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A Familiar Tale
on 15 February 2010
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.