Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Long Journey of Casino Royale to the Big Screen

Friday saw the release of Casino Royale to theatres across the United States. An overly busy Saturday and my best friend's rapidly shrinking wallet prevented me from seeing it this weekend. While I can't offer you a review, then, I thought I would give you a brief rundown on the long journey Bond's first novel had to take before even a somewhat faithful adaptation would reach the big screen.

Casino Royale was first published in Britain on April 13, 1953. The novel's plot was simple. SMERSH operative Le Chiffre was running a baccarat game in the Casino Royale with the plan of raising money for SMERSH. Bond, who is an expert at baccarat is assigned to defeat Le Chiffre in a game, accomplishing two goals for MI-6. First, SMERSH would be denied the winnings to finance any further operations. Second, it was hoped that SMERSH would kill Le Chiffre for his failure, thus taking care of a troublesome Soviet operative. For its time the novel Casino Royale was very controversial. For the Fifties the novel included a good deal of sex, violence, and torture. The controversy fueled the book's sales and, although hardly a best seller, it was a modest success. It was at least successful enough for Fleming to write a second Bond novel, Moonraker, published in 1955.

It was also successful enough to attract the attention of Americans. In 1954 CBS bought the rights to adapt Casino Royale as an episode of the anthology series Climax. This adaptation did retain the central plot of Bond seeking to bankrupt Le Chiffre in a baccarat game. Played by Peter Lorre, Le Chiffre's character differed little from that in the novel. In other ways, however, the Climax adaptation of Casino Royale departed a good deal from the novel. In particular, not only was Bond played by thoroughly American actor Barry Nelson, but the character was Americanised through and through. No longer is Bond a British agent for MI-6, but an American agent for "Combined Intelligence." And the character who introduced himself in the novel with the classic words, "Bond, James Bond" was actually referred to as "Jimmy Bond!" This being American television, any sex in the novel was excluded from the teleplay and the violence toned down considerably. "Casino Royale" aired on Climax to little fanfare and was swiftly forgotten by everyone except possibly those involved in the project, Ian Fleming, and CBS executives. In the late Fifties CBS would actually approach Fleming with the idea of a 007 TV series. The deal fell through and the outlines Fleming had written for episodes would later be turned into short stories for the anthology For Your Eyes Only.

It was only a year later that Fleming sold the screen rights to the novel to Hollywood producers Michael Garrison (who would go onto create the classic TV series The Wild Wild West) and Gregory Ratoff (a one time Russian director who wold go onto act, direct, and produce in America). Ratoff tried to interest Twentieth Century Fox in the project to no avail. After Ratoff died in 1960, Garrison and Ratoff's widow sold the rights to movie producer Charles K. Feldman (he had produced such films as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Seven Year Itch). According to the Howard Hawks biography The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Feldman actually got as far as interesting the famous director and screenwriter Leigh Brackett in the project. Hawks had one man in mind to play Bond--none other than Cary Grant. Ultimately, Hawks chose not to adapt Casino Royale for the big screen.

As a result, the first Bond novel would not be the first book to be adapted for the big screen. Instead, that honour would go to Dr. No, produced by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman's EON Productions and released in 1962. This did not end Feldman's quest to see a serious adaptation of Casino Royale on the big screen. He went to EON Productions with the goal of a joint production of a movie based on the first 007 novel. Having experienced difficulties with Kevin McClory (the screenwriter, director, and producer who had collaborated with Fleming on various draughts for proposed Bond TV and movie projects) in the production of Thunderball, EON Productions was a bit nervous about collaborating with anyone else. For this reason, they turned Feldman down. Feldman then decided to go ahead with his own production of Casino Royale. Thinking that he could not possibly compete with EON Productions' official Bond series, he hit upon the idea of spoofing not only the Bond series, but spy drama in general (which was a very hot commodity then--this was the era of The Avengers and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.).

