Thursday, August 22, 2013

Book vs. Film: Casino Royale (1953/2006)

    “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning…”


    Rumor has it that the birth of James Bond happened one evening in Portugal when Ian Fleming and a colleague found themselves opposite two mysterious men at a gambling table. Fleming’s overactive imagination immediately pegged them as devious Nazi agents, and the friendly game of cards became in his mind a battle of wits and wills against enemy saboteurs. He later put that imagination to good use, penning his first novel Casino Royale in 1952 and creating a character who would be internationally famous in the process. The central conceit of having to gamble against enemy spies to bankrupt them is a bit ridiculous when given any measure of thought, but a perfect setting for the sort of overheated and lascivious spy tale that Fleming would later become famous for.

    Although popular, Casino Royale was never officially adapted into a film in the Eon series. Fleming first sold the rights to CBS, who adapted the novel for their weekly broadcast in live-action series Climax!, which although somewhat faithful, was still heavily modified for American audiences. Further legal entanglements led to the 1967 parody Casino Royale, which boasted one of the most impressive casts for a comedy but was otherwise completely nonsensical. By the time Eon got the rights to Fleming’s original novel, the producers were eager for a fresh take on the character. The Brosnan years played themselves out in due time, and the post-9/11 shenanigans of the likes of Jason Bourne made the classic film iteration of Bond somewhat dated and stale, so the decision was made to start from scratch and reboot the character from the ground up - and what better way to reintroduce their new Bond than with the story that started it all in the first place.

    Although heavily modified and updated for the post-millennial period, 2006’s Casino Royale remained pretty faithful to Fleming’s original novel, both in plot and overall tone. The Eon series by this point had long since given up any attempt to remain true to Fleming’s original vision for Bond, as the character portrayed in the films had already taken on a certain iconic status, and how seriously he was portrayed depended largely upon the actor playing him and the era in which the film was released. The character had seen and lived through it all, going from the cutting edge of cool to the lame remnants of self-parody, and back, over and over again. For Casino Royale, the decision was made to focus not on the latest villain and his/her scheme, nor the latest hot actress to become the new “Bond Girl,” but rather to place the focus squarely back on 007 himself, and fashion the character a little bit closer to the way he was originally written.

    Reading Casino Royale today remains a shocking experience, for many reasons. It’s still violent and wonderfully lurid, although the nastier bits are written in such a way that much is left up to the reader’s imagination, if only just so. Fleming’s worst tendencies are also on display: the sexism, the ridiculous jingoism, Fleming’s own Imperial, elitist attitudes (although the book is almost completely free of racism - that would show up in later installments). But what’s most surprising is how thoughtful Fleming is in the portrayal - almost as if he’s wrestling with his own snobbish, Imperialist attitudes on the page. Consider the moment in the novel following Bond’s torture at the hands of Le Chiffre, when Bond considers leaving MI6 in a chapter entitled “The Nature of Evil:”
    “…this country right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date. Today we are fighting Communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”
    Of course, all of Bond’s philosophizing is rendered moot the moment Vesper’s betrayal is revealed, and his commitment to eradicating those dirty commies for Queen and Country is revitalized, but the fact Fleming makes such insights along the way shows a depth not generally thought of in conjunction with his main character.

    Fleming’s Bond is every bit as charming and dangerous as his screen counterpart, but is often beset with equal measures of self-doubt and overconfidence, and far from the untouchable superhuman he became in later big-screen installments. Fleming puts his hero through the ringer, both physically and emotionally - at times seeming to loathe Bond just as much as his villains do. Indeed, sometimes the character of Bond exists as an outlet for Fleming’s own self-loathing. The character could be seen as something of a wish-fulfillment on the author’s part (and probably was, to some extent), but Fleming puts him through so much torment and anguish you’d never once imagine him wanting to trade places with his most famous creation - almost as if the author were admonishing himself for indulging his fantasies in such a way.

