ever read, reporting the incident to his boss: "The bitch is dead now."
This is to me the quintessence of Fleming's contribution to the literature of escape. Instead of using his talents to try in some small way to stem a murky and joyless tide, he dove deep into it. And he shut the escape hatch.
Thanks for posting this @Revelator it’s an interesting read of how jealousy can eat away at the soul because someone else is more successful.
"The Beatles are non-music"???? Must have forgotten his earmuffs.
You're welcome! I had the same reaction you did. Every time I read "The Bond Phenomenon" I repeatedly call BS on poor old Charteris.
And knowing that anything less than fulsome praise could be twisted or selectively misquoted to make me sound snide, petty or jealous...I have always steadfastly declined to answer
A wise rule unwisely disregarded. This article doesn't need any misquoting to make him sound snide, petty, and jealous.
I wish I could disfranchise any dissenting nit-think by stating that I am really immune to "professional jealousy"
To quote Monty Python: "oooh, what a giveaway!"
I must say at once that I am well aware that I, like Ian Fleming, am the creator of another successful continuing character with a world-wide following; a character who also became something of a household word and who inevitably would (and did) evoke comparisons that could hardly hope to avoid a taint of rivalry. I realize that I must probably be talking to the wind when I try to say now that I have outgrown any feeling of competitiveness in my profession
Not just talking to the wind but beating around the bush. It's never a good sign when someone engages in so much throat-clearing. Why doesn't he just come right out and say Bond is enjoying more success on screen and on the best-seller lists than the Saint? The article would be so much better if he just admitted to feeling jealousy.
It's completely understandable that Charteris would have been bitter toward Fleming. He'd created and been writing about a gentleman-tough guy hero decades before Fleming, but the movies treated his hero with much less respect. 1940s Hollywood relegated the Saint to B-movies and programmers, but two decades later Bond was being given something close to A-level treatment. While Bond was ruling the box office the Saint was confined to the less prestigious medium of television. While Charteris was getting burnt out on writing fiction Fleming was selling millions.
When I accepted the present assignment I had to do a crash course of reading...As my notes rapidly accumulated, I discovered that...I was collecting a list of accusations against Fleming as a sloppy writer of English and an ignoramus about a number of subjects, in some of which he tried to present himself as an authority....Fortunately my conscientious research also led to the discovery that the James Bond fad had already generated a (to me) bizarre literature of its own, ranging from The James Bond Dossier...007 James Bond, a Report...and For Bond Lovers Only...Among them, they pinpricked nearly all the technical errors which I had red-pencilled, and made up for the others by throwing in another crop which I had missed.
I find this hilarious. First Charteris says he's embarked on a "crash course" of reading and is assembling a damning list of nitpicks, then he decides to read three books about Bond instead and finds they've done all his work for him! And the result? Four boners. That's the damning evidence of Fleming as a sloppy writer of English and an ignoramus. Not impressive when spread across 14 books, but Charteris tells us "he could multiply these examples." More likely his second-hand reading could. Charteris doesn't give any evidence of having read beyond Casino Royale and a sliver of Goldfinger he mentioned in an interview upthread. He claimed to have deduced the plot after reading two chapters...which is frankly impossible.
how and why did this Bond character, whose best friends seem to delight in tearing him down, achieve this incontrovertible eminence which he has lately enjoyed?
Good-naturedly pointing out a few errors is not the same as tearing down, but the difference probably isn't clear to a jealous writer grasping at straws.
I cannot with honesty rate James Bond as anything but a tiresome slob...the agent whom [Fleming] depicts would surely have flunked out of the OSS. For example, this unenlightened clot goes to bed with a pistol under his pillow...In the broader plan, he habitually commits tactical blunders...no matter what bloopers he makes, he has only the simpletons of SMERSH or SPECTRE or whatever to worry about...He is not likeable as a personality...His Epicurean veneer still leaves him a Mike Hammer in an Old Etonian tie. He is not clever, he makes the most amateurish mistakes and falls into the oldest and most obvious traps. Finally, he has no sense of humor.
