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Casino Royale | Context

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Ian Fleming drew upon his own experiences in naval intelligence during World War II to add depth and realism to Casino Royale, but the plot itself likely stems from the national mood in Britain at the time. When Fleming wrote his first novel in 1952, the Korean War (1950–53) was at its peak and the Cold War had entered its sixth year. Fleming drew upon the West's fear of communism and homegrown spies to produce a thriller that not only entertained, but in a sense directly addressed the feelings of uneasiness in the postwar world.

The Cold War

The initial popularity of James Bond is a product of the Cold War (1947–91), which was characterized by a pervading sense of suspicion and fear between the West and the Soviet Union. Despite their ideological differences, Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union were all on the same side during World War II. At the war's end, the Soviets were charged with rebuilding Eastern Europe, while the other three nations focused on the West. Germany itself was divided between the two groups. Yet despite their partnership, the Western allies, particularly the United States and Britain, had grave concerns about the Soviet Union's intentions. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was known for his desire to expand the reach of communism, which Westerners perceived as a threat to their way of life. The Soviets had fears of their own, namely that a revitalized Germany would attack once again. To prevent that from happening, the Soviets installed communist governments in the territories under their control, effectively spreading communism. The West's fears were becoming a reality.

Communist regimes were in control of Eastern Europe, and the United States had pledged an enormous sum of money under the Marshall Plan to help revitalize the war-torn nations of Western Europe. The promised aid had the effect of ensuring the recipient countries' loyalty, including that of Britain, to the United States. Battle lines had been drawn, or, as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said, "an iron curtain ha[d] descended across the Continent." Tensions rose even further in 1949 when the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb. The threat of nuclear war loomed above the United States, which had already successfully used atomic bombs in 1945 to end the conflict against Japan in World War II. The nuclear threat also prompted other countries, including Britain, to establish nuclear programs of their own. Atomic weapons weren't the only concern—as early as 1945, there were reports of Soviet spies infiltrating the British, American, and Canadian governments. Fleming capitalized on the notion anyone could be a spy and created a character whose primary goal was to stop the spread of communism, an effort that immediately endeared him to readers. Bond's adventures weren't just exciting to read—they were cathartic for a Western population living in fear.

British Intelligence

Some of the first documented instances of spying for the British crown date all the way back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603). Yet it wasn't until the early 20th century spying lost its reputation as a dishonest way to make a living and became a legitimate profession. This shift can be attributed to the creation of the British Secret Service Bureau (SSB), which was founded in 1909 in response to reports Germany had plans to take over the British Empire. The SSB was tasked with gathering intelligence, or sensitive information, within the United Kingdom, while the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau operated overseas. Both entities have gone through numerous name changes over the years. Today, the domestic operation is officially known as the Security Service, or Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI5). The foreign branch is the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6). That is the department within which James Bond works, though Fleming refers to Bond's employers as the Secret Service throughout Casino Royale.

As its job is to remain in the shadows, not much is known about the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). The British government actually disavowed all knowledge of it and MI5 until 1992. Since then, SIS has released some of its history, but only up through 1949. It played an active role in gathering intelligence during both World Wars and that information was used by the British government to take preemptive action against the enemy.

However, the reality of working for the SIS is a lot different than portrayed in Fleming's books. For example, the agency employs agent-runners, not spies. Agent-runners reach out to a worldwide network of informants to gather needed information, which the British government then analyzes. Secondly, SIS agents do not have a license to kill. They must follow British laws at all times. Finally, SIS operates under a strong veil of secrecy. The point of being a secret agent is to blend into the shadows, so government agents don't engage in activities that draw attention. Fleming, who was intimately familiar with the workings of the SIS thanks to his wartime intelligence service, purposefully made Bond's occupation more dramatic and thrilling to entice readers.

Inspiration for James Bond and Casino Royale

The character of James Bond isn't based on any single real person, though many have claimed over the years they or their family members provided the template for 007. Some of the more notable suggestions include:

  • Sidney Reilly, a native Russian known as the "Ace of Spies," defected to spy for Japan and Britain. Acquaintances described him as an elegantly dressed man who had a reputation for his love of casinos, women, and fast living. He was executed in 1925 by Russian agents.
  • Sir William Stephenson, a "suave" Canadian with a penchant for martinis, founded Camp X, a Canadian spy school for Canadian, American, and British agents. He and Fleming met there and, according to Stephenson's fans, became very good friends.
  • Forest "Tommy" Yeo-Thomas, a World War II British spy, worked in naval intelligence. He and Fleming crossed paths when Fleming briefed his colleagues on Yeo-Thomas's escape from Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimer, Germany. There are striking similarities between several of Yeo-Thomas's real-life missions and Bond's fictional ones, including the torture Bond endures in Casino Royale. Yeo-Thomas suffered the same treatment at the hands of the Nazis.

There are also those who believe Fleming patterned Bond after himself. Though author and character have many of the same luxurious vices, Fleming's role during World War II was not that of a spy, but as an assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. Reports from spies around the world came across Fleming's desk, and his memories of those may have served as the basis for many of Bond's exploits.