Unfortunately, Feldman's production of Casino Royale would be troubled from the outset. Apparently, one source of trouble was legendary actor Peter Sellers, who was cast as Evelyn Tremble (the poor schmuck who was assigned to impersonate Bond). Sellers wanted the movie to have a more serious tone and for the role of Tremble to be more in the mould of Cary Grant. Sellers pressured for rewrites of the script. Already written by three men (John Law, Wolf Mankowitz, and Michael Sayers), bits and pieces would eventually be contributed by Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Tery Southern, and Billy Wilder. The movie would also wind up being directed by five different directors: Val Guest, John Huston, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, and Robert Parrish. The film also goes down in history as the movie in which more actors played Bond than any other (David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, and Terence Cooper, among others).

As a spoof, the only element retained from the original novel is Bond's card game against Le Chiffre in the Casino Royale, although in the movie it is actually Evelyn Tremble who plays against him and not Bond (the genuine article being played by David Niven). As product of several directors and writers, it is also a bit uneven. Upon its release Casino Royale was panned and many Bond purists hate the movie this day. This having been said, taken on its own merits, the 1967 version of Casino Royale is not a bad film. Indeed, in some ways its humour is fairly sophisticated and acts as a comment on the whole spy craze of the time. In the mid-Sixties the success of both the TV series The Avengers, Danger Man, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the Bond movies had fueled an absolute fad towards spies on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1967 Bond clones filled both American and British airwaves, as well as American and British theatres. In the 1967 adaptation of Casino Royale, this was represented by featuring multiple Bonds, only one of which was the original. Furthermore, the performances of many of the actors are actually quite good. In fact, it is this film in which Woody Allen demonstrates his potential as a comedic actor. Cast as "Dr. Noah"/"Jimmy Bond," Allen is not a mere parody of the villains typical to the official Bond franchise, but a demonstration that ultimately such megalomaniacs are merely psychologically and sexually frustrated losers. While not a great film by any means, the 1967 version of Casino Royale is not a bad movie by any means. While uneven, it does have its merits.

Fortunately, the 1967 version of Casino Royale was not the last. In fact, the most recent adaptation is the result of various corporate takeovers. The 1967 Casino Royale was produced by Columbia Pictures. In 1989 Columbia was taken over by Japanese electronics conglomerate Sony. The studio was rechristened Sony Pictures Entertainment, a division of Sony which would not include Columbia, but eventually Merv Griffith Entertainment, Chuck Barris Productions, Filmways Inc., American International Pictures, and several other companies. It was in the Nineties that Sony Pictures Entertainment expressed a desire to not only make a serious version of Casino Royale, but a third version of Kevin McClory's Thunderball (the first two being Thunderball and the 1983 film Never Say Never Again). Sony's plans were thwarted when MGM/UA took legal action, the end result of which is that MGM/UA won the sole rights to the character of James Bond. Sony then traded MGM/UA its rights to Casino Royale for the rights MGM/UA had in part to Spider-Man. Oddly enough, even though nothing now kept EON Productions from making an official version of Casino Royale, one would not materialise for some time. As it was, Sony would have their revenge. Sony and a consortium made up of Comcast, the Texas Pacific Group, and Providence Equity Partners acquired MGM/UA on April 8, 2005. The end result of this is that Sony would ultimately be the power behind the latest adaptation of Casino Royale. It was in 2005 that it was announced that the first Bond novel would finally be adapted as part of EON Productions' official Bond franchise.

I have not seen the latest version of Casino Royale yet, but from what little I have heard it is more loyal to the novel than previous versions. At the very least the card game between 007 and Le Chiffre occupies centre stage. That having been said, I also know that the movie does take some liberties. In the novel the Casino Royale is set in France. In the latest movie it is located in Montenegro. And while in the novel it is a baccarat game in which Bond faces Le Chiffre, in the newest movie, it is poker (which always seemed more Bondian to me than baccarat than anyhow...). All of this having been said, it has been years since a Bond movie has been based on one of Ian Fleming's novels or stories and even longer since a Bond movie has been even vaguely loyal to one of Ian Fleming's novels or stories (by way of example, Moonraker....). For me, then, it will suffice that the latest film adaptation of Casino Royale is loyal to the spirit of the novel, if not the letter of it. After all, no TV or film version of the novel has yet been loyal to the spirit of the book yet.

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