Retro review–Ian Fleming’s novel Thunderball has it all

Review by C.J. Bunce

Thunderball–the word itself conjures James Bond–the meaning of the word as an atomic bomb mushroom cloud has taken a backseat to Ian Fleming’s ninth spy novel from 1961, and the fourth Bond movie that filled theaters for Christmas 1965.  The novel is primarily Fleming’s own detailed, descriptive Bond character study, but with a twist: The story ideas are a combination of scenes created and introduced in screenplay drafts by two other writers.  Thunderball was eyed initially among the first nine novels as the one worthy of becoming the first movie adaptation.  But conflicts among who created what in a writers room before Fleming wrote the novel would be the source of a lawsuit that sidelined the movie and ultimately resulted in five writers (including Richard Maibaum, John Hopkins, Jack Whittingham, and Kevin McClory) named in the movie credits.  It also resulted in the quirky, additional film adaptation, Never Say Never Again, in 1983.  The novel, with its external inputs, is still among Fleming’s best–it’s a combination of all the best elements of Fleming’s adventure and action man writing, a one-stop shop of sorts for anyone looking for a single Bond story that has it all.

Six decades later all the Bond novels could have been relegated to the musty back walls of used bookstores, but the movies really made Bond the international phenomenon he is today.  Even more than the novel, the movie created a surge in adventure books and adventure toys, paving the way for GI Joe’s Adventure Team and undersea adventure as part of the culture a generation grew up with.  The novel’s assembly-type creation illustrates why it can be a good idea to have additional inputs in a single creator’s vision for an ongoing series or franchise.  The novel is truly cinematic, thanks to the screenwriter contributions, and cinematic in the world-hopping way the Bond movies would become known for.  It also is better than the movie that would eventually be cobbled together, with scenes switched in places and action sequences stretched out, especially in its overlong theatrical finale.

Historically the book is timely–a nuclear threat close to the United States came from Fleming in the year before the Cuban Missile Crisis.  As readers of the genre would later find in Tom Clancy novels, this close proximity to “ripped from the headlines” storytelling only heightened the suspense and thrills for fiction readers.  It’s no surprise Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October borrows several themes, story beats, and scenes from Thunderball.

Thunderball finds Bond in the unfortunate sights of M, who has found a spa that helped him relax from his own tense job.  M forces the spa on Bond, and while at the spa Bond notices a tattoo on a man, sparking recollections from a past mission of the image tied to criminal elements.  Unfortunately the man sees Bond watching, and overhears Bond calling back to London to follow-up, prompting the man to trap Bond in a traction machine, nearly killing him.  Bond gets his own trademark brand of revenge on the fellow, which inadvertently delays the timetable of a sinister plot–for a new organization called SPECTRE to hijack a plane transporting two atomic bombs, which SPECTRE would then hold for ransom.  The U.S. President, the UK Prime Minister and leaders of all nations come together to try to find the terrorists before they are left to pay the ransom.

Thunderball becomes the best story for anyone who loves the relationship between Bond and Pinkerton Agency detective/CIA agent Felix Leiter.  The book is full of great banter–some scenes pages long and seemingly included just for the fun of it–really digging into the personality quirks of Leiter and Bond.  It may have the most telling characterization of its hero of any novels in the series.  The downside is what makes Bond that nation hopper–a few coincidences in the story are required to get Bond and Leiter in the right places at the right times for the story to be believable.  But the plot is still more believable than some other Fleming ideas.  What makes it work is Bond and Leiter as equals, and as detectives–their observational skills drive the narrative to its satisfying conclusion.

Thunderball includes the best elements of the past eight novels–a careful blend of Doctor No and Moonraker–with the side effect that Thunderball may be where readers (and later, audiences) see Bond stories as repetitive.  We have SPECTRE led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld (in the background in this story) and its member faction SMERSH.  We have one of the best Bond villains in its Emilio Largo, Number 2 in command of SPECTRE.  We have a perfect femme fatale with the savvy Fiona Volpe, and one of the best written “Bond girls” in damsel in distress Dominetta Vitali aka Domino.  Spa nurse Patricia Fearing is more interesting in the novel than the movie, too.

We have the tropical setting–the Bahamas–and lots of scuba gear and dart guns, along with a nifty, new underwater rig, courtesy of the Americans intelligence’s latest gizmo makers.  Plus sharks.

And although the book is better than the movie, that’s not to knock the movie, which may be the #1 adventure/action man film of them all.  Credit director Terence Young, a perfect musical accompaniment by John Barry, and Bill Suiter in an actual flying jetpack.  It also features the original ship called the Disco.  And it may go without saying, but the later, non- EON production house film adaptation Never Say Never Again isn’t in the same league.

It’s odd to think about it this way, but Thunderball is also the first Bond movie novelization, since it’s the novelization of a film script.  It’s in the same league as another odd entry in James Bond history, Donald E. Westlake’s brilliant Forever and a Death, which was Westlake’s novelization of his unused script for what would be replaced with Goldeneye.

So if you’re keeping score, in the positive camp, check out my review of Fleming’s first Bond novel Casino Royale here, the third Bond novel Moonraker here, (I’ll place Thunderball next in order here), then the fifth novel From Russia With Love here, and the sixth novel, Dr. No here.  The seventh novel Goldfinger (reviewed here) comes next, followed by more middle of the road stories including his fourth novel, Diamonds Are Forever, good but not great, reviewed here, followed by the all-out misfires in the series: the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die, reviewed here, and the tenth novel in the series, The Spy Who Loved Me, reviewed here.

Frequently out of print, used copies and old stock of Thunderball are usually available here at Amazon.  Next up:  Fleming’s eleventh Bond story, On Her Majesty’s Secret ServiceThat will be followed by the rest of the Fleming Bond novels, You Only Live Twice, The Man with the Golden Gun, and then I’ll double back with the Bond short stories beginning with For Your Eyes Only.

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