From Novel to Film pt. 23: On Her Majesty's Secret Service


"Worry is a dividend paid to disaster before it is due."


Fleming wrote the 10th book in the James Bond series at Goldeneye in January and February of 1962. At the same time and right down the road, production began on Dr. No. Fleming visited the set regularly. I'm sure there was a reasonable hope that the film would be a big success, but did anyone present have any inkling that the torch was being passed from Bond's creator to Eon Productions right in front of their eyes?

It puts the writing of On her Majesty's Secret Service at an interesting crossroads. The only in-text memento from this overlap is a namecheck of Ursula Andress, who at the time of writing was not a household name but at the time of publication was a global phenomenon. How it worked on Fleming's sub-conscious is unknown, but it's interesting to think about.

At the start of the novel, James Bond is in France - specifically that fictional seaside resort town Royale-les-Eaux where we first met him in Casino Royale. Officially, he's hunting for clues on the whereabouts of Ernst Blofeld, who disappeared after the events of Thunderball. Unofficially, he's there for his yearly pilgrimage to Vesper Lynd's grave and to gamble. 

The gambling can sometimes be a bit opaque:
"James Bond confidently bancoed the Lille tycoon on his left, won, made up the cagnotte with a few small counters and doubled the stake to two thousand New Francs - two hundred thousand of the old."
At the baccarat table he meets -
Teresa di Vicenzo aka Tracy aka the soon-to-be Mrs. Bond.

Bond takes her for a suicide, but something about her touches him deeply. He feels "for the first time in his life, totally inadequate." After he prevents her from drowning, they are quickly surrounded and taken at gunpoint to Marc-Ange Draco, 

the head of Union Corse
and Bond's future father-in-law.

Draco is more than a little reminiscent of Darko Kerim from From Russia With Love, right down to the rape in his origin story. He is concerned for Tracy, whom he tells Bond has been a deeply depressed wild child for years. He sees in Bond the man to snap her out of it, more or less, and offers up an old-school dowry of a million pounds. 

Bond wants nothing to do with the dowry but agrees to help, partly out of curiosity about Tracy and partly for any info Draco can provide on Blofeld's whereabouts. He eventually learns that Blofeld has assumed the identity of the Count Balthazar de Bleuville, an eccentric millionaire who runs a research institute atop his own privately-owned Alp, Piz Gloria. Bleuville has contacted the College of Arms in London for formal confirmation of his "Count" title. 

Bond visits the College and, with the able assistance of the awesomely-named Sable Basilisk

(Fleming came to the name through a rather involved process), comes up with a plan.
He pretends to be Sir Hilary Bray, a lineage researcher from the College who travels to Switzerland to allegedly assist the would-be Count personally.

Bond goes in cold - no weapon, no back-up, no easy way to extract him if things go pear-shaped.  

Bond is told the Count has been curing a group of young UK women of their livestock and food allergies. Through his own efforts, though, he learns the girls are being brainwashed to carry biological warfare agents back to the UK to destroy the agricultural economy.
This is ratcheted up to the world's food supply in the film.
Believing himself discovered, Bond escapes by skiing down the mountain. He is quickly pursued by SPECTRE agents.

This ski chase down the mountainside is easily the novel's most exciting sequence, perhaps the best action sequence in all of Fleming's writing altogether. It's damn difficult to choose a representative section, though, that backs up this sort of bold talk. Definitely a sum-greater-than-its-parts sort of deal. Suffice it to say, I agree with this Bond blogger's father: 

"It was pretty good in the movie," he allowed, "but it's awesome in the book."
The movie adds another ski chase - and Tracy to it -
as well as this blood-and-guts snow-geyser of an unfortunate SPECTRE agent's remains.
It also adds Blofeld as one of the pursuers and expands his final escape via bobsled.

Bond thwarts Blofeld's bio-terrorism scheme, but he and his number two (Irma Bunt) escape. Meanwhile, Tracy and James get married. 

The movie makes it a big wedding, with people like Q in attendance; in the book, it's a simple civil ceremony.
Symbolically wedding the Union Corse with MI6, as well - interesting.

Please to pardon my broad-strokes overview. It's fitting that it takes place (at least in part) in the same locale as Casino Royale. The Bond of OHMSS is not the same, emotionally or psychologically, as the Bond of Casino Royale. By placing the action where Bond had his relationship with Vesper, it sets up an interesting parallel to how he absorbs Tracy's: in shock, cradling her body, repeating

"we have all the time in the world."
This completes (at least in my eyes/ as befits this novel) the "Bond family motto" motif: We have all the time in the world, (but) the world is not enough.

