Rewriting the past: 'You can't change James Bond - he is what he is' says Ian Fleming biographer

Euronews Culture spoke to Ian Fleming biographer Andrew Lycett about the planned changes to the James Bond books
Euronews Culture spoke to Ian Fleming biographer Andrew Lycett about the planned changes to the James Bond books Copyright PAN - Hulton Archive
By David Mouriquand
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Euronews Culture spoke to Ian Fleming biographer Andrew Lycett to get his opinion on whether planned rewrites to the 007 books are the adequate way to celebrate the publication of Fleming's oeuvre

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The James Bond you may appreciate today on film is far from the secret agent put on page by British author Ian Fleming. 

For the 70th anniversary of the publication of the first James Bond book, ‘Casino Royale’, Ian Fleming’s spy novels are to be republished and re-edited this year to accommodate 21st century sensitivities and remove content seen as offensive.

Ian Fleming Publications Ltd commissioned a review by “ sensitivity readers ”, which follows how the Roald Dahl oeuvre recently underwent a similar review and subsequent pruning in order to make the texts more inclusive.

Euronews Culture spoke to Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming’s biographer and author of the definitive Ian Fleming biography, ‘Ian Fleming’, to get his opinion on the recent changes planned by the UK publishing house and whether this form of censorship is the adequate way to celebrate the publication of Fleming’s oeuvre. 

Euronews Culture:We’ve seen the news of the Roald Dahl books being re-edited recently and now the Ian Fleming James Bond books are being revised to accommodate 21st century sensitivities. As the biographer of Ian Fleming, what was your immediate reaction to this news?

Andrew Lycett: My immediate opinion was that I come to Ian Fleming as his biographer and I read the books initially before I even got into the films, and as far as I’m concerned, the books are an extraordinary historical record. The fact is that if you want to understand what British society was like in the 1950s going into the 1960s, you could do worse than go straight to Ian Fleming. He gives an extraordinary overview of how Britain was beginning to come out of post-war austerity and beginning to discover the world, travel, material things, and sex. 

Fleming is pretty up front about the way he deals with these things, and that in a way explains some of the enduring popularity of the books. He was a pretty astute observer of things and he had worked as a journalist at Reuters and at the Sunday Times, and he was trying to convey a period.

I feel pretty strongly that it is what Fleming wrote and that it should stay that way. He’s not around to “Yes, I agree”. (...) Ian Fleming wrote what he wrote and the right thing is to keep it as it is.

This tampering with the past seems to be all the rage at the moment with UK publishing houses. Why is that in your opinion? Who are these new edited editions for?

That’s a very good question. I think that there is a concern, a wide-ranging cultural thing that we want to be inclusive. And we don’t want to turn off any readers. This is beyond my responsibility, but the fact is that publishers are very concerned to widen the range and diversity of readers of literature. And that takes different approaches. They can commission new books according to the way they want to be perceived, and it is a bit strange when they do it retrospectively and try to alter the writings of authors like Ian Fleming, whose work has been there for 70 odd years. I feel pretty strongly that it is what Fleming wrote and that it should stay that way. He’s not around to “Yes, I agree”.

A lot of the changes have to do with the way Fleming refers to race…

Yes, his publishers have decided to revise various phrases. There are aspects concerning the way people of different races are described and inevitably, these have changed somewhat. The way that Black people are described has definitely changed over the years, but whether it is the right thing to go back and try to alter the words that Ian Fleming actually wrote… I think that’s wrong. Ian Fleming wrote what he wrote and the right thing is to keep it as it is. I think that if publishers are concerned about it, they can put a disclaimer at the start of a book, and say that there are phrases and scenes even – because it’s not just about racial denominations, and there are descriptions of sexual activity which are… Having written his biography, I can say that Fleming was a sadist in his personal relations, and this creeps into some of the descriptions of sexual activity in his books.

The publishers are putting a disclaimer but apparently that wasn’t enough…

From my perspective, a disclaimer would be enough. They are working with an established cultural property, to put it in modish words, and they want to draw in new readers. But if you alter something slightly, that makes it a different property and consequently, people have to go out there and buy it in order to be up to date. And this all has to do with the fact that James Bond is up there, you know – it’s one of the two or three biggest cultural phenomena of the last 100 years and there is extraordinary intellectual property there. 

Could the publisher’s decision have something to do with copyright law, as Fleming’s works enter the public domain in 2034? In which case, does this decision to alter the words of Fleming come from a purely financial desire to further monetize literary 007 before it’s too late?

You could argue that the copyright ending in 2034 is quite a way down the line. I think that people who own literary properties, particularly ones which are this famous and valuable, are always looking to monetize it. If you remove potentially offensive references, it probably makes it easier to have a comic strip based on it or further video games based on it.

