by Christopher Wood
176 pages, Ian Fleming Publications (Kindle version)
Review by Pat Black
When I’m on the motorway and the traffic gets a bit hairy, I pull a Roger Moore squint.
It’s for no-one else’s benefit, and I only do it when I check the wing mirror - even though I can’t see my face.
I glance to the side, set my jaw… and squint.
This is a primping technique, essentially – a silly psychological tic employed to give me a little bit more confidence.
It’s on the same wavelength as some sub-Partridge saddo, putting on a tuxedo in his hotel room ahead of a corporate do, striding along the length of a mirror, turning on his heel, and –
James Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me is a novelisation of the 1977 Bond movie – and certainly not the “original canon” novel by Ian Fleming, a total oddity which would take a Booksquawk post of its own to explain.
The movie is Sir Roger Moore’s best outing as 007 and arguably the high point of the entire series. It’s the one with Jaws, the metal-mouthed henchman; the undersea base that swallows submarines; the shark chute; the amphibious Lotus Esprit; and the disco ski chase culminating in the union flag parachute base-jump – the greatest stunt ever filmed.
Then there’s the sublime theme song, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” (can we ever be sure of her sincerity?), and perhaps the two greatest Bond girls in Barbara Bach and Caroline Munro (though my heart still aches for Carole Bouquet in For Your Eyes Only).
Nearly 40 years on, despite some incredible advances in special effects which were unimaginable back then, few if any of these elements have been topped in the series. Small wonder The Spy Who Loved Me is such a favourite of Alan Partridge. It’s hard to take in any way seriously, it’s deeply flawed - but it’s still kind of awesome.
Alongside Alan Dean Foster’s take on the original Star Wars from the same year (though George Lucas still gets the credit on the cover), Christopher Wood’s book was one of the first great mass market novelisations – an entirely new piece of literature that takes a cinema film as its source, rather than the other way around. This book – adapted from Wood’s own script, co-written with Richard Maibaum – retains only two elements from Ian Fleming’s source novel: the title, and a villain whose dentist who was a bit over-zealous when it came to fillings.
This project would have represented an open goal for any writer, but Wood makes a fine achievement of what could have been a simple hack job. The story follows 007 as he investigates the disappearance of a British nuclear submarine. He is joined on his mission by Major Anya Amasova, a Russian agent who is also on the trail of a similarly-misplaced Soviet sub.
There’s a bit of added tension in this Iron Curtain-spreading relationship after it emerges that Bond killed Amasova’s lover, right before his base-jump heroics in the knockout opening scene. Amasova swears revenge, once their mission is over. But if there’s one man who can charm his way out of that predicament, it’s Bond.
The pair link the missing submarines to Sigmund Stroemberg, a megalomaniac industrialist with an underwater base and some pretty left-field civic planning ambitions. Lunging at this odd couple from the shadows is Stroemberg’s button man, Jaws, whose teeth have been replaced with metal fangs, which he puts to gruesome use.
The globe-trotting adventure takes Bond and Amasova to Egypt and Italy, before a final showdown at Stroemberg’s hi-tech Atlantean base.
Wood didn’t have to do so, but he makes a valiant effort at linking this Bond to Ian Fleming’s original creation. Although Sir Roger Moore will always be synonymous with the title, I read Wood’s rendering of the character as more like Fleming’s 007 – a curiously humourless thrill-seeker with very expensive tastes. The shift in tone is striking; many of Bond’s one-liners from the film - such as “Egyptian builders!”, “What a helpful chap!” and “How does that grab you?” - are not to be found here.
There are also references to previous Bond adventures, with nods to his “treasure” of a Scottish housekeeper, the evil spy network SMERSH and the death of 007’s wife at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Indeed, Bond is attracted to Amasova chiefly because her figure and demeanour reminds him of Tracy. This seems to imply that Bond has a definitive preference in types of women, which I didn’t buy. He may have been a bit one-dimensional when it came to cocktails, but with women, Bond liked to work his way around the menu. However, having Bond’s heartstrings tugged at the memory of his wife was a nice link between the past and the present.
Take some advice, though, James: do not mention this to her.
Wood is fully immersed in Fleming’s milieu and writing style. He takes great care to describe Bond’s tailoring, as well as the food and drink he consumes on his travels. All that’s missing is a high-stakes gambling duel with his nemesis to complete the job.
Our author’s career is a fascinating one. Before hitting the jackpot with Bond, Christopher Wood already had a successful, if curious CV under the pen-name of Timothy Lea with his comic-erotica Confessions books - later made famous on the big screen by seventies jackanapes Robin Askwith.
Wood also wrote the similarly-naughty Rosie Dixon: Night Nurse, as well as dabbling in aggro-lit (also extremely popular during the seventies) with Soccer Thug, under the pseudonym Frank Clegg.
Christ only knows how he got from there to writing Bond. There’s hope for us all.
One scene in particular might have been excised from one of Wood’s Confessions novels: the part where Major Amasova rubs suntan oil into her lovingly-described breasts, before chiding herself for indulging in bourgeois luxuries like sunbathing and bikinis and pledging to read some Engels as penance.
This passage conjured a brief image of Robin Askwith in a tuxedo, falling off a ladder outside her window. It could only have been written by a man - and a man in the mid-1970s, at that.
Wood is no hack, though. The book’s tone is different to the movie; there are a few laughs in The Spy Who Loved Me, and even its silliest concoctions are imbibed in deadly earnest.
