This is the director’s cut of my original essay about Dr. No. It has been enhanced for your reading pleasure. (Also, welcome #BeyondTheCover blogathonners!)
Of [In]human #Bond_age_ #1: Dr. No and Adaptation: How a Giant Squid Helped Define James Bond
by James David Patrick
Adaptation is a tenuous, often thankless creative endeavor. A screenwriter’s given a pre-existing project, most often a book, and told to adapt a complex, multilayered narrative for the big screen. The result, by nature, is a comparatively brutish, SportsCenter highlight clip reel of the novelist’s original intent. If the screenwriter dares to make innovative choices to streamline the original work, she risks alienating the pre-existing fanbase that catalyzed the adaptation in the first place. Budget limitations, eccentric actors, demanding studio heads also insert themselves into the equation, more often than not further limiting creativity. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote and directed an entire movie about his tortured inability to adapt Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief into a feature film. Kaufman turns his character’s writer’s block into a quasi-thriller that blends fact with fiction and blurs the lines of reality. Charlie Kaufman is also one of only a handful of people in the entire business of moviemaking that would be given the creative freedom to combine adaptation and fabulist memoir in a wide release feature film.
To use a recent example of high-stakes adaptation (that resulted in far less hallucinatory delirium), consider the cinematic choices made at the beginning of the Harry Potter series. Consider how those choices carried on throughout the eight-movie cycle, the design of the Hogwarts castle, the casting choices for primary roles, the score, etc. With only a few exceptions director Christopher Columbus’ stylistic decisions in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone remained throughout the seven-film cycle. Even though Harry Potter screenwriters defaulted to J.K. Rowling’s books as narrative blueprints whenever possible, the movies required concrete visual and aural choices to translate a book to the big screen. These are the images the mind’s eye filled in while reading the books. Nobody saw the same Hogwarts or the same Ronald Weasley, no matter how vividly Rowling’s prose conveyed the stuff of her imagination.
While anticipation for the first James Bond movie did not rival that of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Dr. No, nonetheless, required some calculated decisions on the part of its tag-team producers, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli. Where the Potter team had unlimited visual possibilities through CGI technology and an inherently screen-ready source material, the screenwriters for the first James Bond adaptation had only a character molded from the id of Ian Fleming. A character that populated a series of spy novels with unfilmable scenes of sex, nudity and, with regard to Dr. No in particular, a climactic fight with a giant cephalopod. More importantly, the James Bond of the Fleming novels was troubled, nuanced and a bit morose — an intolerant and unlikeable character that was to be shoehorned into a film that aspired to be escapist, mainstream fare.
The world fell madly in love with a sociopath
Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. (Cubby) Broccoli formed Eon Productions with the express intent of turning these Ian Fleming novels into a series of movies. Or at least they understood the long term potential of Fleming’s tales. It wasn’t in either man’s nature to think small. First they had to convince a studio with deep pockets to likewise believe in the potential of James Bond. After a stinging rejection from Columbia Pictures, Cubby Broccoli followed his own Hollywood connections to the office of Arthur Krim, head of United Artists. Krim was known as a financier who wrote checks and trusted his creative talent to make the movies, a quality that most likely attracted the independent-minded Broccoli and Saltzman to UA in the first place. Krim agreed to a one million dollar budget for the first James Bond film, a modest budget for an action-adventure film with ambitions as lofty as these. UA suggested that the largely one-location Dr. No would best serve the budgetary limitations. To put this financial commitment in some kind of historical perspective, United Artists’ bankrolled its highest grossing picture in 1962, The Manchurian Candidate, to the tune of $2.2 million. The John Frankenheimer classic thriller featured an A-list cast, but modest requirements for effects and set design.
Eon Productions may not have considered a 24-film series (and counting), but they certainly understood that the choices made in Dr. No regarding Bond’s character could terminate the series before it even began. The original deal had been to produce six James Bond features for UA. Perhaps due to his ill health, Ian Fleming stood back and let Eon haggle over details. Broccoli meanwhile believed that the book was “full of nonsense” and had to be fixed in order to become a feature film. Broccoli first worked with screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz (in part because of his assistance in first brokering the deal with UA) to add fantastical elements such as making the villainous Dr. No a monkey rather than a man. These endeavors quickly (wisely) met with some resistance. Guy Hamilton, who Eon had first approached to direct the project, convinced Broccoli that they needed to return to Ian’s text for inspiration. After the gross monkey misstep, Mankowitz left the production and Richard Maibaum took over a second draft, more closely aligned with the novel. Irish screenwriter Johanna Harwood and thriller author Berkeley Mather (pseudonym for John Evan Weston-Davies) further refined the script prior to filming.
