After the publication of Goldfinger in 1959, Ian Fleming’s next installment in the adventures of James Bond would be a short story collection, 1960’s For Your Eyes Only. It would not be until 1961 that another Bond novel would be published.
That novel was Thunderball.
Thunderball originally began life as a screenplay. In 1959, Ian Fleming met with producer Kevin McClory to discuss the possibility of McClory producing a Bond film. Working with McClory, Fleming developed not only the basic storyline of Thunderball but also created the villains who, in the 60s, would replace the Russians as being Bond’s main villains. It was while working with McClory that Fleming first created both SPECTRE and its enigmatic leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Ultimately, Fleming and McClory had a falling out, putting a temporary end to McClory’s plans to produce the first James Bond film. Instead, the first Bond film would be produced by Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli and Fleming would turn the screenplay into a novel. This led to problems when McClory and screenwriter Jack Wittingham sued Fleming, claiming that they owned the rights to Thunderball’s story. As a result of a settlement, McClory won the right to produce the eventual film version of Thunderball, with Broccoli and Saltzman received executive producer credits.
McClory would later claim that, as the producer of Thunderball, he had the right to produce other James Bond films as well. This led to several years of lawsuits, during which time McClory remade Thunderball as Never Say Never Again. Reportedly, he was trying to raise money for a third remake when he died in 2006. (Later, the McClory estate would sell the rights to Thunderball, SPECTRE, and Blofeld to MGM. The end result was SPECTRE, a film that totally wasted one of Fleming’s most intriguing villains.)
Reading Thunderball, it’s easy to see that Fleming was thinking in terms of cinema when he came up with the story. Most of the action takes place in the always photogenic Bahamas. There are lengthy action scenes, involving planes being hijacked and underwater combat. The storyline, which features two atomic missiles being stolen by SPECTRE’s Emilio Largo, is tailor-made for the movies.
Thunderball even starts with a lengthy prologue, the type that should be familiar to anyone who has seen any of the Bond films. M sends Bond to a health spa, where Bond ends up getting targeted by an international criminal named Count Lippe. The health spa scenes are among the most enjoyable in the book. Not only is Bond forced to drop all of his “bad” habits but afterward, he actually discovers that he does feel healthier and more active. Soon, he becomes a bit of a health fanatic and gets on the nerves of almost everyone who works with him with all of his “good” habits. It’s easy to imagine that Fleming was having a little bit of fun at the expense of all the critics who claimed that Bond was somehow a bad role model. Of course, by the next novel, Bond was back to all of his old habits.
As for the rest of Thunderball, this was a book that I wanted to like more than I actually did. After Bond gets finished at the health spa, he gets sent to the Bahamas track down the missiles and it becomes a rather standard thriller. It doesn’t take long for Bond to both figure out that Emilo Largo stole the missiles and to seduce Largo’s mistress, Domino. Felix Leiter makes another welcome appearance but, on the whole, it all feels rather slow and uninspired.
However, Thunderball will always be an important work in the Bond canon because it introduced the world to Blofeld. Though Bond and Blofeld never meet (that would have to wait for later novels), the book’s best chapters deal with Blofeld’s background and the way he manages SPECTRE. As is typical of many of Fleming’s villains, Blofeld is described as being someone who does not drink, does not smoke, and who has no interest in sex. A reoccurring theme in all of Fleming’s Bond novels is that a man with a certain amount of minor vices is far more trustworthy than a man with none. It’s a good thing that Bond eventually recovers from going to that health spa because otherwise, he never would have been able to defeat SPECTRE’s nefarious schemes.
Fleming would follow Thunderball with one of his most controversial novels, The Spy Who Loved Me. We’ll look at that one tomorrow!