Casino Royale – Book Review
Casino Royale, written by Ian Fleming and published in 1953, was the first James Bond novel. It led, eventually, to a massive franchise including dozens of books, films and games.
Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
Casino Royale: Title
The title uses a classic title archetype, the Setting, The Royale-les-Eaux casino being where the bulk of the novel takes place.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
Casino Royale: Logline
In 1950s France, a British spy tries to bankrupt a corrupt Soviet agent at the card table. When the plan succeeds at a terrible cost, he must decide between love and duty.
(For more on loglines, see The Killogator Logline Formula)
Casino Royale: Plot Summary
Casino Royale opens with James Bond gambling at the Royale-les-Eaux casino in France. Amongst the gamblers is Le Chiffre, who is a Soviet agent.
The story then flashes back to a briefing by M, the head of the British Secret Service. Le Chiffre controls a trade union for the Soviets but has stolen union money and invested it disastrously. Now his financial position is desperate and his only hope is to stake all his remaining capital on a big win at the casino. M plans to stop this and bankrupt Le Chiffre, destroying Soviet influence in the trade union.
Bond is M’s chosen man to execute the plan, as he is one of the Service’s best gamblers,
M sends Vesper Lynd from headquarters to improve Bond’s cover. A French agent, Rene Mathis, and Felix Leiter of the CIA are also in position. Mathis warns Bond that the Soviets have blown his cover and he can expect resistance.
Two assassins make a botched attack on Bond, but only succeed in killing themselves by accident.
Bond and Le Chiffre confront each over the card table. One of Le Chiffre’s henchmen forcibly attempts to remove Bond from the game but Bond foils him.
Bond appears to have failed in his mission when Le Chiffre cleans him out of funds. However, Le Chiffre keeps playing, Leiter provides Bond with more funds, Bond rejoins the game, his luck turns, and he finally bankrupts Le Chiffre.
Desperate to recover the money Bond has won from him, Le Chiffre kidnaps Vesper. Bond gives chase…
…but[blackout] Le Chifre captures him. Le Chiffre tortures Bond to make him divulge the location of the money.[/blackout]
A Soviet [blackout]assassin bursts in and kills Le Chiffre and his men. The assassin does not kill Bond, saying that he has no orders to do so. Instead, he carves the Russian for “spy” into Bond’s hand.[/blackout]
Bond [blackout]spends months in hospital recovering from the torture and thinks of resigning from the Secret Service. Mathis talks Bond out of his half-hearted doubts, and fully recovered, M grants Bond leave.[/blackout]
Bond and Vesper [blackout]go on holiday together and become lovers. Bond proposes to Vesper several times, but she starts to act strangely. He gets confused and angry with her. After one last night together, Vesper commits suicide. Bond learns from her suicide note that the Soviets had blackmailed her into becoming a Soviet double-agent and she felt that there was no way out for her.[/blackout]
Bond’s [blackout]soon replaces his grief at Vesper’s death with anger, shame at the sophistry of his doubts about the ethics of his Secret Service work and determination to oppose the Soviets.[/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
Casino Royale: Alternative Cover
An unusual cover for me, not my usual minimalist style, but the playing card reminded me of Vesper and I liked the way the ‘Y’ in ‘Royale’ looks a bit like a cocktail glass.
(For more on designing novel covers, see How to Make a Book Cover)
Casino Royale: Analysis
Casino Royale has what I can only describe as an unusual plot structure. Technically, it’s a Hybrid plot, starting as a Mission before becoming a Romantic Tragedy (see Spy Novel Plots for explanation of the four archetypal spy novel plots).
The novel has three immense set pieces. The rest of the plot merely serves to move the characters between the highlights as functionally as possible, as the author later acknowledged:
There are three strong incidents in the book which carry it along and they are all based on fact. I extracted them from my wartime memories of the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty, dolled them up, attached a hero, a villain and a heroine, and there was the book.
The heart of the book is the first of the major set pieces, Bond and Le Chiffre’s confrontation over the card table. There is a detailed description of the card game Baccarat and Bond’s battle to beat Le Chiffre at it. This is by far the best section of the novel.
The second set piece confrontation is Le Chiffre’s [blackout]torture of Bond as he attempts to make him divulge the location of the money[/blackout]. Bond does not escape through his own actions but [blackout]is rescued after Le Chiffre’s Soviet employers arrive and murder everyone except Bond.[/blackout] At this point, the main plot is effectively concluded, with a quarter of the book still to go.
Bond’s affair with Vesper takes up the last quarter of the book. This doomed romance seems like a different novel to the rest of the story. It’s humanising in its own way, although Bond exhibits the chauvinism and patronising attitudes of his time (as with The Riddle of the Sands, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and The Great Impersonation, the reader must make ‘allowances’ for the attitudes of a bygone time).
The final twist, and Bond’s bitter response to it, sets his character up for the rest of the franchise.
Also, the book just isn’t very well written. Critics often describe Fleming’s writing style as “journalistic”, and the long descriptive passages are certainly that, but the prose is laboured, and some of the dialogue is ridiculous.
Casino Royale may have three highly effective set pieces, but the intervening chapters are serviceable at best. Much of it appears in essence to be padding, with Fleming indulging in various digressions such as the farcical and irrelevant botched assassination and lengthy descriptions of meals.
Fleming was a big believer in writing fast and not looking back, and it shows in his novels. With some exceptions, the plots make little sense taken as a whole, relying on the set-piece action scenes to sweep the reader along. However, Fleming’s writing improves dramatically in the later books, becoming adequate in From Russia With Love onwards.
Casino Royale: My Verdict
A curious book. Poorly written, oddly structured, but with some magnificent scenes. It would be a shame for any spy-thriller fan to miss out on it. The electrifying set-piece scenes more than make up for its faults.
Casino Royale: The Movies
There have been three adaptations of Casino Royale, one television version and two movies.
The television version was made by US broadcaster CBS only a year after the novel was first published and before Ian Fleming or Bond were famous. It makes Bond (played by Barry Nelson) into an American agent and changes the other characters (Lynda Christian, pictured above, plays ‘Valerie Mathis’, the Vesper role). Nelson was miscast, the screenplay was unexceptional, and it was swiftly forgotten.
The main legacy of this first version of Casino Royale was that CBS, who thought the Bond character could support a television series, asked Ian Fleming for more story outlines. Although CBS never filmed these outlines, they eventually became the short stories released as For Your Eyes Only. The other result was that Fleming couldn’t sell the film rights for Casino Royale to Harry Saltzman and Eon productions, and so they didn’t film Casino Royale as part of the main sequence of Sean Connery/Roger Moore Bond movies.
1967: The Comedy Version
After the Sean Connery films ignited the James Bond phenomena, the agent/producer Charles K. Feldman, who owned the rights to Casino Royale, offered to co-produce a movie version, but couldn’t do a deal. So, instead, in 1967, he made a movie of Casino Royale himself.
Feeling that a serious film could not compete with Sean Connery’s Bond, the producers of the 1967 version of Casino Royale made it as a comedic spoof.
This plot contrivance of the comedy version is that the original James Bond has retired and M renames lots of his remaining agents ‘James Bond’ to ‘confuse the opposition’. As you might imagine, with eight James Bonds, and having gone through a dozen writers and six directors, the movie is a confusing mess… and it’s not even funny.
Although, incredibly, it was a commercial success, critics universally regard the comedy Casino Royale as a dismal failure.
2006: The Reboot
Decades later, after several mergers and deals, EON finally gained the rights to Casino Royale and used it for the reboot of James Bond.
The 2006 Casino Royale stared Daniel Craig as James Bond and Eva Green as Vesper Lynd. This version of Casino Royale was one of the most successful Bond films ever, both critically and commercially, and Daniel Craig and Eva Green were both praised for their acting.
Two of the core scenes of the novel occur during the second half of the movie: the confrontation over the card table and the torture scene. The ending is thematically similar to the book but much more action-packed and visual.
Interestingly, the parts of the movie that really work are the ones inspired by the novel. The first half, which is an origin story for Bond unrelated to the novel, is much more formulaic. In particular, I could imagine something very similar to the chase in the airport appearing in a Roger Moore Bond movie.
Still, that the three highlights of the novel still work half a century later in a different medium shows how powerful they are.
Want to read or watch it?
Here’s the trailer for the 2006 film:
A Kill in the Morning
If you like James Bond then you’ll love my novel A Kill in the Morning, which SFF World described as “an action-packed romp that Ian Fleming would be proud of.”
You can read the opening here: The first two chapters of A Kill in the Morning.
If you’d like to buy A Kill in the Morning then:
- In the UK: A Kill in the Morning on Amazon UK, although the novel is also available in bookshops.
- In the USA: A Kill in the Morning on Amazon USA.
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