Musings on Casino Royale in the 21st century

Note that the following reveals spoilers both for the 1953 novel Casino Royale, and the 2006 Movie starring Daniel Craig. CW for sexualized violence. I am using the Kindle Locations for citation purposes.

When I first started out in my desire to read the James Bond novels, my husband asked if I wouldn’t find them annoying. “Aren’t they sexist?”

In a way, he was right, but I find myself surprised in other ways. (Note I will not be touching on the racism in these books, because it’s not my lane, plus others have done it better.) I was pleasantly surprised by the heroine in Moonraker who was way more competent than Bond, and it’s only her smarts that gets them out of the impossible situation (see my live tweet of that book here).

But today we’re going to talk about Casino Royale. I had recently binge watched the Daniel Craig Bond movies at the request of a friend. (which, in the opposite of the traditional ‘only the even numbered’ Star Trek movies are good’, is better on the odds. The first and third are far superior to the second and the mess that is the fourth movie.)

My friend had asked the question – why does Bond do what he does? Why is he loyal to the Crown? He doesn’t have any reasons to be especially patriotic, not that we can see. In fact, he seems to be downright mistreated by the service (specifically talking the Craig iteration here).

I believe the novel Casino Royale answers a lot of these questions.

Fleming’s prose is rather prosaic. There doesn’t seem to be anything special about it, and a lot of time is spent deciphering what he meant – there’s a lot of French in Casino Royale, and he constantly references brands while contemporary at the time, mean very little to me now – especially when it comes to cigarettes. There is so much smoking in the Bond books, which is another way it functions as a snapshot of its time.

But every so often, Fleming will throw in some philosophical turn of phrase that will have me sitting back and chewing on the words.

One of those is Bond’s musings on Luck:

“Luck was a servant and not a master. Luck had to be accepted with a shrug or taken advantage of up to the hilt. But it had to be understood and recognized for what it was and not confused with a faulty appreciation of the odds, for, at gambling, the deadly sin is to mistake bad play for bad luck. And luck in all its moods had to be loved and not feared. Bond saw luck as a woman, to be softly wooed or brutally ravaged, never pandered to or pursued. But he was honest enough to admit that he had never yet been made to suffer by cards or by women. One day, and he accepted the fact, he would be brought to his knees by love or by luck. ” (Fleming Loc 550)

There’s a lot to chew on there. But our main takeaway for the purpose of this essay is how Bond others women. They are as intangible and ephemeral as luck. (There is also an undercurrent of violence against women in this book that I don’t recall in Moonraker.)

But this is plainly foreshadowing. Having seen the movie, I know that both will take Bond down in this book – his luck at cards will fail him, and he will be brought to his knees by a woman.

After chewing on this for a while – I’ve decided that how Bond feels about women is his greatest flaw. It’s because he doesn’t take Vesper seriously as anything but a piece of arm candy that he ignores his instincts – on several occasions. From the description of the scene in the night club after they’ve “beaten” Le Chiffre, it’s very obvious something is wrong.

As a spy, Bond is clearly noticing Vesper is doing something strange with her cigarette. Her attitude is all wrong for what’s just occurred. But because he dismisses it as “women, they sure are weird and moody!” he ignores the obvious cues that something is very wrong.

(And then when she’s kidnapped he has the audacity to blame her and goes on a pages long rant while he’s driving to her rescue.)

It actually makes him a very bad spy. He does the same thing in Moonraker – ignores his intuition and instincts when he damn well should know better.

But why?

Bond is a deeply broken individual. He has this amazing conversation with Mathis while convalescing (and poor Mathis was done dirty in the movies. He’s a wonderful character.)

Bond had just told Mathis he wants to retire. He can’t see the difference between the heroes and the villains anymore. He says “History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.” (Fleming Loc 1647). Bond goes on a rant defending the devil (ok, Lestat) and then Mathis has the most amazing line in the entire book.

“Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.” (Loc 1707).

And this is the one thing Bond can’t do. I’m not sure if it’s the war and the spy business that have broken him, or if it happened to him before joining the military. After seeing people as targets and marks, spies and enemies, he has lost the ability to see them as human beings.

It’s no accident that the torture 007 undergoes in this book is emasculating. That’s because any ‘love’ he feels for Vesper is tied to proving his masculinity. It’s very shallow, based on her looks and how accommodating she is toward him during his recovery. It continues to establish Bond as incapable of deep emotion.

The movie, in contrast, does a much better job of establishing real feeling between 007 and Vesper. That is, of course, because they throw Mathis under the bus. It’s obvious that someone has to have been working for the other side, and the movie can’t rely on Bond’s sexism for ignoring this. Also, the two have much more interaction in the movie to establish a relationship than in the book.

Instead, we have Vesper taking Bond to a remote Bed and Breakfast in France, where she quietly freaks out the entire time thinking someone has followed them out there. Bond seduces her by putting his hands on her breasts. It’s actually quite uncomfortable to read, and there seems to be something of a resistance to her being with him at all. It’s another reason their relationship reads as shallow.

Thus when Bond finishes his dip in the sea and is determined to ask her to marry him, it’s like total whiplash. This is more evidence that his ‘love’ for her is related to how he’s dealing with recovering from torture.

(Sidebar on the torture scene. I was honestly shocked when I got to it because I had thought the scene gratuitous in the movie, only to be surprised to find that it came from the original source material. Bond is tied naked to a bottomless chair while his testicles are whipped by Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen in the movie). What is especially interesting is that Bond hopes that his torture gets to that place where he has been told by other agents that he will experience euphoria instead of pain. I sat back as I read this and thought “sub space?” Is Fleming talking about sub space??? Quick check shows that Story of O was published in 1954, BTW.)

Another quote gives insight into Bond’s character. “Bond looked at her tenderly. Like all harsh, cold men, he was easily tipped over into sentiment.” Bond is intended to be the kind of character with a crusty exterior and a heart of mush. The problem is that once again it shows how he can’t have a relationship of equals with Vesper, because he sees her similar to how some men see dogs – something to pat on the head and humor.

The only ‘flaw’ in their great ‘love’ in Bond’s mind, is when she lies to him about who she’s calling on the hotel phone. This leads to days of friction between them, until Bond asks her if they can’t go back to the beginning (Loc 2094) – when everything was simple and easy, and they were happy making love all the time. Relationships don’t work like that – the fresh bloom always fades, but Bond wouldn’t know this, he’s never had a relationship last long enough to know.

After that final confrontation Vesper conveniently kills herself. There are *hand-wavey* plot reasons for this. She’s a double agent. If she doesn’t do what they say they’ll come for her and possibly James, but who cares about her lover who they were ostensibly holding in order to get her to cooperate in the first place. So she kills herself out of an act of love for him.

And look, now he’s all determined to take out SMERSH, the organization behind it all. Poor Vesper, yet another fridged female character. And to put the final nail in the coffin, Bond acts like he doesn’t give a damn. “The bitch is dead” he says in both the movie and the book – they are the final words of the novel, in fact.

Is it that easy for him to turn off his love for her? Was he never in love with her in the first place? Is he just really really good at compartmentalizing?

I think Bond can only find love with someone he thinks of as an equal. Not arm candy. Not even someone he sexually desires. Never anyone he thinks of as an object. And until he can think of women as human beings, he will never go beyond the surface level of the emotion known as love.

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