You haven’t really encountered James Bond until you’ve experienced the original Ian Fleming novels. So what to make of these new recordings (available at AudioGo from 6 September) of the classic stories, as read by a starry array of British acting talent? We put 007 Reloaded in our sights….
1) Casino Royale (read by Dan Stevens)
The torture sequence in this first Bond adventure is certainly one of the most gruesome passages in the entire canon, so it’s no surprise that actor Dan Stevens describes it as “rather horrible”. In it, 007 is sat naked on a cane chair (only one without a seat) and has his private parts flogged with a carpet beater. Nearly 60 years on, it’s still an incredibly visceral moment. But it’s not the only part of the novel to have surprised the Downton Abbey actor: “The end of the book gets all sort of mushy and romantic. I hadn’t really associated that with Bond so much. I know Bond always gets the girl, but I didn’t know he got quite so romantically involved.”
Listen to Dan Stevens reading from Casino Royale here:
2) Live and Let Die (read by Rory Kinnear)
Narrator Rory Kinnear is the first to admit that his “knowledge of James Bond comes from the films rather than the books”. And anyone else in the same position will be startled by some of the events depicted here: a shark attack on Felix Leiter? Didn’t that happen in Licence to Kill? Bond being keel-hauled over a coral reef? For Your Eyes Only, surely? But then this is 007 as envisioned by Ian Fleming and, as Kinnear notes, it’s fantastic to hear them “put down as originally intended”.
Listen to Rory Kinnear reading from Live and Let Die here:
3) Moonraker (read by Bill Nighy)
“I made a familiar, lazy assumption that if it were a genre novel broadly speaking then it might not be of the first rank in terms of writing,” says Bill Nighy. “I was mistaken. It’s an assumption one should never make. Ian Fleming writes beautifully.” And there are some choice moments in Moonraker. For example, there’s this elegant line – ‘He shrugged his shoulders to shift the pain of failure – the pain that is so much greater than the pleasure of success.’ Terrific.
Listen to Bill Nighy reading from Moonraker here:
4) Diamonds are Forever (read by Damian Lewis)
“Any man of my generation probably has had a fantasy at one time or other about being James Bond,” Damian Lewis admits. “All the girls fantasise about being with him and all the men fantasise about being him.” And it’s evident that Lewis has had a lot of fun inhabiting the world of Bond here, despite this being one of Fleming’s more lukewarm outings. The American hoods that are pitted against our hero just don’t have the pizzazz of, say, Blofeld or Rosa Klebb, although hitmen Wint and Kidd do have an eccentric charm of their own.
Listen to Damian Lewis reading from Diamonds are Forever here:
5) From Russia with Love (read by Toby Stephens)
Toby Stephens is no stranger to the franchise having starred as megavillain Gustav Graves in Die Another Day and Bond himself in a number of BBC Radio 4 dramatisations. So how does he go about playing 007? “He’s a simple character in terms of how you should play him,” the actor notes. “He’s about functionality, simplicity and getting the job done. I’m not trying to laden him with innuendo.” It helps, of course, that this is one of the best Bond novels, in that it contains the brilliant stand-off between the secret agent and SMERSH’s chief killer, Red Grant, on board the Orient Express. It’s truly thrilling stuff.
Listen to Toby Stephens reading from From Russia with Love here:
One notable aspect of Fleming’s stories – and Dr No in particular – is the lack of resources that Bond has to draw upon: “He has to improvise his weapons,” explains Hugh Quarshie. “He doesn’t have the gadgets that the ‘film Bond’ has. He loses his gun so he has to steal a knife. He makes a spear out of wire – he’s a sort of MacGyver before MacGyver.” And weaponry is something that 007 could sorely do with in this Jamaica-set tale – Dr No’s torture run that evaluates the body’s resistance to pain sounds particularly evil.
