The jaunty final song on the 1996 Trainspotting soundtrack contains no lyrics other than the titles of James Bond stories, with Blur frontman Damon Albarn intoning the words “Dr. No” and “Thunderball” like a sarcastic prayer. The song scans like a joke—one where the punchline is Bond films starring Sean Connery. The track is called “Closet Romantic,” which suggests another humorous layer: perhaps the character of James Bond, despite his checkered reputation, could be redeemable—maybe even a secret softie. But does James Bond really have a soul? In the 1995 film GoldenEye, Bond’s boss (Judi Dench) calls him “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur… a relic of the Cold War.” And if you glance at random chapters from Ian Fleming’s novels, you might be inclined to agree. Superficially, these books are about a 1950s Englishman obsessed with his own manhood and stressed out about communism.
So, in 2023, can we read Fleming’s James Bond novels for any reason other than historical curiosity? Are the books about anything other than a guy drinking martinis and being horrible? A closer and more nuanced look may surprise you.
On April 13, 2023, James Bond celebrates his 70th birthday: the first Ian Fleming 007 novel Casino Royale was published on this day in 1953. To commemorate the occasion, the Fleming estate is reissuing all fourteen Bond books—twelve novels and two short story collections—including some eyebrow-raising changes. As was widely reported in February 2023, by the Fleming estate itself in a concise statement and by several news outlets, many of the original books have been updated with changes that remove racially offensive words. Unlike the changes to Roald Dahl’s books, these new editions of Ian Fleming’s Bond books will not contain any new lines, and in some of the novels, like Casino Royale, no changes will be made at all. In the case of the most egregiously racist book, Live and Let Die, the n-word has been omitted. While this could scan as an attempt to sanitize the Fleming books, the history of these changes is far more interesting than a literary estate performing some politically convenient self-censorship—and the result could be utterly transformative to the accessibility of the literary James Bond.
In Live and Let Die, Bond heads to Harlem on a mission. In the first British edition of the novel, CIA agent Felix Leiter uses the n-word to describe the atmosphere of a specific club, which also serves as part of the title for Chapter Five. The word is horrible in any book, but, in this context, Fleming, a British guy who knew nothing about Americans in general and even less about African Americans, was clumsily attempting to reference a 1926 Carl Van Vechten novel about the Harlem Renaissance. Leiter doesn’t use the word to insult the club, and at no point in the novel is James Bond found calling anyone the n-word, nor does he treat people of color the way his cinematic equivalent Sean Connery does in the 1962 film Dr. No.
But this is not to say that the Bond of the novels is a racial progressive. In Live and Let Die, Fleming—an upper-crust British elite—imbues his white savior characters (including Bond) with a sense of racism by default. Even if Bond and Leiter are not bad people, their racism emerges from the ingrained white supremacy of a white author who, it should be noted, wrote his novels in Jamaica while the island was still a British colony. Live and Let Die was the second Bond book Fleming wrote, and a direct sequel to Casino Royale. The overall plot is much less interesting than its predecessor, making it a very rough place to start if you’re looking for redeemable qualities in the Bond novels.
And yet, although the literary character of James Bond is a racist by default—by merely existing as a white man in a white supremacist power structure in the 1950s—if you read the Fleming books, it’s very hard to describe him as a bigot. In fact, just the opposite. In Diamonds Are Forever, Fleming gives us the line: “Bond had a natural affection for coloured people,” which, as journalist Matthew Parker points out in his 2016 Fleming biography Goldeneye, is obviously “patronizing.” But Parker also observes that Fleming has some “good intentions,” and that in Live and Let Die, Bond’s ebullient love of Harlem was a radical concept for a white English writer of Fleming’s time. Live and Let Die was published in 1954 in the UK and the United States, roughly a decade before the Civil Rights Act began the painful process of dismantling segregation. So, putting a white English secret agent in Harlem is a double-edged sword; it’s progressive for the time, but also extremely racist because of when it was written. As Parker writes: “[Bond’s] affection is genuine, then, but based on what we would now see as racist clichés.”
