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A Familiar Tale,
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This review is from: Thunderball (Paperback)
Some time ago I decided to read, or in some cases re-read, all of Ian Fleming's original James Bond novels in the order in which they were published. Having gotten as far as the short story compilation For Your Eyes Only (Penguin Viking Lit Fiction) however, I found that I needed to take a break from Bond for a while. Even with other books interspersed between each Bond adventure I'd had too much of 007 in too concentrated a period and had started to lose my critical perspective.
So I gave up on Bond for a few months, which meant that when I finally picked up Thunderball the character of 007, the world and time he inhabited (these are essentially period novels now) and Fleming's style all felt fresh again. Which turned out to be a good thing, because for anyone who has seen the cinematic Thunderball (and I have seen it many, many times, along with the remake Never Say Never Again) then the plot of the novel will by contrast feel far from fresh & new. Whereas the plots of most Bond novels, with the honourable exception of Dr No. & From Russia With Love, differ substantially from their cinematic namesakes, bar a few details 'Thunderball-the-movie' mirrors 'Thunderball-the-novel' almost exactly.
This doesn't make it a bad novel, just a rather familiar experience that as a consequence lacks real tension due to the corresponding lack of uncertainty over the eventual outcome. In some ways in fact, its inferior to the movie version. Certainly on paper the villain of the piece, Largo, is a far less charismatic and threatening character than he is as portrayed on screen by Adolfo Celi, the pacing of the book is too slow in places compared to the film, and the final underwater battle, although more 'realistic' on the page lacks the scale of the movie's grand finale.
There are positives however. As with all the Bond novels, the written word allows Fleming to go into far more depth when it comes to characterisations, motivations and settings than the films could ever hope to. You get a real feel for Nassau and the Bahamas in the late 1950's and the comparison between the later tropical scenes and the opening passage set in the dowdy health-spa down in Sussex brings it home to you how exotic Bond's overseas adventures must have seemed to readers back in Britain when the book was first published. In the character of Domino Fleming offers a female lead (I dislike the monika 'Bond Girl' for the characters in the books) who is far stronger and more proactive than Claudine Auger's on-screen portrayal. Yes, she's essentially Largo's kept woman but she's also tough and brave, withstanding torture in order to protect Bond and have her ultimate revenge.
As always there will be the inevitable complaints about Fleming's less than enlightened descriptions of afro-Carribean Bahamanians and his mysogynism, but as long as you treat Thunderball, as with all other Bond novels, as products of the attitudes of their time then these are minor niggles that can be ignored or forgiven. Inevitably the book also feels very dated, possibly more so than some earlier Bond adventures, but as I said before it should be treated as a period novel and not a contemporary adventure.
All in all, if you're a fan of the literary or cinematic Bond then you'll enjoy Thunderball in novel form, even if it does feel a little too familiar and comfortable at times. If however, you're looking for the perfect Bond novel I'd recommend tackling From Russia with Love (Penguin Viking Lit Fiction) instead, which has been my favourite out of the nine I've tackled so far.
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Initial post: 16 Oct 2011 12:29:11 BDT
Thanks for a well written review of Thunderball and of the Bond novels in general. I'm also re-reading all the Bond novels and I'm currently on Thunderball. My favourite up to now is Goldfinger.
Posted on 7 Sep 2013 17:18:33 BDT
Last edited by the author on 7 Sep 2013 17:22:06 BDT
Me too, when I read my first Ian Fleming James Bond novel (Thunderball) 30 years ago, I was so impressed I read the lot ( in random order) over the next 4 years. After reading each one I told myself this book is too good to read only once, I'll read them all again one day only in the correct order next time.
So when I happen to see the entire collection, in unread condition, in a charity shop last year, I remembered the promise my younger self made to my older self and decided the time was right.
I find myself agreeing with you about having to take a break between each book, as the writing is so absorbing you can find yourself wrapped up so deep into the events that it is hard to get your head away from it after you have finished the book. The other problem with doing a crash course of Bond novels is that I started to see them as a long running soap serial rather than the stand alone classics that they really are.
For example, after the trauma of the chair torture in 'Casino Royal' and the close miss he had when he was just seconds away from being castrated, the next novel 'Live & Let Die' had him tied to a chair by the villain, yet he suffered no post traumatic stress from this. Even more unlikely is the fact that the SMERSH agent didn't capitalise on the chair situation and finish off where the previous SMERSH agent had left off.
What I am saying is that reading them in the correct order without much of a break is making me overly critical of the writing, which is doing a disservice to these greatly written books.
My mission is to read all of the Conan Doyal 'Sherlock Holmes' (about 60) stories as many as possible of the Leslie Charteris 'Saint' books (over 35 years worth plus another 20 years of ghost written books that were edited and approved by Charteris). I should have started about 30 years ago, I might have had time in my life span to actually complete that lot.
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