This is what the Romans used to call vituperation, the act of trashing your opponent with the most vividly abusive language you can find, no matter if it has little criticism of substance. Bond make mistakes! He sleeps with gun under his pillow! How can anyone like him when the Saint is so much better?! AAARRRRGHHHH!!!!!! [Shakes fist at God and Sean Connery.]
...the devoted commentators...admit, not without pride, that "he treats women badly," this being a modern symbol of masculinity and independence, but his selfishness is forgivable because he does physically belt them in the chops, like some of his cruder predecessors
Fleming's Bond never does this, though movie Bond does. The Charteris crash course plows into reality once more.
I began in an era when I could be unreservedly fired by the swashbuckling zest of a picture like Douglas Fairbanks' [i]The Three Musketeers[/i], and wished that I would have lived in such a colorful world...Fleming started in middle age, after he must have outgrown any daydreams of that kind.
And yet Fleming reference Fairbanks in You Only Live Twice. Putting this aside, if your idea of a hero is from a period silent film made in 1921, why act bitter if the public prefers something less antique?
James Bond is the calculated contemporary non-hero, just as the Beatles are non-music
I guess Connery's Bond and Charteris can agree on something, even if it's one of the dumbest opinions imaginable. Once again the Saint's creator does a great job of not at all sounding like an old fart.
Ambler always seemed to preserve some of the romantic glitter which Fleming did his best to extirpate. Fleming set his sights and welded them in place on the last page of his first book (Casino Royale) when...[he] has James Bond speak the most brutal epitaph I have ever read...Instead of using his talents to try in some small way to stem a murky and joyless tide, he dove deep into it. And he shut the escape hatch.
Perhaps this would sound like a tenable opinion if your crash course consisted of no more than Casino Royale (despite its ending not being representative of the series) and two chapters of Goldfinger. But faulting Fleming for lacking romantic glitter is the opposite of the usual criticism from everybody else, which faults Fleming for having too much glamour and romantic glitter compared to "serious" writers like Ambler and Le Carre. So again, Charteris is talking balls and sounding like a jealous competitor. I imagine his ghost is still raging.
I wouldnt have guessed the two writers are practically the same age. Charteris started writing when he was still a kid. Fleming of course started deep into middle age.
Aside from subject matter theyre really two very different styles of writers. Charteris writes in an old-fashioned discursive storytellers style, whereas Fleming was into the short punchy sentences of Hemingway and Hammett. A much more modern writer. Maybe Charteris looked down on the modern style writing in general, like he looks down on the Beatles?
I don't think there's any shame in his film adaptations having been b-movies. In the 30s and 40s, that's how those types of films were made. The Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films were made in the same format. Broccoli and Saltzman were revolutionary in turning what was once b-movie fare into big budget spectacle, Charteris was just unlucky in the sense his books got adapted too soon, and why feel bad about having his books adapted so much earlier? And the Roger Moore teevee series was high quality for early television, why feel bad about that either?
Charteris was not just outspoken against James Bond. if you check some of the pages in the Episode guide in this Saint fansite, you will find his own comments about individual episodes of his very successful teevee show. He has very little positive to say, he was getting paid good money for script approval and felt his input was being ignored. So maybe he's just cantankerous in general? We should probably also compare with Flemings own book reviews: I remember him saying he didnt like plenty of stuff, but I don't remember him going on at such length or making such petty criticisms.
I think you're right about Charteris probably being as contemptuous of modern writers as modern music. Fleming definitely has the Hammett/Chandler/Hemingway influence, whether Charteris seems to hark back to writers like Rafael Sabatini.
I also agree there's no shame in the Saint adaptations having been B-movies. If Bond had been adapated during the 30s and 40s he would have been given the same treatment. I believe that Charteris resented Johnny-come-lately Fleming was enjoying better treatment at the movies; Bond came along at just the right time to get better than B-movie treatment.
I have no difficulty believing that Charteris was cantankerous. Fleming tended to play it smooth, out of self-interest.
He reads like a pompous twit.