    Bringing this character to the screen would be no easy feat, considering most of Bond’s struggle goes on entirely in his head and would be hard to convey in the visuals that film requires. And it would be even harder for the character’s reinvention for the screen, considering everyone in the world at that point knows James Bond and what he’s all about. By casting Daniel Craig as 007, the filmmakers found the absolute perfect choice for this iteration of the character. First of all was the look - the complete opposite of nearly every actor to play the role previously with his blonde hair and rugged appearance helped Craig to immediately distinguish himself from the pack. But more importantly the filmmakers’ found in Craig the right blend of ruthlessness and vulnerability - Craig’s Bond could surely handle almost any situation he found himself in, but not before taking a beating on all fronts. Consider the way every action scene in the film leaves Bond shaken at the end - one particularly violent encounter leaves Bond gulping down Scotch in a bathroom while shakily looking at himself in the mirror, not entirely pleased with what he finds there. The inner monologue of Bond’s self-loathing isn’t there to read, but we see it all through Craig’s eyes; a wonderful performance that captures the depressive and alcoholic tendencies of the character hiding behind the dry wit and seemingly refined exterior.

    The most significant and necessary change for 2006’s Casino Royale is the updating of the story to the present day. Fleming’s original book (and character) was so rooted in the Cold War that it seemed impossible to set the novel in any other time period than the 1950’s (even Quentin Tarantino planned to keep the original setting intact when he talked up doing his own adaptation). But Cold War paranoia and post-9/11 angst proved to be a pretty close match, so by replacing the Soviets with shady terrorist organizations the filmmakers’ found the perfect way in which to update the storyline. In Fleming’s novels, Bond was routinely squared off against agents of SMERSH, a real-life Russian intelligence organization whose full name translates roughly as “Death to All Spies.” The later novels were replaced by the more ambiguous SPECTRE, an international consortium of criminals and warmongers. SPECTRE replaced SMERSH for all of the Eon films, presumably not to sour international relations with the USSR at the time (although all of SPECTRE’s agents routinely turn out to be Soviets). The film of Casino Royale follows much the same path: instead of some Islamic fundamentalist group, the terrorists all work for some mysterious, unnamed global organization (later revealed to be Quantum in the disappointingly vague Quantum of Solace) who provide services to destabilize governments and global corporations alike.

    Working for both SMERSH and Quantum is Le Chiffre, their banker who likes to gamble and as a result winds up in serious debt to his criminal overlords - forcing him to arrange a high-stakes game of baccarat to win enough to pay off his debts. Fleming made no bones about his villains being evil for evil’s sake, but still managed to fill them with fascinating complexity from time to time. Le Chiffre is a bad apple no doubt, but he’s not quite the mustache-twirler one would expect based on the jingoism Fleming often filled his novels with. Le Chiffre brutally tortures Bond towards the end of the novel, but takes no special joy or satisfaction in doing so - he’s merely achieving a means to an end. Despite coming at his villains from a relatable place, Fleming routinely made them deformed or grotesque in some way - hewing closely to the trope started centuries ago that suggested deformity on the outside meant the individual’s soul was somehow corrupted. Here Le Chiffre is asthmatic, and often grotesquely snorts from an inhaler, causing Bond and the other Baccarat players all manner of discomfort when forced to watch. This is kept for the film, along with added details like the scar over Le Chiffre’s eye that occasionally causes him to weep blood - a Fleming-esque touch that surprisingly isn’t part of the original character. The filmmakers’ again struck gold by casting the Danish actor Mads Mikkelson, who has a handsomely sleazy quality that’s perfect for the role, and is also able to keep the relatability of Fleming’s villain - scenes such as where the Ugandan general threatens to cut off Le Chiffre’s girlfriend’s arm illustrate just how deep in over his head the character is, and Mikkelson’s performance underlies the sweaty determination to get his money back at any cost whatsoever.