You can’t change James Bond. He is what he is. He is a character of his time.

There’s a lot that’s being said and written these days about toxic masculinity, and the character of James Bond is a sadist in many ways and hardly a role model… Are we looking at this decision the wrong way? Could it be a way of revisiting a character in a more positive light?

No doubt that it’s what they might say. But you can’t change James Bond. He is what he is. He is a character of his time – a sexist, not a misogynist – he likes women, but he is forceful in his approach to women, outside of the cultural norms of today.

Is this decision further sign that publishing houses are potentially underestimating readers and their capacity to appreciate literary works within their historical contexts?

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As a writer myself, I would say that is correct. But I know that publishing is a business – you can’t get away from that, and it always was. As the publisher has pointed out, there was one instance in which the American publisher of 'Live and Let Die' objected to a racial term and Fleming agreed to let that go.

Yes, a chapter heading which included the N-word.

Correct. And the decision to change it was Fleming’s. It wasn’t the publisher’s decision. My point is that he’s no longer around to have his say, so why change it further? But they’ve got to find some instance of it having happened, and they’re using that. But that supports my case, in the sense that if an author does it, fine, but for somebody to come along later and do it is not correct.

One thing about the announcement from Ian Fleming Publication is how confusing the methodology seems – for instance, they’re removing certain racial denominations, but seem to be keeping other aspects, such as homosexuality being referred to as “a stubborn disability” and how “women love semi-rape” in 'The Spy Who Loved Me'…

Yes, it’s a confusing cherry-picking, because the whole ethos of James Bond and his world remains, and to be realistic about it, the publishers realise that. It is cherry-picking because they can’t erase the whole world of James Bond, and that’s what people want to read about. It is its main selling point.

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It is a form of censorship, there’s no real doubt about that.

I wrote my university dissertation on Ian Fleming's Bond novels and focused them as a snapshot of the legacy of British colonialism. One thing that struck me about this news was that a whitewashing, no matter how mild, is revisionist history and could be dangerous in giving a misrepresentation of British attitudes with regards to race or sex at the time.

Absolutely. It is exactly that. I find that one of the features of the Ian Fleming oeuvre is that it is a unique historical record. To tamper with it would be tampering with history. As you rightly say, it gives you insights into colonialism, how Britain was retreating from Empire, especially when Bond visits Japan and realizes that the British Empire is not quite as powerful as he thought… Does altering a few words change that? On some level, not greatly, but I don’t think it’s the right thing, personally.

In your opinion, does this news set a dangerous precedent? For example, with regards to the films, does this mean that the Bond movies could be also revised, re-edited or censored for modern sensitivities?

It is a form of censorship, there’s no real doubt about that. But I don’t get any impression that the Bond film producers, EON, have any intentions like that. As a lot of people know, they have tried to make James Bond a more contemporary character, a more sympathetic figure – in the most recent film (No Time To Die), he’s even a family man. I feel that they have tried this before, but they always go back to realizing that the kernel of James Bond is what you could call the Connery image – the hard man, the killer who enjoys his life, and for various reasons, that has stood the test of time.

If you’re trying to celebrate 70 years of publication, it’s a good thing to have the original text. To have a different text is kind of odd. It’s not really celebrating Ian Fleming putting pen to paper in Jamaica prior to the first publication of the first book, Casino Royale.

After some pressure, the publishing house Puffin has announced that they will be releasing both versions of the Roald Dahlbooks: the original texts and the revised versions, with language revised to be more “inclusive”. Do you think that this could be acceptable for the 70th anniversary of 'Casino Royale', to release two different versions of the 12 Ian Fleming books in order to give readers a choice?

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That is a compromise. I’m not going to say that it’s a good compromise, but it’s a compromise that may appeal to some people. They’re trying to celebrate 70 years of Fleming in publication, but you could argue that if you’re trying to celebrate 70 years of publication, it’s a good thing to have the original text. To have a different text is kind of odd. It’s not really celebrating Ian Fleming putting pen to paper in Jamaica prior to the first publication of the first book, 'Casino Royale'.

Finally, do you have a personal favourite out of the 12 James Bond books?

I like 'From Russia With Love'. I like the broad sweep of it and it gives scope to a lot of Ian Fleming’s descriptive powers. I think I’m right in saying that it was the first one that I got my teeth into, so I have fond memories of that one. But there are others – 'Casino Royale' is a very good little novel – it’s got a lot in it.

Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels will be re-released in April by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. Check out the video above for extracts of the interview.

Video editor • Theo Farrant

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