Listen to Hugh Quarshie reading from Dr No here:
7) Goldfinger (read by Hugh Bonneville)
It’s a question that’s often been asked: why does Pussy Galore decide to switch sides and help 007? The answer sits somewhat uneasily with Hugh Bonneville: “Ian Fleming’s attitude to Pussy Galore and her sexuality took my slightly by surprise. I didn’t realize he was quite so bold, saying that she and her lesbian mob could be turned by a good strong man like Bond, which are values that we wouldn’t espouse today.”
Bonneville’s first brush with Bond dates back to 1997 when he had a small role as an Air Warfare Officer in Tomorrow Never Dies: “In the climax of the movie, the British Navy takes on the Chinese Navy in the South China seas. And I thought, ‘fantastic, three weeks in Thailand. Marvellous! Beaches, all that. It was two days in a simulator in Portsmouth.”
Listen to Hugh Bonneville reading from Goldfinger here:
8) Thunderball (read by Jason Isaacs)
Jason Isaacs had a similar experience to Hugh Quarshie (see Dr No, above) when it came to literary Bond in that they both found the secret agent’s ability to improvise quite refreshing: “His plans are rough and ready. He’s more fallible in every way than I’d imagined. He doesn’t do outrageous or fantastical things. At any point, calamity might strike.” And indeed, Bond comes close to death on a number of occasions – first, on a traction machine at Shrublands health farm, then later in a tense underwater battle. “In the end he has to be rescued by the vulnerable girl,” notes Isaacs.
Listen to Jason Isaacs reading from Thunderball here:
9) The Spy Who Loved Me (read by Rosamund Pike)
“The story bears almost no resemblance to the film at all,” comments Rosamund Pike. It’s little wonder, seeing as Ian Fleming made it a specific requirement of his selling the rights to Eon Productions that the movie should feature a completely different plot. You can see why – The Spy Who Loved Me in print is a complete anomaly, being narrated in the first person by a French Canadian by the name of Vivienne and featuring a narrative that’s light years away from traditional espionage. “The villains are perhaps less arch designers of doom and more petty thugs,” says Pike, summing up why this tale doesn’t feel much like a 007 assignment at all.
Listen to Rosamund Pike reading from The Spy Who Loved Me here:
10) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (read by David Tennant)
Yes, it’s the Bond yarn where the unthinkable happens: 007 gets wed! “You have this extraordinary thing where James Bond, the ultimate bachelor, gets married,” enthuses narrator David Tennant. “I was aware that this is the story where that happens, but it still comes as a surprise. I think it comes as a surprise to Bond himself in the book. It seems to come from left field, this extraordinary decision he makes in the airport to wed, which he seems to make sense of to himself retrospectively. I think that’s quite interesting.”
One other aspect that surprised Tennant was how faithful the film of OHMSS turned out to be, something which can’t be said of all Bond movies: “I daresay that’s a tribute to the narrative of this book in that it was hard to resist when they came to film it. It’s got a forward momentum and drive that carries you through.”
Listen to David Tennant reading from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service here:
11) You Only Live Twice (read by Martin Jarvis)
Where would the world of audio books be without the great Martin Jarvis, a man whose ability to take on different guises when narrating stories is unsurpassed? If evidence were needed of that brilliance, just pay attention to Jarvis’s Tiger Tanaka and Kissy Suzuki in his reading of this brooding, Japan-set entry. “It’s an extraordinary thriller about what a man might do to take revenge on something that’s happened to him,” says Jarvis, who has previously produced several 007 dramatizations for Radio 4. “It really goes into the psychology of Bond.”
Listen to Martin Jarvis read from You Only Live Twice here:
12) The Man with the Golden Gun (read by Kenneth Branagh)
“The character of Scaramanga, both his name and particular marking – having this third nipple – make him memorable and sort of unsettling,” remarks Branagh. But it’s not just the superfluous papilla that makes this principal villain and professional assassin disturbing – after all, this is a man who has sex before a kill just to improve his eye and enjoys slaughtering innocent birds. As for the character of Bond, Branagh finds that there’s more “chewy, internal reflection and conjecture” on the page than there is in the movies, with 007 more prone to pondering on the personal and moral cost of taking a life.
Listen to Kenneth Branagh reading from The Man with the Golden Gun here: