Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: Licence Renewed, by John Gardner

Licence Renewed was John Gardner's first attempt at succeeding Ian Fleming in continuing the James Bond narrative. Kingsley Amis first attempted to further the legacy with the late-sixties Colonel Sun, meaning for twelve years the only Bond the world had known was that of the movies, complete with improbable infamy and impossible gadgetry.

Published in 1981, the frontispiece announces grandiosely that "James Bond enters the 1980s" and Gardner, in his own "Author's Note" makes a big deal that all the technology his Bond uses was readily available on either the open or black market. Bond is also characterised with the hallmarks of his literary incarnation - specially blended cigarettes, housekeeper May and a three-inch scar down his right cheek.

No matter how well drawn his 007 is in theory, in practice Gardner's superspy is the same man portrayed cinematically by Roger Moore for a decade: a man of action thrown into the lair of a dangerous and megalomaniacal opponent. The dangerous opponent makes his moves in almost a chapter-by-chapter feel; with Gardner apparently feeling the need to follow the "one small battle followed by a larger one" the EON films were favouring at the time. Licence Renewed reads more like a film novelisation, complete with scenes feeling very set-piecey, rather than a slow exposition detailing Bond's efforts to stop a maniac's attempts to earn power. Whereas the early (and best) Bonds were thrillers, Licence Renewed is an action novel.

It's no coincidence the most successful Bond film in recent memory is Casino Royale. Even though most knew what was going to happen, the filmmakers were still able to engage the viewer encouraging a "What happens now?" attitude. The follow-up, Quantum of Solace, is inferior in nearly every way - continuity-heavy, action-fuelled and thin on plot. That's precisely like the comparison here between a Fleming novel and this Gardner one. It's not bad - just not Fleming.

With Fleming, James Bond had opinions and spent a lot of time thinking and reasoning his way around a problem. He had opinions (the most infamous being that homosexuals couldn't whistle!) and was a fully-coloured character in his own right. His supporting cast were filled in so the reader believed they had a life outside the pages of his works. This isn't something on which you can compliment Gardner and even Bond's opinions, you feel, are those of the author himself. The less said about the the henchmen - generically evil - and love interest(s) - vapid and stolen straight from the movies - the better.

You could do much worse than spend four hours reading Licence Renewed. But you could also do a lot worse than watching The Spy Who Loved Me. But both pale in comparison to the works which made Bond justly famous.

Golf Balls.

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