Beartrap-mouthed Jaws is given a detailed backstory as well as a plausible explanation of how he came to receive his defining dental characteristic. When Bond tangles with this foe in the film, there’s an element of slapstick; here, it’s played straight, even when Jaws tries to bite his way into a van Bond is driving.
The villain, Stroemberg, also benefits from a textured, if disturbing history that places him in the same bracket as Fleming’s classic rogues’ gallery. He ticks all the boxes: sexually odd, megalomaniacal, psychotic, and with a curious deformity (in this case, webbed fingers).
Much like Fleming, Wood packs in a lot of prima facie low-rent content, but writes it beautifully. There were some phrases that leapt off the page. In a grisly scene where a treacherous secretary is served up to a hungry shark, Wood describes an “obscene candy floss of blood” erupting from her severed leg. A lift which Bond takes in a hotel “stops to collect itself like an old lady preparing to cross a road”. After killing a couple of henchmen, Bond wonders how long it will take for “armies of homeless vermin” to stream from their bodies in the hot Egyptian climate. And in pondering a possible sexual conquest, Bond ruminates on whether “the mind of the puritan” is more lubricious than that of the libertine – a canny nod, perhaps, to vicarious thrill-seekers getting their jollies second-hand from cinema screens or 200-page paperbacks.
The Lotus Esprit submarine convertible is given a lot more to do in this version, dodging a motorcycle sidecar which turns into a missile. It’s also called into more action beneath the waves than you see on screen - scripted activity almost certainly cut for budgetary reasons.
Also excised from the final draft of the screenplay is a torture scene in which James Junior is imperilled. This is of a piece with the corporal punishment 007 endures in Casino Royale - except that this time, instead of being clobbered with a carpet-beater, 003-and-a-half literally gets a short, sharp shock via some delicately-placed electrodes.
Moonraker? Legcrosser, more like.
It’s a quick read, ideal for the beach, and a nostalgia trip for people over a certain age. I’d be interested to know what today’s twenty-something men think of this novel (and its source) in comparison to modern-day spy stories, where technology is as much a driver of the plot as deception. What do they make of this jovial, suave Bond; would they ever in a million years model themselves on dear old Sir Roger? An undoubtedly handsome man, but he looked old enough to be your dad even then.
This amounts to blasphemy coming from a Scot, but Sir Roger is my favourite Bond. It helps that he was in the job when I was a boy. Like your favourite Doctor Who, there’s an imprinting mechanism at work when it comes to “your” Bond. You follow him like a newly-hatched duckling.
For me, Bond was never better than when he was played tongue-in-cheek. Moore never intended anyone to take James Bond seriously – he understood better than anyone before or since that the role is simple escapism and male fantasy, no more reflective of real espionage or geopolitical tensions than Sherlock Holmes is of detective work.
The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moore’s Bond, has a distinctly British quality peculiar to that era, which I noted after the sad passing of Professionals star Lewis Collins last year.
I call it rugged naffness. It’s hard to think of an American leading man of this time who could possibly have played Bond the same way.
You don’t really buy Moore as a tough guy, although I can picture him as a 50-year-old lothario, the apple of many a yacht club trophy wife’s eye, immaculate in his navy blue jacket and gold slacks. He’s the sort of charming bugger who might make a Russian oligarch or dot-com billionaire just that wee bit insecure.
And yet, there’s a certain something in his portrayal of Bond that an untutored part of the male psyche might seek to emulate, no matter how silly. Not a thug, but wins fights; has his pick of the women; carries a subtle, but distinct, stench of money.
Nowadays, looking the part isn’t just a matter of dressing expensively, or staying in just enough shape to blag it from a certain camera angle (forgive me, Sir Rog, but you don’t half wear a lot of black in these films).
Now, leading men have to thrash themselves into almost grotesque shape through laser-guided gym regimes and dietary interventions that would rival those endured by Olympic athletes. Young men are following this trend. I’d guess younger fellows would probably be sceptical about 007’s eating, drinking and smoking habits in this book – a sure way of killing your athletic prowess and swaddling those abs, lats, pecs n’ biceps in fat.
I’ve heard very few straight ladies or gay gentlemen complain about this sort of body sculpting extremism with regards to Daniel Craig – indeed, they suffer themselves near silence when he emerges from the sea in Casino Royale - but I find it curious to note the mutation of what leading men must look like in today’s entertainment world. Will we see Bond with tattoos, soon? Will he put away the old-fashioned pommel brush and razor blades shaving kit and let the stubble come in? Will he swap the midnight blue Saville Row suits for a pair of low-slung, ironically-worn Chinos, or whatever the hell it is hipsters wear now?
That British side-parting-cum-comb-over has already gone, thank goodness.
Perhaps the objectification of Daniel Craig’s body is some form of recompense for all the blatant, brutal sexism in these stories. There’s still a lot of it about. It’s curious to note that although Amasova ends up having to be rescued by 007, she’s still better than just about any Bond girl who followed her. I bought her as a capable, flint-hearted spy much more than I did Halle Berry’s Jinx, 25 years later.
James Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me allows us a fresh look at a piece of art familiar from screenings at Christmas or, latterly, on ITV2 seemingly every second Sunday. It’s also a fine homage to the style of 007’s creator.
A host of suitors have taken a stab at James Bond in the past couple of decades, the famous and unknown alike. But I should be surprised if anyone does it better than Christopher Wood.