    Another major change is the game Le Chiffre orchestrates which acts as the centerpiece of both the novel and film - the film changes the game of chance from baccarat to Texas Hold’em poker. Although it’s hard to imagine Fleming’s Bond lowering himself to play poker, the change is a smart one on the filmmakers’ part, as taking the time to explain the more obscure game of baccarat would have been tedious and brought the film screeching to a halt. Regardless, the scene is the best part of both the novel and film, as Le Chiffre and Bond square off against each other over a hand of cards. Both versions are interrupted by spurts of violence (a fistfight and poisoning in the film, and the threat of death by a bullet-shooting walking cane in the novel), but most exciting are the tense moments were the fate of both characters’ lie in the drawing of a card. Even readers/viewers not as familiar with the rules of either game will be riveted, as the stakes are promptly set up and clearly portrayed as Bond loses everything, only to come back in the end and win it all. It’s a stunning sequence, perfectly adapted for the film.          
    The other changes come about through fleshing out the story’s beginning. It’s strange how the Bond films are often fairly lengthy for action-adventure movies, while Fleming’s novels were often quite short - the novel starts off with Le Chiffre organizing the game and jumps right into it from there, whereas the film adds some narrative to the beginning, showing how Le Chiffre is bankrupted and Bond’s part in it. This not only allows the film to include some classic set-pieces in the great Bond tradition (including the jaw-dropping opening chase, which includes some of the best stunt-work of the series - and that’s saying something), but also helps to make Le Chiffre into more of a fully-rounded character. The characters overall are far more layered in their portrayals in the film - Giancarlo Giannini is wonderful as Bond’s French counterpart Rene Mathis, capturing his good-natured and capable spirit form the novel and adding to it tenfold. Jeffrey Wright also nails the role of Felix Leiter, often the blandest of the bland in Fleming’s stories, but is brought to life and made cooler-than-cool by Wright’s performance in only a handful of scenes. There’s also the changing of M to a woman, although that change had been in place for years at that point with the casting of Judi Dench in Goldeneye. Here Dench really gets to come alive in the role, unshackled by the nonsensical plots of the previous films and finally getting the chance to play the head of MI6 to its fullest.

    But the change the film benefits the most from are the alterations made to the woman who steals Bond’s heart, Vesper Lynd. A criticism one could level at both the novel and film is that it ends once the card game is over, but then slows and drags out the narrative to show Bond falling in love with Vesper. But the dragged-out ending is necessary for the story of Casino Royale, which is noir all the way to it’s red-blooded, black-hearted core. Vesper’s betrayal of Bond is crucial to the idea of male emasculation central to all noir, although the film arrives at a more poignant end than the brutal starkness of Fleming’s novel. As played by the marvelous Eva Green, Vesper is vastly improved upon from the novel. Quiet and demure, it’s hard to see what exactly Bond falls so hard for in Fleming’s story (to the point where he’s willing to quit MI6), but Green’s portrayal of the character makes it all but impossible for Bond not to fall head over heels. It’s all perfectly portrayed in the character’s introductory scene, where the two immediately size each other up in an exchange of increasingly flirty banter. Green’s Vesper wasn’t immediately taken by Bond’s charm, and as a result the character and the resulting relationship with 007 is richer - making Bond’s heartbreak at the end all the more affecting. In the novel, Vesper is essentially a placeholder - she’s there to fulfill the role of the love interest and facilitate Bond’s heartbreak by the end. Her betrayal acts as a catalyst for Bond’s renewed fight in the unending war against communism - and should be obvious to anyone reading it for the first time, a detail that‘s smoothed over in the film by having Mathis be the red herring for her betrayal. The author and his main character possess little sympathy for her in the end, as both proclaim in the final line of the book: “The job’s over. The bitch is dead *.” And while that line is repeated in the film, it’s immediately followed by the revelation that Vesper traded her own life for the sake of Bond’s - which not only clears up a rather incongruous plot contrivance from Fleming’s novel (why the SMERSH assassin doesn’t just kill Bond after offing le Chiffre), but also makes Vesper far more sympathetic. In the end, both here and in Craig’s follow-up Quantum of Solace, Bond learns not only to be careful who he lets in, but also to forgive.


    Although the self-loathing of his own fears and desires and his exciting prose make Fleming’s book an enjoyable read, the 2006 film of Casino Royale is better in just about every way: with richer characters and the relationships between them, Casino Royale winds up not just being the best Bond movie, but one of the best spy movies, period.

    * The misogyny found in Fleming’s novels should come as no surprise to anyone, but is still shocking all these years later, such as the way Bond refers to Vesper as the “silly bitch,” or the moment Bond fantasizes that having sex with Vesper will carry with it “the sweet tang of rape,” which is just about the most horrible thing ever.

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