So does the removal of the n-word from Live and Let Die make the book less racist? Probably not, but, arguably, it makes the book more readable today. And it should be noted that the removal of the n-word from this novel has already happened, way back in 1954; for American readers, it was an edit they likely never noticed. While one can’t imagine a world in which someone like Ernest Hemingway would have agreed for his racial slurs to be censored, Ian Fleming gladly accepted changes made by his then-American publisher, Al Hart of Macmillan. Essentially, Hart felt that the use of the n-word in the novel was egregious and should be changed. Hart also cut a line where Leiter casually refers to New York as “the jungle.” When Live and Let Die was first published in America, racial slurs had already largely been eliminated from Fleming’s original text. According to several sources, including Andrew Lycett’s 1995 biography Ian Fleming, it appears that Fleming had no problems with Hart’s changes to his books, and generally deferred to his American editors.
In their 2023 statement, the Fleming estate vowed to retain the changes made to the American Live and Let Die in 1954. So unlike his real-life friend Roald Dahl (who wrote the screenplay for You Only Live Twice), Ian Fleming is almost certainly not rolling over in his grave, despite what conservatives might say.
Enjoying James Bond while acknowledging the historical context of the stories is something 007 fans grapple with all the time. In 2021, Jeffrey Wright, who played Felix Leiter in three Bond films, told me, “I love James Bond, but I always had a very healthy skepticism of British colonialism and imperialism. If you think about these things critically, you understand the limitations of what that perspective is. I think I was able to do that as a kid.”
While Wright was mostly referencing the perception of the 007 cinematic universe and its own mixed legacy, this thinking applies to the novels, too. In fact, the push from the Fleming estate to reissue the Bond novels with changes suggested by sensitivity readers is smart for two reasons. For one thing, they’ve done it once before, in 1955. But back then, the Bond of the books didn’t have to contend with his cinematic doppelgänger. This leads us to the second reason this move makes sense: the changes allow readers who have never met Book Bond to see him as a separate entity from the on-screen character.
In Fleming’s novels, new readers will find a man who is much more complex than in the movies. This dichotomy leads to the second major discussion around James Bond novels in general: why try to erase racism if you’re not going to eliminate sexism? In an article for Time, author Clementine Ford pointed out, “One has to ask why sexism and the dehumanization of women is not considered anathema to Bond’s appeal, but central to it.”
This idea suggests an intellectual slam dunk: the Fleming estate can make Bond seem less racist, but they can’t (or won’t) change his misogynistic ways. However, this argument rests on the notion that the character of James Bond in the novels is truly misogynistic, a man who abuses women and routinely rapes them. The thing is, for those who read these books with a close eye, that description sounds closer to Movie Bond than Book Bond.
“A lot of the particularly problematic elements, particularly of the Connery films, they’re just not there in the books,” David Lowbridge-Ellis tells Esquire. Lowbridge-Ellis, a leading Bond scholar, runs the blog License to Queer, in which he regularly unpacks LGBTQ themes and imagery embedded in all the exploits of James Bond. “One of my favorite closings of any Bond novel is in Dr. No. That’s where Honey Rider basically orders Bond to take all of his clothes off. Can you imagine an equivalent scene in a Bond film? Can you imagine a Bond movie ending that way, where the girl is the dominant one rather than him?” Lowbridge-Ellis is correct: the final line of Dr. No is dialogue from Rider telling Bond to “do as you’re told.” One could argue that Bond is topping from the bottom here, but still.
April 2023 will also see the first American publication of a brand new novel taking place in the 007 universe, officially licensed by the Fleming estate. It’s called Double or Nothing, and it’s written by rising star Kim Sherwood. For Sherwood’s money, Fleming’s take on sex and gender in the Bond novels can’t be reduced to the same kind of tropes from the films. And like Lowbridge-Ellis, she points out that Bond’s relationships in the novels—unlike a few of the Connery movies—are consensual. But beyond that, Sherwood points out that in the novels, James Bond changes fairly dramatically.
“Fleming put this character through an arc and we have interiority,” Sherwood tells Esquire. “We spend a lot of time in Bond’s mind in a way that we can’t in the films. The Bond you meet at the start of Casino Royale, who is frustrated that he has to have Vesper on the mission because ‘women cloud things up with their emotions and sex,’ which you know, is a major presumption —that Bond is so different from the Bond at the end, who is devastated and in grief. And that is different from the Bond you meet in The Spy Who Loved Me, who’s exhausted and hurt. There’s a kind of vulnerability to his character in the novels that sometimes you don’t see on screen, until the Daniel Craig films. That was something I was really interested in exploring in Double or Nothing.”
