Look, guys. I’m kind of a big James Bond fan. It’s my thing. That fandom includes the original novels by Ian Fleming, warts and all. And of all of Fleming’s books, the one with the most warts is most likely Live and Let Die. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a terrific tale that takes Bond out of his element, puts returning characters in mortal danger, and inspired one of my favorite installments of the film franchise. However, the fact remains that there are some ugly aspects to the novel that have not only aged poorly, but it’s almost impossible to imagine them having gone over quite smoothly back when the book was released.
Quite simply, there’s a good bit of old fashioned racism in the original text, complete with African American characters speaking phonetically-written broken English and descriptions of some characters with “inhuman” features. It mars the clever plotting and makes it an unpleasant story to read, which is why it’s a story that I’ve never felt the need to revisit.
Until now, that is. Thanks to some judicious edits and slight restructuring (and the blessing of Ian Fleming’s estate), this adaptation is superior to the original book in just about every respect.
There are quite a few interesting visual devices that were developed when Van Jensen adapted the previous novel, Casino Royale. As with Casino Royale, Jensen took the original text of this novel and found which selections needed to be dialogue, which could work as narration, and which could become visual indicators for plot points and various other bits of set dressing.
This results in some interesting visual shorthand for certain segments, with Bond’s thoughts on a clue or some other detail that doesn’t sit well with him being superimposed over the panel. This differentiates these observations from the normal narration boxes and gives us more of an insight into Bond’s process. Fleming’s 007 was much keener than he let on, so it’s lovely to see this aspect of the character make the jump to this adaptation.
There are other ways in which this graphic novel improves upon the original text. Bond’s occasional casual misogyny is present in his narration and actions, but here it seems to be framed as though he’s observing the differences in gender roles when compared to his home turf. He notices how many women are in positions of power and it seems to pleasantly surprise him. This is a great example of finding a deeper and stronger layer beneath the text as it was originally presented. Sadly, it’s not at all what Fleming had likely intended… but that’s certainly okay to stray from, in this case. Bond may be a dinosaur, but he needs to be at least somewhat likable for this story to work at all.
Still, the fact of the story is that the racial tensions still exist within the story, but they feel like they’re given a much stronger context here than in the original work. It feels less like there’s a fear of “the other” and more like Bond has been given a mission to take down this criminal empire, so he sets about it. What helps in selling this story for more modern (and let’s face it, more civilized) sensibilities are the clever edits and reliance on this visual medium on the part of Van Jensen and his collaborators.
Take, for instance, a shootout around the midpoint of the novel. As the baddies all scramble for their sidearms, Bond confidently walks across the street with one arm held out, every shot finding its mark. This is a man who has just been tortured, yet finds the presence of self to keep his perfect posture and to not waste a single bullet. It’s a wonderfully subtle character moment from Jensen and illustrator Kewber Baal.
The story is full of moments like this, which sell the brutality of the character in a way that the film series has only flirted with. It never feels like Bond’s actions are being glorified, either. The man is on a job. Thanks to the team on this book, though, it’s a blast to see him get it done.
As mentioned previously, Kewber Ball knocks it out of the park with the illustrations in this book. Rendering a text-heavy story in ways that are still visual interesting is no easy feat. However, this is a story that features Bond so out of his own element. From the rain-slicked streets of New Orleans to the sunny piers in Jacksonville, the locales in this graphic novel feel substantially more realistic and lived-in than the cynical approximations of the original novel. Fleming clearly didn’t think much of the American South, which was clear in his (admittedly hilarious) descriptions in the novel.
Also of note is the lettering by Crank!, which is used to great effect in several different ways. Dialogue, narration, and the previously-mentioned captions wherein Bond notes a facet of his surroundings are all distinct and draw the eyes in different ways. Things like this help make the leap from book to graphic novel that much smoother.
On the downside, there are several moments within the book where characters spend page after page with their heads crowded by massive word balloons, laying out one part of the mission or another. This is a weakness of the original novel that Jensen unfortunately had to live with. Much of it is relegated to the first half of the book (the second half is a ton of action), but it still can get a bit tiresome. Once Bond is out and about, the exposition is limited to short bursts and much of the story is told through action. Also, as mentioned previously, there are a few moments during Bond’s narration where you kind of want to “OK, Boomer” him, but that’s honestly par for the course with Fleming’s blunt instrument of a secret agent.
Overall, this is an excellent adaptation and highly recommended. It smooths out a solid 99% of the original novel’s most problematic elements and tells a stylish and violent spy story with some genuine detective work from our lead character. If you’ve ever been interested in diving into the original stories that inspired the film series, give Jensen’s Casino Royale a read and then snag this one. It’s a perfect one-two punch for fans of 007.
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