Thunderball (James Bond (Original Series))
‘Thunderball’ had its origins as a screenplay that Fleming was working on with two other writers so, in a sense, it would seem ready-made for film with Fleming’s book as the novelization of the screenplay. All of this took shortly before the famous film series was launched, with ‘Thunderball’ coming out over a year before the film ‘Dr. No.’ It is a fairly cinematic novel, although there is still much exposition and internal monologue that would need to be excised from any workable screenplay.
Unlike the film series, in which the terrorist organization SPECTRE and its master mind Ernst Stavro Blofeld were introduced from the beginning, ‘Thunderball’ is the first novel of the series that features this organization and its supervillain. The reason for the emergence of SPECTRE is partially because the Soviet organization Smersh was dismantled by Nikita Khrushchev in 1958. What are ex-foreign spies to do to stay in business? Blofeld provides them with a second career, assembling ex-Smersh, Gestapo, Mafiosi and other refugees from foreign intelligence. SPECTRE is an acronym for Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. The mission that will thrust them on the world stage is a blackmail plot involving the hijacking of a jet carrying two nuclear bombs. Ransom letters are sent both to the Prime Minister of Britain and the President of the United States giving them seven days to hand over $300,000,000. Or is that pounds? It’s a large amount (for 1961) regardless of the currency. This, of course, is Terrorism circa early 1960’s, where the terrorists issue warnings with escape clauses (at least on the surface), unlike their 21st century counterpart Al Qaeda.
By coincidence, Bond has already encountered a key player in the SPECTRE plot, whom he made an enemy with a vendetta by reporting him for his connection with the Red Lightning Tong criminal organization. Bond follows his hunches and suspects, rightly, that Emilio Largo, a rich Italian property owner in the Bahamas with a massive luxury yacht, is the agent responsible for executing the plan for removing the bombs from the sunken aircraft and transporting them to a location where they can be detonated. Bond is reunited with his old C.I.A. buddy Felix Leiter and they both make the acquaintance of Largo. Meanwhile, Bond also coincidentally makes the acquaintance of Largo’s mistress, Domino Vitali, who also happens to be the sister of the primary hijacker who was himself murdered by other SPECTRE agents.
Despite the grandiosity of the scenario and the megalomania of the villains, Fleming infuses ‘Thunderball’ with a convincing air of authenticity. The sadism of the villains is more understated than those from ‘Goldfinger,’ ‘Dr. No’ and ‘From Russia With Love’ and the hand to hand combat minimized (or at least confined to underwater battles).The characters are actually relatively believable and their motivations stem naturally from what we know of them. Even though the blackmail plot is far-fetched it holds together better than Goldfinger’s ludicrous Ft. Knox heist. Largo possesses a smooth, oily charm (merely the veneer for malevolent desires) that I can see not tipping off the unsuspecting. In other words, he doesn’t walk around like Dr. No and Goldfinger with a sign on his head stating ‘I’m a world class villain’.
Domino, the obligatory Bond girl (the only one in this novel as opposed to the three or four in most of the films), is also a fully dimensional person (at least within the dimensions of the world of Bond). She is tough and refuses to back down even when tortured. She is not demonstrative in her swooning to Bond’s animal charms and she also saves his life.
Felix Leiter, in some novels simply the C.I.A. sidekick whose presence signifies that Fleming is throwing the Americans a bone, is here in all his sarcastic glory. There is much more dialogue in this novel between him and Bond than in previous novels. His role in the case is almost as essential as Bond’s and he has a wry, cynical outlook that he never hesitates to express. Actually, he reminds me of Donald Hamilton’s American James Bond equivalent, Matt Helm (forget the absurd Dean Martin film depiction). This is probably as close as we will ever get to see what the experience of Bond and Helm working together would be like.
I see this novel as Fleming’s attempt to move James Bond forward in time—new decade, new villains. This is the international espionage of the future, he seemed to be saying, where spying can no longer be viewed as the opposition of nationalities but as the opposition of national world powers with freelance terrorist organizations. In a general sense, his prediction was on the nose even if the details differed significantly.