Before Daniel Craig’s turn as 007, moviegoers were thrilled with James Bond’s on-screen adventures, revelling in his world of fast cars, faster women and deadly assassins. Film fans knew Bond as a character larger than life, a man who dispatches attackers without spilling his martini, has a witty rejoiner for any situation and gets any woman he wants.
However, readers know a different version of the character. For them, the true James Bond is not the superhero of Hollywood, but rather the dark bitter, vice-ridden assassin Ian Fleming created in the 1953 novel Casino Royale. Craig’s turn was the most authentic to date of the literary character on screen, but the fictional novel side of Bond has always been more diverse.
Fleming’s work had a moderate but devoted following, which rose dramatically when John F. Kennedy announced his fascination with the series.
In total, he produced 12 novels and nine short stories about Bond, most of which have been filmed by Eon Productions. Upon his death, Kingsley Amis was hired to write a follow-up tale, Colonel Sun, released in 1968, but no other Bond novels appeared until 1981 when John Gardner brought Bond into the ’80s with License Renewed.
Though some bristled at changes made to Bond’s character (Gardner made him younger than his actual age for credibility’s sake and borrowed several film elements), the novel met with success, and Gardner went on to write 13 more original novels and two film novelisations before retiring in 1996.
Enter Raymond Benson, a west Texas-born composer, writer and game designer whose encyclopedic James Bond Bedside Companion was widely regarded as the definitive book on the James Bond phenomenon.
His role-playing adventure You Only Live Twice II: Back Of Beyond was published by Victory Games as part of the James Bond 077 Role-Playing Game, and he wrote text-based interactive video games based on Goldfinger and A View To A Kill.
Benson was hired to continue writing the 007 novels in 1996. His first novel, Zero Minus Ten, appeared the following year and was serialised by Playboy, which also published his short story “Blast From The Past” that same year.
He rounded out 1997 with the novelisation of Tomorrow Never Dies. His second original novel, The Facts Of Death, appeared in 1998 (also excerpted in Playboy), followed by a second short story, “Midsummer Night’s Doom,” a third original novel, High Time To A Kill, and the novelisation of The World Is Not Enough, all in 1999.
Benson’s original aspirations involved the theatre. After graduating in 1978 from the University of Texas at Austin with a BFA in Directing, he moved to New York City.
He spent several years directing and composing music in the off-off-Broadway and off-Broadway arenas. Noted Benson, “One day, some friends and I were sitting around and the discussion came to ‘What sort of book would you write if you had to?’
My answer – a book about James Bond, mainly because I was so knowledgeable about the subject.” His father had taken him to see Goldfinger when he was nine years old, he said, which “hooked” him on Bond forever. Quickly devouring Fleming’s novels by age 11, Benson kept up with “all things Bond” on into adulthood. Thus was born the Companion, which took three years to complete and established him as a Bond expert worldwide.
While writing the book, and during his six years as Vice President of the American James Bond 007 Fan Club, Benson became friendly with Peter Janson-Smith at Glidrose Publications (the copyright holders to the literary Bond) and the Fleming family. These connections afforded him the chance to take over from Gardner.
Fleming served in the British Navy and was known to have been a womaniser and drinker like his famous suer-spy, but Benson calls himself “a normal guy,” adding, “I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have some of the experiences in life that Ian Fleming had, but I think I’m able to draw upon the spirit and mood that he created and go my own way from there.
A good imagination helps, I suppose. To write science fiction, an author doesn’t have to be an astronaut.” To this end, Benson researches all locations appearing in his novels and says he attempts to recreate the flavour of Fleming’s famous restaurant menus, dining sequences, and detailed gambling scenes.
“I travel to all locations in my books that I can and experience a lot of stuff that ends up in the books. My wife read Zero Minus Ten and said, ‘Wow, it’s our trip to Hong Kong and China… only with danger!”
This is one reason Benson prefers writing original material over writing film novelisations. “They’re the author’s work, from conception and storyline to the finished product.
That’s not to say that novelisations can’t be fun to do. I had a blast doing Tomorrow Never Dies, the main difference, of course, is that the storyline, the outline, so to speak, is given.” His original work, he says, is much more involved.
Gildrose requires an outline for each novel, which he considers extremely useful though he admits it’s the most challenging part of the entire process.
“My outlines are 15 pages or so of prose – broken out chapter by chapter – describing everything that happens in the book. Coming up with a plot is extremely difficult because so much has already been done!”
Once the outline is finished (which takes him two to three months), he travels, researches his locations, and then comes back to write the novel, which he delivers nearly nine months before publication. The entire process lasts about a year and a half for each book.
