Ian Fleming’s Moonraker (1955)

Review published on October 5, 2012.

I won’t call the film an ‘adaptation’ of Fleming’s book, because even back as a kid in 1979 I knew that the producers had followed the pattern of the previous film in the series and moved Bond completely away from his literary roots. (The films were so different that they were the first to warrant their own movie novelisations by screenwriter Christopher Wood; they were two of my most-thumbed paperbacks back in the days before the films become available to rewatch on VHS, DVD or endless digital channel reruns.)

The reason why The Spy Who Loved Me went so far away from the novel is entirely down to Fleming himself, who didn’t like the story and so forbade any film version of it (although he allowed the title to be used.) In the case of Moonraker it’s more a case that the contents of the novel had simply not aged at all well over a quarter of a century and were by any objective analysis unsuitable for adaptation. Given that basis, how readable is the novel now?

The plot consists of three main strands: the first half of the book has Bond uncovering a card cheat as a favour to M. On paper this has a fair degree of tension, but a game of bridge is hardly going to be cinematic (although Martin Campbell managed an impressive transfer of a game of Texas hold ‘em to the screen in the 2006 film of Casino Royale). The rest of the book features a story involving new missile technology based on German V2 rockets and obsolete by 1979, added to the threat of Nazis seeking revenge for their wartime defeat. That was a real fear when the book was written, less than ten years after the end of World War 2: but by 1979 such a Nazi vengeance notion would have been archaic to a modern audience more used to having the Germans as partners in the EEC.

So what to do? The film makers resorted to essentially repeating the story format from The Spy Who Loved Me, which in turn had used the basic template laid down by Roald Dahl for You Only Live Twice – just going even bigger. Most people regard the film of Moonraker as having gone too far and as a result be one of the weakest Bond cinematic instalments; in passing I have to say that I disagree and that it’s still one of my movie guilty pleasures.

Reading the novel, it’s interesting to see just how much of Fleming’s plot actually weaves itself into the film’s DNA despite the loss of almost all this plot detail. For one thing, the antagonist is still the immensely wealthy Hugo Drax, who is apparently philanthropically using his vast fortune to pull off advanced scientific projects for the good of a grateful nation. In the book, Drax is using his money to fund an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system for nuclear warheads for the UK government; in the film, he’s essentially producing a fleet of space shuttles that the US and UK governments can’t fund themselves. But in both cases, he has his own reasons for underwriting the work.

The plot in the book revolved around fanatical former Nazis seeking revenge on the UK: there are no Nazis in the film, but it does come down to a megalomaniac with designs of reseeding a cleansed planet with a race of hand-picked humans to produce a eugenically perfect super-race. Meanwhile, the Bond girl in both the book and film is a fellow undercover agent: in the film it’s American CIA operative Holly Goodhead, but in the book it’s British Special Branch agent Gala Brand. In both cases there’s initial suspicion and animosity between the two organisations and the agents themselves to overcome, but of course they do team up in the end (although Gala Brand never succumbs to Bond’s charms in the bedroom like Holly Goodhead does.)

One of Fleming’s trademarks in his books is to make Bond suffer: his 007 is no superhuman, but suffers pain and agony during his missions (although just short of any debilitating injuries that might stop him from completing the mission or returning for the next in the series.) Toward the climax of the book, he and Gala Brand narrowly escape being cooked by the rocket exhaust discharge as the missile takes off, a sequence picked up by the film makers during a space shuttle launch although there Bond escapes using another special agent gizmo rather than gritting through the pain.

All in all, it’s surprising how much of the book feeds into the film after all. At the same time, the book has a very different feel as a whole. For one thing, while the film jets from California to Venice, Rio de Janeiro to the Amazon and then into outer space, the book never leaves London and the Home Counties, with the climax taking place on the English coast above the white cliffs of Dover. For those of us with an image of 007 as the globe trotting international spy, this is all unexpectedly cosy and domestic.

What’s most surprising about Fleming’s book is that even 58 years after it was written it’s still as readable as it is. Sure, some of the details feel like they belong in the history books – especially the astonishingly quaint section of Bond racing Drax through the Kent country roads which are positively Dick Barton-esque. But it still zips along at a reasonable pace, delivers using a sparse prose style, and never outstays its welcome but is instead a quick, easy and effective read.

Since Fleming’s day there have been a glut of books that conform to that style: Alistair Maclean was an early exponent, then there was Clive Cussler, and now it would be Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels that are surely the best of the bunch and the modern day equivalent of the Bond series. But Fleming did it first, and caused quite a stir with his ‘sensationalist’ writing presentation and overtly brutal and sexual topics. While the Bond books wouldn’t stand out in today’s crowd (in fact they’d be a bit of a wallflower compared with most popular fiction) and the plot details really are as archaic as the filmmakers realised in 1979, Fleming’s farsightedness in creating this new muscular writing style means than at least it’s entirely possible to still read and enjoy them even well into the 21st century.

That’s no mean feat. Whether in print or on screen, it seems that James Bond still has it, and will be worth returning to for a good while yet to come.


R.I.P. Eric Hobsbawm


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