In a kind of contemporary reboot of the Bond universe for the 21st century, Sherwood smartly begins her new novel with James Bond declared missing. This means the action focuses on three other 00-agents: Joseph Dryden (004), Sid Bashir (009), and Johanna Harwood (003), the last of which is named for the real-life Johanna Harwood, the very first screenwriter on a James Bond movie ever; the woman who wrote the first drafts of the screenplays for both Dr. No and From Russia With Love. For the fictional Harwood in Double Or Nothing, Sherwood says she drew upon some pulp heroines like Modesty Blaise, but also women from Fleming’s Bond books.
“I love characters like Gala Brand in Moonraker, who’s an undercover police officer on her own mission that she thinks Bond is going to mess up,” Sherwood says. “I love the bit where she thinks, ‘Oh what use is he? With his easy smile and his gun tricks.’ And characters like Tiffany Case from Diamonds Are Forever. She’s got agency. She has motives. Fleming makes the female characters interesting and important in their own rights, rather than a reward for the hero at the end. You don’t often find so many fantastic rounded, deep female characters in books of that era in that genre. I think that was clearly really important to Fleming, and it was an important part of what the books became and an important part of the films. So for me, as a woman writing Bond, I feel very proud to join the line of women in Bond, both behind the scenes and in the films.”
As suggested by Sherwood, the Fleming novels portray 007’s relationships with women differently than we imagine in the films. Seen through a certain lens, Casino Royale, Moonraker, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, and You Only Live Twice are all tales of tragic romances. In each of these books, Bond seriously wants to leave his job as a secret agent, primarily so he can live a happier life with someone he loves.
“The Bond of the films—up until Daniel Craig, anyway—were very standalone stories,” Sherwood says. “In the next film, it was almost like he’d reset. But the gift of the Fleming novels is that we have interiority.” Sherwood’s point is true: it’s through this interiority that we see Bond’s love for Vesper in Casino Royale, and for Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But also for Gala Brand in Moonraker, who leaves Bond at the end of the book because she’s already engaged. Bond realizes his love for Gala is doomed, and Fleming gives us the exact interiority Sherwood is talking about with the lines, “…she looked exciting and mysterious like someone you see driving abroad, alone in an open car, someone unattainable and more desirable than anyone you have ever known. Someone who is on their way to make love to somebody else. Someone who is not for you.”
This kind of reflective self-awareness is unique to the Bond novels, and of course, largely absent in the films. But, it also highlights what Sherwood and Lowbridge-Ellis both call Fleming’s use of “uncanny imagery” in his prose. In some cases, it’s easy to take the imagery and lines from Fleming Bond books out of context and make it seem like the books are trumpeting a sort of horrible sexism, but in context, this imagery is more complex. The books are very often an indictment of certain types of masculinity, rather than a celebration of it.
“One line a lot of people like to jump on comes from Casino Royale, in which Bond imagines having sex with Vesper and it would have the ‘sweet tang of rape,’” Lowbridge-Ellis says. “Well, it’s not real rape, it’s a fantasy Bond is having. And it’s not necessarily Ian Fleming himself who is endorsing these attitudes. He’s using a lot of that phraseology to provoke people. We tend to think, ‘oh, this was acceptable in the 1950s,’ and that’s not true. This wasn’t acceptable then. And within the fiction, Fleming is making these taboo statements to provoke the reader.”
On the subject of taboos in 007 novels, one of Lowbridge-Ellis’s most persuasive arguments is that if you go looking for queer subtext in Bond novels, it’s nearly impossible to not see it everywhere. No less than three James Bond novels—Moonraker, Goldfinger, and The Man With the Golden Gun—all revolve around Bond going undercover as the male secretary to a male supervillain. “The Man With the Golden Gun is a deeply queer text,” Lowbridge-Ellis says. “And the only way the story makes any kind of sense is if you buy that Scaramanga basically just fancies the pants off Bond.”
Throughout his essays in Licence to Queer, Lowbridge-Ellis points out that while Fleming may have purported to write his books for cis-gendered straight people, many of Fleming’s friends and closest literary allies were gay. Surely, these books were written for those people, too. “The two that are perhaps the most famous are Noël Coward and William Somerset Maugham,” Lowbridge-Ellis says. “Fleming had many older male mentors in his life, and many of them were gay. Some have pointed out that the short story ‘Quantum of Solace’ has a Somerset Maugham quality.” Meanwhile, in the short story “Octopussy,” Bond’s affection for a murdered male mentor leads him to confront a sexist, drunk traitor who killed Bond’s would-be father figure years prior. Of his slain mentor, Bond says, “He was a wonderful man.” Was this Fleming speaking of his love for Coward?