Unlike Casino Royale, where we sit with Bond in the weeks after Vesper's suicide and watch his emotions gradually calcify, the reader doesn't see the impact of her death on Bond until the next book in the series (You Only Live Twice.) For the dramatic purposes of this novel, however, we don't need to. It's all very dead-female-syndrome, sure, but they're used for different purposes at key junctures of Bond's original character arc. They mirror one another, but they emphasize and reflect different themes.

Fleming's writing is strong throughout OHMMS for the most part, though there is the occasional foray into exclamation-point-heavy interior monologue.

"You bastard! You're a dead duck! You can't stop or fire back. I'm coming after you like lightning! Soon I shall be only ten, five yards behind you. Then you'll have it!"

I'm fine with a little of that. And it's by no means overdone. Just an example. The writing is consistent with Fleming's other Bonds. Particularly his random observations, i.e. why do French girls have such prominent navels? or passages like this: 

"As the taxi got under way, Bond made his plan for the evening. He would first do an extremely careful packing job of his single suitcase, the one that had no tricks to it, have two double vodkas and tonics with a dash of angostura, eat a large dish of May's specialty - scrambled eggs fines herbes - have two more vodkas and tonics, and then, slightly drunk, go to bed with half a gram of Seconal. Encouraged by this prospect of cozy self-anesthesia, Bond brusquely kicked his problems under the carpet of his consciousness." 

The amount of eggs and drinks consumed and cigarettes smoked throughout these books is remarkable. I'm hardly the first to notice, but man. How did the guy get anything done?



The plot is more or less the same. The beginning is retooled so Bond can save Tracy - without officially meeting her until the baccarat scene - and get into a fist-fight on the beach.

"This never happened to the other fella."

The Bondverse is not conducive to breaking the fourth wall, but all things considered, it works here. This was a great way to break George Lazenby as the new Bond.

Viewing Lazenby's performance through the lens of this From Novel to Film series made me realize how well the Bond character from the book materializes onscreen. I've always liked the movie, as well as Lazenby's portrayal of Bond * but I've always seen both in context of the Bond adventures surrounding it. This time around - and perhaps the credit is equally-if-not-more due to director Peter Hunt and screenwriters Simon Raven and Richard Maibaum - I focused more on film-Bond-vs-book-Bond's respective character arcs. 

"Oh, James..."

* Had the film been a huge hit and Lazenby not left the series on the mistaken advice of his agent, my intuition, based solely on his performance here, is that he would be one of the better-regarded Bonds. 

While we're here, I love this scene where Bond breaks into the solicitor's office to steal info regarding Sir Hilary Bray and Blofeld. It's not exactly a watershed moment for Bond, but Lazenby handles it seamlessly, and the score is absolutely perfect.

But Lazenby, alas, listened to his agent, who told him the Bond franchise would not survive. This left his costar Diana Rigg on her own to promote the film, and the two aired some of their dirty laundry from the set in the papers. 

Speaking of Mrs. Peel, fellow Avengers actress Joanna Lumley plays one of Blofeld's would-be Angels of Death.

Diana Rigg, of course, is fantastic. Without her - and the believability of the love affair between James and Tracy - the movie falls apart. 

We've seen Bond with a lot of women by this stage in the series, so Tracy has/had to be more than just someone Bond would sleep with. The Tracy of the book touches Bond because she is equal parts accidie and rage, the public school expelee redeemed and damned by war. Rigg is certainly all of that, but she has to be the right mix of vulnerable, enticing, aloof, sincere, reckless, resigned, and even relatable. 

No small feat to pull off, and she does, absolutely.
All the more remarkable considering how they didn't get along particularly well during filming.
I've mentioned my love of "We Have All the Time in the World" in these pages, but let me just say it again. Just a perfectly arranged and performed tune.
It takes another 6 Bond films for Tracy to be referenced again.

Draco is played by Gabriele Ferzetti and - as Darko / Bey before him in From Russia with Love - is softened considerably. (i.e. no rape-talk) As for Blofeld, played by Telly Savalas - 

is he the best Blofeld of the series? Probably. At least of the ones we've seen - I have a feeling we'll need to revisit this after SPECTRE comes out in a few months. Sure, there's some visual difference between Savalas and the Blofeld of the book, who is described as tall and thin with a shock of silver hair, but the visual of the character had already been established in the films. 