Dr. No remains one of the most faithful Bond adaptations. What has been changed makes for an interesting study about how Eon went about curating their fledgling franchise. Watching Dr. No with this in mind, I was shocked to note how many elements from this very first Bond film became permanent fixtures. Eon’s foresight certainly lacked the certain knowledge, like the Harry Potter films, that they were making specific choices that would last a decade… or five. The gun-barrel opening, the pre-credit sequence, Monty Norman’s James Bond theme as arranged by John Barry, the “Bond, James Bond” refrain. All of these tropes still associated with Bond were on-the-fly creative decisions, not adaptation vetted and measured by teams of production talent and visual artists.
The screenwriters that had a hand in creating the Dr. No screenplay understood that the Ian Fleming novels lacked some necessary humor. Fleming’s spy is dour, calculating and far more professional than his cinematic counterpart. One might say that Cinematic Bond is Book Bond’s counterparty. (Laugh track optional.) Cinematic Bond runs a car of assassins off the side of a cliff. A bystander asks where they were headed in such a hurry. Bond says, “I think they were on their way to a funeral.” The one-liners, the glib entrendres were cinematic inventions meant to soften the character of James Bond and provide a spoonful of sugar for the violence inherent to international espionage.
When it came to the novel’s sexual content, the producers had no choice but to remove, excise and revise. Oddly, however, in downgrading the sexuality, they turned James Bond into a more overt sexual predator. The novel depicts famous Bond heroine Honey Rider emerging from the water completely naked except for her knife belt. Of course, Bond is lustful, but he hardly expresses his immediate desires to Honey Rider, fearing he might spook her… and thereby spoil his unfettered view of her sundrenched nakedness. Despite all of the dated notions of race and sexuality inherent to Fleming’s prose, there’s an undercurrent of misappropriated conscience and shortsighted chivalry. In fact, Book Bond spends this moment in the novel dissecting the way Honey’s crooked nose both detracts and enhances her beauty. Somehow this seems less lecherous than the scene from the film, which deflects her inquiry about this gaze with wry humor. The perfect, pristine Ursula Andress famously makes her entrance from the water in her white bikini (the nudity of course had to be left to the pages of Fleming’s book and the vivid imaginations of his readers).
James Bond: Don’t worry. I’m not supposed to be here either.
Honey Rider: Are you looking for shells too?
James Bond: No, I’m just looking.
Throughout the novel Honey throws herself at James, at times begging openly for sexual relations. Bond refuses, despite his lucid desire for her, because he must stay hungry and alert while on a very important mission for Queen and country.
What? This is not the on-screen womanizing cad we’ve come to love.
If we know one thing about cinematic Bond it’s that he’ll seal the deal and bed the woman. Implied relations rather than shown, of course, after a cut to post-coital bliss. The cinematic language suggests that Bond has once again copulated. Is she good, evil, somewhere in between? Time of crisis or calm? It really doesn’t matter. No time’s better for sexy time than the present. But in Fleming’s Dr. No, James Bond shows repeated restraint and focus. Until the end when they shag like wild animals in a sleeping bag (I’m paraphrasing Fleming’s words, not mine). The production team for the movie chose, deliberately, to depict Bond as the aggressor, the would-be sexual predator… as in he would be a sexual predator if he weren’t so damn handsome, confident and crassly poetic. The sexual politics of the early 1960’s (only just approaching the cusp of a sexual revolution) likely would not have approved a more aggressively pursuant Honey Rider. We’re more than happy to overlook James Bond’s occasional deviancy as a masculine quality rather than a character flaw.
Let’s return to Bond’s cinematic introduction – a scene created specifically for the movie (and partially lifted from the first Bond novel, Casino Royale). Sean Connery appears at a casino table in a tuxedo, playing baccarat and smoking a cigarette. He’s winning big and flirting with Slyvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), a woman created in genetic laboratories to be pure liquid sex on our movie screen. As a Bond fan – hell, as movie fans – this scene causes pure rapture.
James Bond: I admire your courage, Miss…?
Sylvia Trench: Trench. Sylvia Trench. I admire your luck, Mr…?
James Bond: Bond. James Bond.
Thus the famous introduction is born, first uttered, curiously, by someone other than Bond. Moments later the two are shown after their sexual encounter. This moment; the high-stakes gambling, flirtation with and subsequent bedding of an arbitrary woman; defines Bond, not only for the film, but also for the entire series. Sex becomes the character’s expected right and privilege. We worship Bond, like a god among men, for his confidence, his ability to woo a woman with a raised eyebrow and witty banter. It is not depicted as aggression, despite the rampant conquering (although, a notable scene in Goldfinger – the barn scene with Pussy Galore – suggests otherwise) because the women in question are more than complicit. Sylvia Trench here is both prey and predator. More often than not, however, Bond women seem to have little choice in the matter. Bond’s charm is magnetic, impossible to overcome.