Found in the collection For Your Eyes Only, the Maugham-esque short story “Quantum of Solace” reveals one way in which Fleming actually attacks and unpacks sexism. While at a party, Bond tells an older man that if he ever got married, it would be to an air hostess. But as we enter Bond’s mind, we learn that he doesn’t believe what he’s saying, and is using a kind of boy’s club chauvinism as a cover. For Lowbridge-Ellis, this is all part of how Fleming coding Bond as an outsider—someone who actually doesn’t fit in with straight men. “He doesn’t fit in anywhere,” Lowbridge-Ellis says. “Bond is the ultimate outsider, I think. Although he is often seen as very establishment. But Fleming goes out of his way, especially in Moonraker, to explicitly describe him as an outsider.”
The new Fleming editions won’t need to do anything to make Bond more queer, or to make his female counterparts more emancipated. For those who’ve seen the film version of 1987’s The Living Daylights, they’ll remember the female sniper, Kara, as utterly reliant on 007, to the point where you wonder if the movie was made in the ‘50s and not the ‘80s. And yet, in the short story “The Living Daylights”(1962), Bond is bested by a female Russian sniper, making the text somehow more progressive than the film adaptation that followed 25 years later.
“If people maybe are a casual fan of James Bond, or just know of him casually, you might have an image that represents a certain kind of hyper-masculinity,” Sherwood explains. “You might think he’s only for a macho audience or something. But for something to be this globally popular for so long, there has to be more than that going on. And I think that goes back to the Fleming text. We might not call them feminist texts, but they’re being written at a time when the feminist movement is gathering strength and speed in the post-war fifties, going into the sixties. And Fleming’s writing reflects that.”
Of course, one could argue that even if there are nuances readers have overlooked in the canon of the literary James Bond, the problematic elements might make the books more trouble than they’re worth. Still, Sherwood’s close analysis of Bond’s character arc and Lowbridge-Ellis’s queer reading of Bond suggest that just now, 70 years later, we’re finally ready to have a serious discussion about the literary worthiness of the James Bond books. Could these progressive insights be just the beginning?
What the Fleming estate has done is invite readers to have an open and honest discussion, and perhaps re-read these provocative thrillers with new eyes. By removing galling and outdated language, the honest and raw human aspects of these books can be seen more clearly. This isn’t to say that the books will suddenly seem progressive, but these changes create space for more nuanced conversations.
The James Bond world was never designed to signal virtues, but instead to unpack the darker corners of humanity, and throw them into the light. Some of Fleming’s detractors called his writing the “height of vulgarity,” and that’s while he was alive. While it’s popular to characterize the Bond novels as escapism, and thus excuse their vulgarity, one has to wonder: what are we escaping into? These books don’t let men off the hook for bad behavior, and perhaps, if people actually read them, it would be clear that this fiction is much more than a way to glorify sex and violence. In other words, Bond books should not be judged by their covers, or by the reputation they’ve gained from the cinema.
By the end of Casino Royale, James Bond believes that MI6 is no better than the death-to-spies cabal SMERSH, nor the Russians. His view of human nature is ten times more cynical than any of Nick Carraway’s moral musings in The Great Gatsby, and the overall message of the novel will make you wonder if men were just a bad idea to begin with. “Bond is detached, he’s disengaged,” Ian Fleming said in 1964, shortly before his death. “But he’s a believable man—around whom I try to weave a great web of excitement and fantasy.”
If you believe Fleming, and you find James Bond to be a believable man, then the value of reading these books 70 years later is clear. James Bond isn’t a closet romantic, because the romance is barely hidden in the novels, right alongside the ego and the pain. Bond isn’t a fantasy of what men want to be—he’s a cracked mirror of what men already are. All Ian Fleming did was have the guts to call it like it is.
Ryan Britt is the author of the new book Phasers On Stun! How the Making and Remaking of Star Trek Changed the World, an editor at Fatherly, and a writer for Inverse and Den of Geek!