Curiously, despite meeting one another face-to-face in You Only Live Twice, the film prior to OHMSS, Blofeld doesn't recognize Bond. Another in-joke about Lazenby getting the role? Probably not. (In the book, it makes sense, as Bond and Blofeld never met face-to-face in Thunderball.)  

Two other small changes: Blofeld blows Bond's cover as Sir Hilary Bray directly in the film, and it is he (in a neck brace) who is driving the car from which Irma Bunt assassinates Tracy. 

What else? Piz Gloria looks fantastic.

Final Verdict: The book is my third favorite of Fleming's Bond novels. The movie is probably my third favorite of all the Bond films. Nice symmetry. As an adaptation, it's quite faithful: very much a worthy realization of Fleming's novel onscreen. 


  1. There is a way you can rationalize the Blofeld-not-recognizing-Bond thing: remember, in the movie version of "You Only Live Twice," Bond (ostensibly) has some procedures done to make him appear to be Japanese. IF -- and it's a big "if," I'll grant you -- you wish to say that the story of that movie is that the procedure is a success, then you can say further that the fact that Sean Connery never looks like anything other than Sean Connery is merely a poor makeup job on the part of the technical team on "You Only Live Twice."

    In that scenario, the Blofeld of OHMSS wouldn't recognize Bond because he'd never seen what Bond actually looks like before. And he doesn't recognize the voice because Bond is doing a wicked Hilary Bray impersonation.

    The real reason, of course, is that they reversed the orders of the books; that, plus in the sixties nobody cared all that much about continuity considerations. In other words, I don't think anybody making the movies gave a crap that Bond had just gone up against Blofeld. It's sloppy on their part, but when the result is a movie this good, I'd say sloppiness is very forgivable.

    1. This is all very true. I kind of love the rationale of Blofeld not recognizing Bond because of his uncanny Hilary Bray impersonation and the surely-the-work-of-the-devil disguise-surgery of "You Only Love Twice." It's a seriously entertaining universe where that is the case, and I'm all for it.

      As I write these words, literally, over my shoulder, Moore-Bond just escaped the alligator pit in "Live and Let Die" by the infamous step-to-it method.

    2. Those guys in the drug warehouse are in for a surprise...

  2. I love all these Deep-Thoughts-by-Jack-Handy observations Bond is given by Fleming. I mean, really, though; why DO French women have such prominent navals? (I'm taking Bond/Fleming at his word.) That seems like a matter worth researching.

    I'd forgotten Fleming mentions Ursula Andress in the novel. I've been trained by decades of reading Stephen King to wonder whether that is a metafictional clue designed to indicate that the novel is set in the Keystone Universe or some other. Ian Fleming's Dark Tower; now THERE'S something I'd read.

    I'd also completely forgotten that the novel's opening is set at Casino Royale. Very cool! As much as I love the movie, I do think they dropped the ball by having the saved-from-drowning scene come first. Tracy's actions in the casino mean a lot more if you view them as a last-night-on-Earth activity. It only hurts the movie in relation to the book, though.

    1. Absolutely agreed on all these points. Ian Fleming's Dark Tower! That would be something, damn it. One for Lucien's Library/ the damn-Ur-Kindle.

      I hope someone gets around to building that damn Ur-Kindle. This is getting ri-goddamn-diculous.

      So far what's missing from the Gardners (though I support the idea of making the series his own) is these Jack Handey moments from Bond. Their absence lends the Gardner books an unintended verisimilitude, though, as they definitely seems like older-Bond-stuff, like he's outgrown the meandering what-ifs of his youth. Or something. I miss them, though - they're a big part of the appeal of Fleming's writing.

    2. That element of Fleming is almost entirely missing from the movies, too, isn't it? I'm trying to think of any instance of that sort of thing happening, and I'm coming up with nothing. Might be due to being up WAY too late, though, so correct me if I'm wrong.

      I look forward to hearing what you have to say about the Gardner books. I remember very little about them, except that I liked them a lot.

  3. On her Majesty's Secret Service is one the best bond films-up there with Casino Royale-the Daniel Craig one-not the David Niven,that is worste ever.

    1. Couldn't agree more - on all counts. I don't even rate the David Niven one a Bond film, myself! What a waste of a great cast.