Monday, January 4, 2010

39. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

At some point, my father-in-law gave Colin his collection of James Bond paperbacks. (Or Colin "borrowed" them, I'm not sure.) They've been sitting on our bookshelf for awhile now, and I don't think Colin has made a point to read any of them yet. We were talking about the Bond movies one day, and Colin mentioned that when they rebooted the franchise with Daniel Craig, they used Casino Royale as the basis for the story because that was the first book published. For some reason, that intrigued me. I thought it was a pretty cool move on the film makers' part. I asked him if we had a copy of Casino Royale and we found it sitting on the bookshelf with the others.

In Casino Royale, James Bond has what seems like an unusual assignment. MI6 has learned that a criminal named Le Chiffre is running a baccarat game at Casino Royale, in an effort to recover money he lost in a failed chain of brothels. Bond, the agency's best player, is sent to prevent Le Chiffre from winning, in hopes that Le Chiffre's gambling debts will provoke a Soviet spy agency to kill him. All goes to plan until Le Chiffre kidnaps Bond and his beautiful assistant, Vesper Lynd. The money is safely hidden while Le Chiffre tortures Bond for it, only to be assassinated by a Soviet spy. The spy spares Bond's life, and it takes weeks for him to recover. Bond and Vesper are vacationing afterward and Bond notices that Vesper is acting strangely. He begins to suspect her, and wakes one day to find that she has killed herself. In her suicide note, she explains the circumstances that led her to be a double agent. Bond, who had fallen in love with Vesper and hoped to retire and marry her, is devastated. Betrayed and hurt, he reports to MI6 that "The bitch is dead now."

I really enjoyed this book, more than I expected to. I've never been a big fan of the movies, and probably would never have seen Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace if Colin hadn't been so excited about them. For the most part, the stories and action were very interesting and I had a hard time putting the book down. I especially liked the background information provided on Le Chiffre, in the form of a file provided to Bond. I was not as into the card playing, at least not at first. Some scenes of the card playing were a bit dry and I got bored easily. But when it came down to the end of the game and Bond battling it out with Le Chiffre, it was very suspenseful (a pleasant surprise). Although this was the first book in the series, it didn't seem like it. The exposition seemed like that which would be included in any of the books, to help the reader keep up. It just doesn't seem like a beginner's effort, with its tightly woven plot and well-developed characters. Fleming tied everything together incredibly well at the end.

One last thing in response to the book: I was surprised at how blatantly sexist Bond was. I've always heard that criticism leveled toward these stories, but somehow I didn't expect it to be so outrageous. I'm used to living in a time when people trip over themselves trying to be as PC as possible, so it was quite a shock to read some of Bond's thoughts on women. Mind you, it's not as though this is a main emphasis in the book but it still took me by surprise.

We watched Casino Royale the movie after I finished the book, and it stacks up very well. They added minor plot lines and background info, including a couple of insane action sequences, but for the most part the plot of the movie hews closely to the plot of the book. The information on Le Chiffre that I liked so much in the book? Gone in the movie, but somehow it worked. It made him scarier in that format, which was effective. The torture scene? Basically line for line the same as the book. Colin thought I wouldn't be able to handle this scene as he obviously has a better appreciation for how painful that particular torture method would be. Apparently I have a harder heart than he thinks I do, because it didn't really bother me in either format -- it was appropriate to the story. Although I have to say, I really don't care for the actress that played Vesper. At least they didn't cast Scarlett Johansson.

In conclusion, I recommend both -- very highly!

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