The name’s Bond. James Bond.
Casino Royale is where it all began. First published in 1953 and written by Ian Fleming, this novel marks the debut of British spy agent with designation 007, James Bond.
I remember reading a few Bond novels when I was in high school, or maybe before, and I remember enjoying them. They were fun little adventures featuring one of the coolest and most sly protagonists of all time. I decided to read Casino Royale because the movie is the best Bond movie currently, and it’s a small novel, so I treated it like a snack.
This is another dual review, where we’ll be comparing the novel with the 2006 film in three categories: plot, characters, and presentation (narrative for novel, adaptation for film). There will be spoilers.
The skeleton of the plot is identical. James Bond is trying to thwart the treasurer of a major enemy organization to the Western world by beating him in a high stakes gambling game.
In the novel the antagonist, Le Chiffre, is a member of the Russian secret service and the game is baccarat. In the film he is a financial banker for various terrorist organizations and the game is Texas hold’em poker.
The novel is most definitely the classier of the two stories. Baccarat is a gentleman’s game, while Texas hold’em was chosen for the film because of it’s popularity at the time. There is also less action in the novel, but that’s standard given how films are primarily a visual experience.
But the conflict itself is more political in the novel, despite it being more outdated. This is due to the fact that Le Chiffre is explicitly stated as a member of the Soviet Union. Somehow, even though I never experienced the Cold War, it felt like there was more at stake in the novel than in the film. Two superpowers fighting each other is scarier than one superpower stopping terrorism.
Other than this, there are no other major story differences. Bond wins it all with an improbable hand and Vesper ultimately betrays him. However, one interesting change made by the film was how it sought to redeem Vesper’s character. In the novel she commits suicide in order to save Bond’s life. This didn’t have as much impact as what happens in the film: we learn after her death that she bargained successfully for Bond’s life during his torture session. This is likely owing to the different time periods, but film-Vesper is way more interesting and multi-dimensional than novel-Vesper. Throughout the film we simply see her making decisions and actively participate in the plot.
This was biggest divergence between the two mediums. The 2006 film was heralded as a refreshing and accurate interpretation of Bond’s character, though there are still big differences between the novel and film incarnations.
No matter what, I don’t think there will ever be an actor who is as rugged and stone-cold as the Bond from the books. The big screen gives us an actor, with his own mannerisms, quirks, and interpretation of the Bond character. The novel is a blank slate. Guided by the author’s words (and Fleming was indeed a talented writer), the characters are formed in our heads by our imagination, and nothing is more powerful than our own perception. That is why no one will be smoother, more suave, nor more dashing than the literary James Bond.
As mentioned earlier, Vesper has a more proactive role in the film, which is indicative of how far attitudes towards women have come since the 1950s.
Le Chiffre also has a substantial, though more subtle tweaking to his character. In the film he is presented as a calm, cool, and composed crime leader, the image of which is brilliantly destroyed midway through the film, revealing him as nothing better than a common thug. In the book it is more blatant that Le Chiffre is just a small-time crook. Mads Mikkelsen deserves high praise for his performance.
Considering the medium and the time period in which they were released, I’d say each version has its own merits. However, the film has done a great job adapting its source material for a 21st century audience.
The novel triumphs in the categories of style and imagery. I was surprised by the small bursts of poetic allusion in Fleming’s narrative. I didn’t expect whimsical prose from a Bond novel, but the author succeeds in painting some pretty imagery with his paragraphs, particularly when Bond engages in philosophical discussion about the nature of good vs evil, and politics.
Not so pretty is Bond’s outdated attitudes towards women. Although it seems like Fleming may have been aware of how misogynistic his character was (and deliberately kept him that way for the sake of creating the Bond personality), it certainly felt like some line was being crossed, especially when Bond contemplated Vesper’s allure, describing it as that of “the sweet tang of rape”. That was a genuine wtf-moment.
For its part, the film succeeds in replicating the grittiness of the story and setting, while at the same time standing out as something entirely on its own. With updated social norms and political settings, Casino Royale (2006), both at the time of its release and today, holds up as an action-thriller that is both relevant and real to its audience. This is quite the achievement as we all know how badly most Bond films age. Watch a Roger Moore or Brosnan Bond film, and it is likely you’ll either laugh or cringe at more than one thing or another. Casino Royale (2006) obviously respects its roots, and takes itself seriously, led by a director who obviously excels in this genre, having directed another highly successful and entertaining Bond film.
Rarely do I ever say so, but I have to recommend the film over the novel. Although the novel is still good, the movie simply tells the story so well and with sensible changes and updates, including more action, more in-depth character development, and more memorable moments. This is all accomplished while staying true to the Bond universe by presenting itself as a classy yet riveting action film. Do both if you can, but the film would be enough.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.