From Book to Screen: “Casino Royale”
“THE SCENT and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable, and the senses awake and revolt from it.”
This is how Ian Fleming introduced us to the world of James Bond in his 1953 debut novel, Casino Royale. We learn throughout the novel of Bond’s background; he served as a naval intelligence officer during World War II where he proved himself more than capable. Fleming explains the basic machinations of MI-6, embellished of course with lots of cloak and dagger stuff borne of his own imagination.
Fleming knew about such things from firsthand experience. He served during World War II as Personal Assistant to Director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey. Fleming oversaw 30 Assault Unit, a special division of commandos tasked with covert operations. During one expedition to meet with American intelligence operatives, Godfrey and Fleming visited a casino in Lisbon. After leaving the table empty-handed, Fleming imaginatively mused, “What if those men had been German secret service agents, and suppose we had cleaned them out of their money; now that would have been exciting.”
At another point during the war, Fleming was brought to Jamaica. He instantly fell in love with the place and resolved to establish a home there after the war, which he did (click here to see what he named it!). Years later, when the confirmed bachelor finally wed, he harnessed his pre-nuptial jitters and made good on another wartime pledge: to “write the spy novel of all spy novels.” Fleming biographer John Pearson records that Fleming first sat at his typewriter on the morning of 15 January 1952, though biographer Andrew Lycett argues anecdotal evidence from Ian’s wife, Ann, about a visit from Noel Coward puts the earliest date at 16 February. Regardless, we know that the first draft was finished 18 March 1952, and that it first appeared on book shelves 13 April 1953 with a cover designed by Fleming himself.
The premise of Casino Royale is simple enough: Le Chiffre is an agent of SMERSH, the enforcer arm of Russian intelligence, and he’s been rather foolish with their money. (In fairness to him, he had just put it into opening a chain of brothels just before France outlawed them. Coulda happened to anyone.) In his desperation, he is going to attempt to recoup his losses in a high stakes tournament of baccarat at Royale-les-Eaux. To sabotage his plans, ‘M.’ sends the best card player in the British secret service, James Bond, to see that Le Chiffre leaves unable to repay his debts.
It is a somewhat sadistic novel. Certainly, it’s no more graphic today than what passes for casual entertainment (looking at you, Law & Order: SVU), but for readers in 1953 it was more than sufficient to raise some eyebrows. Indeed, the sadism prevalent throughout Fleming’s Bond thrillers was sufficient to earn the disapproval of the Pope, which stood until John F. Kennedy cited From Russia, with Love as one of his ten favorite books in a TIME interview and Bond experienced a boon – including many new Catholic readers.
The history of the film rights is a bit messy, but the short version is that Fleming sold the rights to Casino Royale as a separate deal from the rest of his Bond series. The first screen version was actually an abridged teleplay for CBS’s series, Climax! The Casino Royale episode aired 21 October 1954 and gave us Barry Nelson as Jimmy Bond, an American agent. Though the production scarcely covers the entirety of the novel (it was broadcast live, which imposed obvious constraints), and Americanized what content does appear on screen, what is shown is more or less remarkably faithful to the corresponding passages in Fleming’s novel. Peter Lorre is particularly smarmy as LeChiffre, and it’s a shame he didn’t get the chance to play the role in a big budget version of the story.
Subsequently, Charles K. Feldman came to own the rights to Casino Royale and after seeing the runaway success enjoyed by the Eon productions series of Bond pictures, he put together financing to bring the first Bond novel to the big screen. His efforts to collaborate with Eon producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were rebuffed, in large part because they were already weary from having to deal with Kevin McClory over the rights to Thunderball. Having to go it alone, Feldman reached out to Sean Connery, hoping to at least bring some legitimacy to his production. Connery’s asking price (an unprecedented $1 million) was too much for Feldman, and so rather than produce a pale imitation of the Eon series, Feldman elected instead to use the opportunity to create a parody of the franchise proper.
Ever mindful that one of the keys to the success of Bond was its celebration of lavish excess, Feldman sought to recruit as many high profile directors and actors as possible. Eventually, the plan became to have five different segments made, each by its own director, and that they would somehow tell a cohesive narrative. The production quickly became a circus, known as a punch line in the industry long before it ever saw the light of day. Val Guest was eventually asked by Feldman to try to construct something sensible out of it all and he did what he could but the final product bears only a superficial resemblance to Fleming’s novel or even the Bond mythos as established elsewhere in print or on screen. Feldman’s Casino Royale opened 14 April 1967, a day after the novel’s 14th anniversary. It was a flop, and afterwards he was known to have said to Connery, “I should have paid you the million.”
For 39 years, fans of Ian Fleming’s first novel had to content themselves with these two screen adaptations. Finally, the rights were in the hands of Eon Productions and a proper screen version was possible. Eon’s Casino Royale was a complete reboot of the Bond franchise, establishing Daniel Craig as the latest actor to play Fleming’s protagonist. Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, joined by Paul Haggis, managed to update the story while simultaneously retaining its essence and meat. In fact, some of the dialog is taken directly from the pages of Fleming’s novel. In the stead of SMERSH, Le Chiffre is established as owing money to a non-descript terrorist organization.
Fleming tells us that Bond’s Double-O status indicates two confirmed kills in the course of duty; the 2006 film shows them to us. That they bear no resemblance to the incidents described by Fleming is of no consequence (though, as a footnote, readers might be interested to know that Fleming himself personally participated in an operation that he cited as one of Bond’s outings). The film opened 17 November 2006 to very positive reviews and a robust take. According to Box Office Mojo, Casino Royale was the highest grossing Bond release until its 2008 follow-up, Quantum of Solace and when prices are adjusted for inflation, it stands at #9.
The screen history of Casino Royale traces the evolution of Bond himself. When Barry Nelson hit TV screens in 1954, Fleming had only written the first two novels. Viewers who can get past the truncation and Americanization of the production will still recognize the core of the novel and the mythos. The 1967 parody may be entirely outside the realm of Bond as we know it, but there’s something about the runaway nature of the film that seems to embody the ever-present temptation to make Bond “bigger and better” that has gotten out of hand on occasion. The 2006 film is what readers wanted for 43 years: a (mostly) faithful screen version that celebrates what Fleming began in that nauseating casino.
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