Hello again to you all! It’s long overdue for me to return to my Nephrite name and pick up my figurative pen and inkwell. I’ve been intending to do such for quite some time but unfortunately I hit a rather hard wall of writer’s block combined with certain other impediments and it’s taken me until now to ease my way back into old habits.
As such I thought rather than jump straight into one of my usually traditional book or audiobook reviews I’d discuss a topic that grabbed my attention. Until recently I was having difficulty actually finishing books or audios at all which led to the only book I’d finished until very late January being another James Bond mission: 1954’s Fleming original Live And Let Die. During this process I also rewatched the 1973 film version which led me to this discussion here.
Both versions of Live And Let Die have a ‘reputation’ they’ve picked up over the years for being outdated holdovers or relics of bygone eras due to their perceived status as rather racist pieces of media. In one case I completely agree while in the other I will at least attempt to give a reason for why it turned out how it did. So let’s start my return with the 1954 original.
Fleming’s Live And Let Die is a completely different beast from the cheesy but entertaining 1973 Roger Moore version. The plot is based around a supposed discovery of pirate treasure by a quite literal Mr Big who has apparently found the lost hoard of 17th century pirate Henry Morgan. He is using the gold to finance Soviet spy operations by the infamous SMERSH – who were changed to SPECTRE in the Bond films from the early 60s – through the control of a large Harlem gang of African-Americans who he keeps in line through use of voodoo. And that’s without even bringing up Solitaire or what happens to Mr Felix Leiter. (Golly gee, I wonder why they could possibly have altered this for the film version? This doesn’t at all read as extremely questionable.)
Without even going into too much depth, it’s easy to see that Fleming’s Live And Let Die being adapted straight to film screens as is would have been an impossible no win scenario. A James Bond version of the Kobayashi Maru. The use of language in the book was considered relatively outdated even a few years after publication and as such would have seemed utterly tone deaf by the mid 1970s.
To be honest there are interviews with people who considered themselves personal friends of Fleming the man who saw him as both charming and an outdated dinosaur simultaneously and this dichotomy of nature seems to carry over to the more cruel and calculating Bond of the original novels. He at the same time seems to hate his job, truly respect his boss in M, see almost all women – with one or two exceptions – as simple conquests for the sake of the mission and yet he has noticeably strong emotions over the course of the series and does seem to have some sense of right and wrong in his own way that matches the 1950s mindset of his home period.
I honestly think that 1954 or maybe one or two years later is the last time you could have written the original book as it is now. It’s a time capsule of its period from before the Civil Rights Movement and various changes in outlook. Being a form of time capsule is one of a handful of things it does share with the film counterpart.
The 1973 EON production is entirely its own can of worms. As pointed out in Nobody Does It Better by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman which I have previously reviewed, the story of getting Live and Let Die to screen is honestly more interesting than it is given credit for. For starters the scriptwriter Tom Mankiewicz – who had involvement in the franchise from Diamonds all the way to Moonraker to varying levels – chose to do Live and Let Die after Diamonds Are Forever had concluded due to the increasing prominence of the blacksploitation genre as well as various serious political movements of the period and the belief that it would be a good way to introduce both a black main female lead and main black villain to the series.
To this end, Mankiewicz, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and various others explored the areas around New Orleans, The West Indies and Haiti for suitable locations and in the process – to make sure the voodoo element of the script was as close as possible to reality – attended actual voodoo religious ceremonies even if this doesn’t really come across on film!
The true tragedy of the 1973 production however didn’t come until later. Once Mankiewicz and company had completed the final script and were discussing with someone higher up the food chain (some versions of this story say it was a bigwig at United Artists, others say an actual distributor of the film in the United States and related territories) as soon as they mentioned the intended plan of giving Bond a traitorous assistant and making her white and in turn making Solitaire the main ‘Bond Girl’ a black woman everything in the room went silent.
They were then told in no uncertain terms that they couldn’t do this for one simple reason: The American audiences (and presumably in other places such as apartheid era South Africa) were so outright racist that one of two things would happen: Either the film theatres would refuse to take the film and the studio would lose money or there was the possibility of outright race riots if the film was shown. This then resulted in the rewrites that created the bumbling CIA agent Rosie Carver and Jane Seymour being cast as Solitaire. The woman who played Rosie Carver – Gloria Hendry – is on record in interviews as having been monumentally confused why Mankiewicz had a habit of repeatedly apologising to her whenever they encountered each other during filming until she realised that he had intended on Solitaire being a black woman and these plans had been shot down.
In my personal opinion, Live And Let Die is a rather enjoyable film albeit one that like many Bond films has elements that make it feel outdated in the modern era looking back. That is pretty much why I as a fan view these films as much as possible in the context of the period and I don’t go in with modern eyes intending to critique them. That way any critiques I do have or any awkwardness I do feel at certain scenes across the series feels more genuine to me.
In conclusion when you compare both versions of Live And Let Die, they both have issues either behind of or in front of the screen but the adaptation for its flaws under the microscope of current standards, was made at the time with the best possible intentions and then effectively sabotaged as opposed to Fleming’s original which was effectively considered outdated in the 1950s. The nineteen fifties! Feel free to take the occasional potshot at the silliness of the Moore era, Sheriff J.W. Pepper, the elements taken from 70s blacksploitation films or some other elements…but to borrow a phrase from the song “You’ve got to give the other fella hell!”
I hope to be back soon as I have certain promises to keep. Including a review of C.R. Coen’s The Sarispa Thirteen.