In 1959, Ian Fleming introduced a character who would go on to become the quintessential James Bond villain. His name? Auric Goldfinger.
When I reread Goldfinger, Fleming’s seventh Bond novel, I was surprised to discover just how faithful the 1964 film adaptation really was. True, there were a few differences. While Jill Masterson was still killed via gold paint, it happened off-stage in the book and long after Bond had already left Miami. Meanwhile, Jill’s sister, Tilly, survived far longer in the book than she did in the movie. Pussy Galore, on the other hand, doesn’t appear until the very last few chapters of the book. There’s no scene with Bond being threatened by a laser. Goldfinger never laughs and says, “I expect you to die.”
And yet, while reading Fleming’s novel, it was impossible for me not to visualize Gert Frobe and Harold Sakata as Goldfinger and Oddjob. Outside of the actors who have played Bond, the casting of Frobe and Sakata in the film version of Goldfinger may have been the two best casting decisions in the history of the Bond franchise. And while that giant laser never made an appearance, Oddjob’s killer hat was present in the novel and loving described by Fleming.
Goldfinger’s lunatic plot to rob Fort Knox is present in both the novel and the book, though it’s somehow even more implausible in the book than in the movie. What’s interesting is that, from the minute Bond hears about Goldfinger’s plot, Bond continually says that it’s a crazy plan that can’t possibly succeed. Fleming never makes much of an effort to convince us that Bond could possibly be wrong about Goldfinger’s plan, either. For once, the threat isn’t that the villain will succeed. The threat is that Goldfinger will cause even more damage while failing. Bond’s mission is less to thwart Goldfinger than to contain him.
With a personality that is somewhat reminiscent of Moonraker‘s Hugo Drax, Goldfinger is one of Fleming’s best bad guys. Though there’s nothing subtle about Goldfinger, his flamboyant and cocky villainy serves as a nice contrast to James Bond’s more serious-minded personality. Like many Bond villains, Goldfinger is so defined by his single obsession (in this case, with gold) that he doesn’t show any interest in any of the activities — drinking, smoking, having sex — that tend to define Bond as a character. That’s one of the reoccurring themes to found in Fleming’s work. Men who do not indulge in “gentlemanly vices” are almost always evil.
It’s a good and entertaining book, marred only by some foolishness towards the end in which Bond is upset to realize that 1) Tilly Masterson is a lesbian and 2) she’s more attracted to Pussy Galore than to him. In fact, during Goldfinger’s assault on Fort Knox, Tilly ignores Bond’s orders and goes looking for Pussy instead. (I know, I know. Stop it.) Tilly is promptly killed by Oddjob and Bond mournfully considers that she would still be alive if only she had been attracted to men instead of women.
(As I mentioned in my review of Live and Let Die, Fleming may have been a “man of the world” but he was also a product of his time and all the prejudices that went along with it.)
Fleming would follow Goldfinger with a collection of short stories. The next James Bond novel, Thunderball, would not appear until 1961. We’ll take a look at it tomorrow.