Ian Fleming wrote twelve Bond novels. Each was made into a movie, and it’s those movies we’re considering now. The short-story adaptations aren’t allowed in the contest. They wouldn’t win anyway.
I love all twelve movies. And yes, I’ve seen Moonraker (1979)—fine wine it’s not, but it gets the job done. So picking a favorite is tough.
I’m tempted to call it for Casino Royale (2006). Having spent a good chunk of my 1980s-era adolescence with my nose buried in musty Bond paperbacks, I humor myself with the idea that I know a good Bond when I see one. Daniel Craig is damn good. The script is also terrific—faithful in spirit to Fleming’s novel but deftly replacing a Cold War villain with a thoroughly modern evildoer. But there’s one book-based Bond movie that, though flawed, is better still.
It’s not On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). That’s where Bond, played by George Lazenby, briefly gets married. But I’ll give it an honorable mention.
As for all those Roger-Moore-as-Bond movies, four of which were adapted from the novels? Well, I’m grateful to Mr. Moore for enlivening my teenage years, but the spy I know from Fleming’s books is made of far rougher stuff; he’s a man of “decision, authority, ruthlessness” with a “cruel mouth” and a “scar down his right cheek.”
Which brings me the novel From Russia With Love, from which those descriptions were lifted. The premise is simple: a beautiful Russian honey trap wants Bond to help her defect with a Soviet decoding machine. Bond agrees to do it despite the risk. Madness ensues.
It’s a taut, blisteringly fast read that’s also deeply political; the villains work for SMERSH, which Fleming, a former British naval intelligence agent, claimed was real and described as, “the official murder organization of the Soviet government.” Fleming also wrote freely of Soviet atrocities—“mass executions of the 1930s…bloody genocide in the Central Caucasus…” There’s a reason, beyond the descriptions of scantily clad women, that John F. Kennedy famously listed the novel as a favorite.
The 1963 Sean Connery movie that was based on the novel, however, tries not to be so overtly political. Nuclear war between the US and Soviet Union had almost broken out during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and Albert Broccoli, the film’s producer, didn’t want to poke a hornets’ nest. So instead of the Soviets being the bad guys, in the movie it’s SPECTRE, an apolitical criminal organization led by archvillain Ernst Blofeld. He’d be the guy who’s always stroking a white Siamese cat.
This was unfortunate. While the villain update in Casino Royale worked perfectly, the Austin Powers/Dr. Evil cat-stroking scenes have a pasted-on, fig-leaf quality to them. Yes, SPECTRE was Fleming’s creation and played a huge role in the later Bond books. But the movie’s title—it’s From Russia With Love, not From SPECTRE With Love—suggests the change was halfhearted. Most of the villains remained, not coincidently, Russian. Wink, wink! The good news is that the pasted-on parts are short and the bulk of the movie—much of it filmed on location in Istanbul—is just stunning.
When I say stunning, I’m thinking of scenes like the one where ex-SMERSH dominatrix Rosa Klebb (remember the brass knuckles and bottle-bottom glasses?), kicks madly at Bond with her spiked shoe; or the scene in which Corporal Tatiana Romanova (played by a former Miss Universe runner-up) appears in Bond’s bed wearing only a black-velvet choker; and I’m thinking especially of that breathtaking scene where Bond and a master assassin beat the piss out of each other on the Orient Express. The dim night lights flicker, the sound of fists hitting flesh blends with the steady throb of the train bumping over rail joiners on the track…it’s transcendent. And when I watch it, I think, this is Bond at his best.
So From Russia With Love it is—my pick for the best Bond book-to-movie adaptation. Just pretend SPECTRE is SMERSH when you watch it and all will be well.
If you’ve had your fill of Bond, though, here are two more fantastic book-based spy movies:
Syriana (2005). Adapted from See No Evil the eye-opening memoir by ex-CIA operative Bob Baer. Sure, it doesn’t have a plot—but with George Clooney in the lead, it doesn’t need one. Expect thrilling and realistic glimpses into the intelligence underworld.
Three Days of the Condor (1975). Adapted from the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady. All hell breaks loose when a low-level CIA analyst, played by Robert Redford, stumbles upon his murdered colleagues. Moral ambiguities abound.