Do you expect me to talk?
No Mr. Bond, I expect you to REDACTED.
Reports indicate that Ian Fleming’s James Bond books are to be republished and rewritten to accommodate 21st century sensitivities.
The spy thrillers – from 1953’s 'Casino Royale' to 1966’s 'Octopussy and The Living Daylights' – will be re-released in April to coincide with the 70th anniversary celebrations this spring, after Ian Fleming Publications Ltd commissioned a review by “sensitivity readers.”
A number of racial references will be removed, as well as the omission of references to ethnicities of a number of characters.
The re-published Bond novels will also include a disclaimer: “This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace. A number of updates have been made in this edition, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period in which it is set.”
From Roald to Ian: Revising the past
The news follows increased scrutiny in the publishing industry, especially after the Roald Dahl series recently underwent a similar review.
Changes to Dahl’s books focus on making the texts more inclusive: using “enormous” rather than “enormously fat” to describe the antagonist Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and “beastly” rather than “ugly and beastly” to describe Mrs Twit in The Twits.
In response to criticism, Dahl’s publisher Puffin UK said it would release the original versions as well as the new edited texts to cater for modern sensitivities. Readers will therefore be given the option to choose between the two versions.
Regarding the James Bond books, Ian Fleming Publications released a statement to the Telegraph saying that they had “reviewed the text of the original Bond books and decided our best course of action was to follow Ian’s lead”.
The main sticking point is the novel 'Live And Let Die' (Fleming’s second Bond book published in 1954), which has already had its racial references toned down by US publishers.
Previously, the N-word has been replaced with “Black person” or “Black man” while a segment describing accented dialogue as “straight Harlem-Deep South with a lot of New York thrown in” was also removed. Fleming himself approved these changes to the US printings prior to his death in 1964.
In the new version of 'Live and Let Die', Bond’s assessment that would-be African criminals in the gold and diamond trades are “pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought, except when they’ve drunk too much.” The excerpt has been changed to “pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought.”
Another original passage also states “Bond could hear the audience panting and grunting like pigs at the trough. He felt his own hands gripping the tablecloth. His mouth was dry.” Its revision removes the pig reference and now reads: “Bond could sense the electric tension in the room.”
“We have made changes to Live and Let Die that he himself authorised,” the Ian Fleming Publications statement continued. “Following Ian’s approach, we looked at the instances of several racial terms across the books and removed a number of individual words or else swapped them for terms that are more accepted today but in keeping with the period in which the books were written.”
They encouraged “people to read the books for themselves” when they are reissued in April.
Remove race but keep the rape
Rather bafflingly, there are reported exclusions to the redacting.
For instance, according to The Telegraph, while racial descriptors have largely been removed, some derogatory language has not been expunged, including calling homosexuality “a stubborn disability” in 1963's 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' and the mention of villain Oddjob in 1959's 'Goldfinger' being like "any other Korean - rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy."
There's also another eyebrow-raising keep: “the sweet tang of rape” and the following passage from 'The Spy Who Loves Me': “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that made his act of love so piercingly wonderful.”
The sensibility methodology remains confusing, tone-deaf and some might say deeply cynical if these elements are to be kept from the original texts.
Censorship leading to revisionism
There’s a scene in the satirical 2005 film Thank You For Smoking in which butt-of-the-joke US senator Ortolan Finistirre, played by William H. Macy, is desperately trying to replace all depictions of smoking in classic films by removing the cigarettes and replacing them with candy canes and other ludicrous objects.
What felt like humorous cautionary tale highlighting the ridiculousness and potential danger of whitewashing the past now feels like a depressing conversation compromising the substance of art.
Fleming’s 12 novels and two short stories compilations – 'For Your Eyes Only' and 'Octopussy and The Living Daylights' – depict a secret agent who is sexist, sadistic and has retrograde attitudes towards people of different nationalities, ethnicities and sexualities. He is, as the character M put it in the 1995 film Goldeneye, “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.”
While the books feature attitudes and comments that are shocking by today’s standards, the question raised by any tampering or sanitizing of the original source material is that of dangerous revisionism.
The James Bond books are antiquated but there is an argument to be made that the writing needs to be appreciated within its context and seen as a reflection of past values.
Reading the original words can be very uncomfortable but they help us understand regressive politics and the dangerous legacy of British colonialism with a modern eye. Denying Fleming’s stories all the details of their historical contexts can be perceived as whitewashing the past – worse, an Orwellian falsification that reeks of historical denialism. The imperialist attitudes the books depict are not only evidence of British thought at a moment in time, but also a window to better interrogate the past’s sins and to embrace modern conversations rather than ignore them through redaction.
Keeping the original books as they are need not be synonymous with embracing their prejudices but rather accepting that regressive attitudes were commonplace and speak volumes when it comes to understanding current politics and attitudes of a country which continues to wrestle with its island mentality and Empire nostalgia.
Something not worth compromising. Not even for the raising of a 70-year-old Vodka Martini.