The inspiration for Casino Royale itself came from a few different sources. In 1941 Fleming and the Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral John Godfrey, had a stopover in neutral Portugal. Both enjoyed gambling and went to a casino. As they left, Fleming wondered aloud what would have happened if the men they were playing against had been German spies. That idea remained with him and evolved into the plot of Casino Royale, which he wrote in less than two months at the beginning of 1952.

The double agent plot twist at the end of the book was inspired by real-life events. In 1951 two British Foreign Office employees, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, suddenly disappeared from their positions at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. Burgess had gotten wind Maclean was being investigated by Britain and the United States for spying for Russia. That was a problem because Burgess was also a Russian spy. The two men fled to England, then weren't seen again until 1956, when they resurfaced in Russia.

In fact Burgess and Maclean were part of the later famous Cambridge Five, a group of students at Cambridge University who disagreed with the notion of a capitalist democracy. Soviet intelligence officials recruited the five men as double agents in the 1930s. They each took high-ranking jobs in various parts of the British government and fed the Soviets classified information for nearly two decades. In addition to Burgess and Maclean, the Cambridge Five included Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross. The involvement of these three wasn't publicized until the mid-60s and 90s, but the story of Burgess and Maclean shocked England and likely sparked Fleming's imagination in writing Casino Royale.

Spy Fiction

As a genre, spy fiction (also known as espionage literature) didn't make its appearance until the early 20th century. That's in part because of the stigma attached to real spies, who were commonly thought of as liars and cheats. For a long time it was very difficult for writers to have a character who was a spy by profession the reader could sympathize with. That became easier as the United States and Great Britain began engaging in global wars, most notably World War II and the Cold War. Authors found natural enemies in Germany and, later, the Soviet Union, which allowed their own morally ambiguous characters to be accepted in the role of the hero. Fleming's James Bond stories set off a wave of interest in spy fiction, particularly those that offered plausible fantasies—beautiful women, exotic locales—that appeal to readers looking for an escape from the daily strain of wartime.

Spy fiction, which is often thought of as a subset of the adventure or mystery genres, includes at least some of the following characteristics and plot points:

  • a protagonist who is a spy or part of a group of spies
  • a high-stakes mission assigned to the protagonist at the beginning of the story
  • a clear distinction between good (the hero) and evil (the enemy)
  • thrilling and heroic exploits, which may include car chases, near-death experiences, and survival of interrogation or torture
  • disguises, double agents, and psychological deception
  • focuses on action and adventure rather than the solving of a puzzle (which is more suited to mysteries)
  • themes that question a rival country or political ideology and reflect the current mood of the author's country of allegiance

Casino Royale hits all these points, which isn't entirely surprising as it helped shape the genre into what it is today.

Critical Reception for Casino Royale

Initial reviews for Casino Royale were mixed. Thanks to Fleming's network of literary friends, many of the published reviews gave outright praise, but those who didn't know Fleming personally were more cautious in their assessments. Many critics objected to Fleming's use of violent imagery, particularly the torture scene. Others found the book's overt sexuality and misogynistic tone distasteful. Critic Bernard Bergonzi famously blasted Fleming's writing style as "rarely ris[ing] above the glossy prose of the advertising copywriter." Yet nearly everyone agreed Bond himself was a compelling protagonist, and his glamorous lifestyle was envied by a population still recovering from the ravages of World War II. The book sold extremely well, and audiences were eager for more.

The Bond Franchise

James Bond is arguably the most famous fictional spy in the world, and the character has appeared everywhere from books to movies to video games. Though he began as a literary character, he is best recognized by the masses as the protagonist of the longest-running film franchise of all time. From the beginning, Fleming wanted to bring Bond out of paperbacks and onto the big screen. In 1959 he wrote a treatment, or outline, for a new Bond story specifically meant for film. Producers were keen on the idea at first, but interest faded and Fleming repurposed the plot in his eighth novel, Thunderball.

Fleming got another chance in 1961 when American film producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli and his producing partner Harry Saltzman obtained the rights to turn Fleming's stories into movies. The first, Dr. No, was based on Fleming's sixth book and released into theaters in 1962. It was a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and Bond-mania ensued. The 1960s were awash with Bond-themed merchandise, from toys, games, and clothes to men's toiletries. To date there have been over 20 Bond films. Sean Connery was the first actor to play the globe-trotting spy, followed by George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig.

The literary version of Bond continued after Fleming's death in 1964. Kingsley Amis wrote the first book in the continuation of the series, Colonel Sun, in 1968. Writer John Gardner picked up the series from 1981–85, followed by Raymond Benson from 1997–2002, Sebastian Faulks in 2008, Jeffery Deaver in 2011, and William Boyd in 2014. Bond's age, rank, and missions have all been adapted to fit each author's writing style, but those who are the most successful pay homage to Fleming's pithy prose and attention to detail.

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