I have conflicted feelings about Thunderball. On the one hand, it’s one of the best novels — the final book in what I consider the series’ apex. It’s also the book that kicked off the Bond phenomenon, by leading film producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli to secure the rights to the franchise. However, the conflict over its origins mired Fleming in a lawsuit that some would argue led to his death in 1964, and kept a shadow over the franchise for decades to come.
Thunderball was a novelization of a film treatment — a film that grew out of the failed TV series concepts that I mentioned last time. Xanadu Productions, a venture launched by Fleming, along with Kevin McClory, Ivar Bryce and Earnest Cuneo, prepared to launch a Bond film series, with Thunderball as the first film. For various reasons, the deal fell through (interested parties can read up on it via wikipedia), and Fleming, as he had done with the TV series treatments, re-wrote the treatment as a novel. This led to a lawsuit, spearheaded by McClory, charging plagiarism and improper credit, which had several results.
First was the stress of the lawsuit which many credit (along with Fleming’s prodigious smoking habit) with being a major cause of Fleming’s heart attack in 1961, and then another in 1964, which killed him. Second was a shared credit on the novel — “based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming,” and, most lasting, a shared claim to the film rights — which eventually led to Kevin McClory producing a rival Bond film in 1983: Never Say Never Again, a remake of the novel’s plot, starring Sean Connery and released in competition with the official entry for that year, Roger Moore’s Octopussy.
Aside from the controversy surrounding the book’s origins, though, this is perhaps the archetypal Bond story: Nuclear blackmail committed by SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counterespionage, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) under the direction of Ernst Stavro Blofeld (both introduced in this novel — such a seminal part of the Bond mythos that it’s hard to believe that it took 9 novels for them to appear), Bond stumbling upon the plot outside of an official assignment, only to have the import and meaning of the encounter made clear when he puts the pieces together later on during his actual assignment, a game of wits with a villain (in this case, Chemin de Fer against SPECTRE agent Emilio Largo), and of course the requisite helpings of sex, high living and violence.
Flemings eye for details is present in spades as well — the original film treatment was designed largely to show off a new method of underwater filming, and so there are large set-pieces involving scuba diving (a relatively new technology, only commercially available since the early 50s). Fleming takes great care with these sequences in the novel and provides a close look at what was still considered an exotic activity at the time. The climax of the novel features a mass underwater battle between the crew of the American submarine Manta and the crew of Largo’s yacht Disco Volante to recover the stolen NATO nukes, and is a textbook example of Fleming mixing detail and pacing to excellent effect.
The introduction of SPECTRE makes this novel especially interesting to me – a multinational criminal organization, formed by ex-intelligence operatives, Mafia and Tong criminals, and “stateless persons” – it’s the point at which the series begins to step from the post-war Cold War era into something more recognizable as the Modern Age. Even though it seemed far-fetched at the time, the idea of a mad billionaire running his own international private army, bent on destruction and criminal enterprise, seems like everyday headlines in our world now. Somewhere along the line, we’ve jumped a track and are now living in Bond’s world.
Next week, alas, we arrive at the one Bond novel I simply do not like at all — the last of the “experimental” Bonds, The Spy Who Loved Me (1962), which barely features Bond at all. In fact, I dislike the book so much, I don’t really see much that I’ll say about it, so I think I’ll double up and cover 1963’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as well. See you then.