The actor playing Bond, of course, had a huge impact on the direction of Cinematic Bond. The reality of a 30-year-old Sean Connery is this: a rugged everyman cleaned up and stuffed in a monkey suit. He is both appealing and relatable but also unfathomably attractive. His swagger and confidence makes both men and women swoon. None of this works without a leading man capable of distracting the audience from noticing that he’s largely a terrible human, a sociopath with a wry smile that you still want to to introduce him to your nana.
The narratives portray Bond as a predictable slave to his many vices. Risk. Danger. Liquor. Women. This moment defines not only the James Bond of Dr. No but also the James Bond of every subsequent film. Each actor that has filled 007’s shoes has derived their treatment of the character from these first few minutes of on-screen presence and from Sean Connery’s raw, animalistic prowess on screen.
But now back to the giant squid I mentioned earlier
Ian Fleming apparently channeled Jules Verne for the climax of his novel. Imagine screenwriters sitting down in 1961 to discuss a treatment of Dr. No. “A ripping yarn for sure, but what about this hubbub about a giant squid?” An impossible task that, if put on film, would have made Bela Lugosi wrestling the killer octopus in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster seem like Chekhov.
In the novel, Dr. No has devised a series of tests for Bond’s escape, culminating in a face-off with the giant squid, during which Bond clings to a fence while the ancient beast grabs and rips at him with its tentacles, beating it back with a knife he smuggled out of dinner in his trousers. Imagine audience reaction to this scene, no matter the staging quality. The film’s low budget removed all consideration for the squid scene or the prior, convoluted challenges created by Dr. No to test Bond’s will to suffer, to endure unsettling amounts of pain. Instead, Movie Bond escapes from a conveniently placed air duct (a supremely inane escape twist considering the supposed evil genius of Dr. No), steals a radiation suit to waltz incognito through the good doctor’s lair, offs some bad guys, and rescues the girl. Standard James Bond operating procedure. Quick, easy, painless. His shirt’s torn and he’s mighty sweaty, but that’s largely the extent of his struggle.
Book Bond endures deep second-degree burns on his hands and knees, cuts himself deeply across the chest in defense of the squid, passes out repeatedly from pain and fails to save the girl because Honey has already freed herself from her shackles by the time he arrives. These things, these bumps and bruises, these moments of surrender to pain, they are human concerns, not the troubles of a cinematic demigod. Scene to scene, we are ever-faithful that James Bond maintains total control of the situation. Signs of weakness or doubt might shatter the illusion. And though later movies and different incarnations of the character will begin to tear at the fabric of his godly suits (as we deal with fluctuating injections of something called “gritty realism”) we expect James Bond to survive, to sleep with the girl, to win the day and look dapper doing it.
It’s not just that Bond has been palletized for mass consumption, it’s that he’s been re-rendered with a super human façade. Fleming’s tortured, scarred product of the Cold War has had his edges burnished and his veneer buffed. The adaptation of Dr. No plants the seeds for the character’s growth into glossy full-color comic book immortality – something that increases in prominence during the Roger Moore years (culminating arguably in Octopussy). James Bond survives, wins the day and looks good doing it. Cuts, burns, wounds, beatings, these are all mortal concerns.
Did Eon consciously craft James Bond’s image? Or was this impregnability a happy accident? The giant squid at the conclusion of Dr. No’s obstacles forced Bond producers to reconsider the entire third act. Without a giant squid lurking at the end of the course, it’s entirely possible that Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman would have encouraged their production team to go all the way. They did after all attempt to film the Honey Rider torture scene where our beautiful Bond girl was to be picked apart by bloodthirsty crabs. The staging of that scene failed because the crabs showed not the slightest bit of interest in Ursula’s pristine flesh. Cubby Broccoli was at first encouraging of Mankowitz’s notion of swapping in a monkey for the film’s villain because that bit of whimsy could be performed under budget and with trained animals. Creating the effect of a believable giant squid attack fell squarely outside the possibility of their financial wherewithal. Plus, with the profession of giant squid training still in its infancy (I kid), a trained squid was simply out of the question. Financial and logistical limitations forced simplifications and creative solutions to problems that unlimited funding could have eliminated. But would the end result have been as good? Would the end result have spawned more than fifty years of James Bond? In another galaxy, unlimited budgets and the removal of technological limitations allowed George Lucas to create the Star Wars prequels. We know how that turned out.
This giant squid is the Bond universe’s parallel to Jar Jar Binks. And it’s about time the giant squid got its due recognition for not being Jar Jar Binks, for being a timely obstacle to misplaced ambition. It’s about time we thanked the gargantuan crustacean that only Ray Harryhausen could love for being solely responsible for more than 50 years of Cinematic James Bond. Okay, maybe there’s more to 50 years of success than that, but the squid is surely worthy of admiration.
Altogether now: Thank you, giant squid. Without your absurdly bizarre inclusion into the Ian Fleming novel, and the subsequent removal of huge sections of the book from the screen adaptation, James Bond might not have returned in From Russia With Love and our half-century love affair with a sociopath might not have been possible.