Benson has a vast canon to draw upon for his books. Preferring not to reference the role-playing game or comics based on James Bond or the Christopher Wood novelisations of Moonraker and The Spy Who Loved Me, he finds the 32 novels and story collections more than enough to remember.
“It’s harder than one would imagine, even for someone who knows the books fairly well. There are little mistakes here and there – we’ve all made them. Even Fleming!”
To illustrate, Benson cites The Facts Of Death; “I had the head of MI6 office in athens as Stuart Thomas, who had been created by Kingsley Amis in Colonel Sun. What I forgot was that Stuart Thomas is ‘missing and presumed dead,’ a speculation buried somewhere in the last quater of that book!”
Luckily, Benson has the freedom to pick and choose what to use or ignore from previous books, so minor errors are not a big problem.
For instance, though Gardner made Bond a Captain in Win, Lose Or Die, Benson felt “Commander Bond” sounded better and demoted him again.
“There was an explanation somewhere that indicated that Bond’s promotion to Captain was only temporary for that assignment,” recalled Benson,
“but I think it got edited out.” What has been problematic is Bond’s age. Fleming’s Bond served in World War II, yet Benson is supposed to be writing about the same character!
Benson (and Gardner before him) chose to deal with this dilemma the same way Eon has in the films – namely, to ignore it altogether. “We’re dealing with an ageless Bond now; characters like Bond go through time warps as they continue over the years. Superman and Batman have been around since the ’30s; talk about old!”
Bond’s age is not the only aspect in which Benson’s books have paralleled the movies; another is the plot, something Benson admits freely.
“The influence of the Bond films on my books is unaviodable. And yes, I do attempt inject some of the flavour of the films into them intentionally. There are many readers who are not familiar with the original novels and only know Bond from the movies.
They expect some of the more fantastic elements; the gadgetry, the action. Gildrose and the publishers, I think, feel these things need to be there as well. It’s a stylistic approach that we all agree on.”
Benson considers himself a “purist,” preferring Fleming’s original novels to the filmed versions. He would welcome the chance to write a Bond film and grants, “You can’t argue with success.
The films are what made Bond the icon he is today, and they are what initally got me into Bond. I love the films, even the ones that aren’t so great.”
After Benson finished his run on the Bond series, with the novelisation of Die Another Day in 2002, the series took a breather. Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher novels, was reportedly approached twice by Gildrose to write a Bond novel, but he turned them down.
Sebastian Faulks eventually took up the challenge after being commissioned to write the next novel with a publication date of 2008 to mark the centenary of Ian Fleming’s birth.
Faulks has said of the commission: “I’d just finished Human Traces, and it seemed ridiculous. You’ve just spent five years in a Victorian lunatic asylum and then you go on to James Bond.
But I think their hope is they’ll get two markets. The more I think about it, the more I think it was clever of them, because the mismatch is intriguing”. Devil May Care became an immediate best-seller in the UK, selling 44,093 hardback copies within four days of release.
The Observer’s review of the novel stated: “Faulks has done in some ways an absolutely sterling job. He has resisted pastiche” and blamed the book’s weaknesses on the character of Bond as created by Fleming.
In 2011, Jeffery Deaver released Carte Blanche, bringing Bond into the 21st century. Deaver stated that his Bond would have been born in 1979, making him a veteran of the war in Afghanistan (Operation Herrick) instead of a World War II veteran and Cold War secret agent as initially conceived by creator Ian Fleming.
William Boyd continued the series in 2013 with the best-selling Solo. Boyd closely based his version of the Bond character on Ian Fleming’s and eschewed any of the film versions.
The novel was set in 1969—six years after Fleming’s last work was set—and Bond is 45 years old. Solo sold nearly 9,000 copies in its first week, although that was 48% down on Deaver’s Carte Blanche and even further behind Sebastian Faulks’s 2008 book Devil May Care.
In October 2014, it was announced that Anthony Horowitz was to write a further Bond instalment. The novel, titled Trigger Mortis, is set in the 1950s and contains material written but previously unreleased by Fleming.
In February 2018, it was announced that a second Horowitz novel, again building upon unpublished Fleming and this time a prequel to Casino Royale, titled Forever and a Day.
Horowitz released his third and, so far, final Bond novel in May 2022, titled, With A Mind To Kill, which is a sequel to Fleming’s The Man With A Golden Gun set in 1965.
With a new on-screen 007 soon to be announced following Daniel Craig’s retirement from the franchise, the world of Bond is still going strong, both on and off-screen. Would Ian Fleming approve of some of the versions of James Bond that have come along? Probably not. But the movie-going public and the novel-reading masses are still James Bond mad.