I have briefly discussed my casual fascination with the James Bond novels, so when the recent BBC America series Fleming came up on Lovefilm, my wife and I checked it out. And it’s … odd.
There have already been two other Fleming bio films, neither of which I have seen, one of them with Charles Dance and the other with (le sigh) Jason Connery. My purpose isn’t to give a review here — there are enough of them out there — but just to point out a pattern that struck me as interesting.
When I started writing this post, I was going to say that it’s unusual the extent to which Ian Fleming (here played by Dominic Cooper) is identified with James Bond. He really is — not just the suave playboy stuff, which appears to have been pretty much true, but a bunch of added action sequences, a scene with a speargun, Bond-esque music and more. But actually, it occurred to me that it isn’t unique to Fleming at all. Arthur Conan Doyle frequently appears in contexts that link him to Sherlock Holmes, and even in the modern literary landscape people are very likely to view H. P. Lovecraft as some kind of master of the occult despite the fact that they should know better.
The reality is that Ian Fleming’s life was interesting only to people like me who find things most people would find boring interesting. He was bright, charming and imaginative, but not disciplined or accomplished; his family got him a series of jobs he didn’t excel at. He had some affairs. He commanded a desk at Naval Intelligence in the war, where he put his charm and creativity to good use but was not the man of action the show makes him (although to its credit it portrays him as someone who would have liked to be a man of action more than an actual one). He became a journalist, he wrote some spy novels and a children’s book, and he died young, very possibly from partying too hard. He tells you interesting things about life in interwar and postwar Britain, but there’s no obvious connection between liking Ian Fleming’s books and liking Ian Fleming.
The thing is that writers’ biographies are often boring, or at least not visually very interesting. Fleming wrote books. At least he wrote books in Jamaica, which is something. And he had lots of affairs and wore good suits. But fundamentally most of the heightened dramatic tension in this thing is made up, just like a lot of the drama in a lot of biopics. Real life is always more sordid and confusing.
What I do appreciate about this show is that at least the type of structure that they keep trying to force the guy’s life into is appropriate to his writing, at least approximately. Which I suppose is the case with both Conan Doyle and Lovecraft as well.
But yeah, same as always: history insufficiently like television, so make it more like a television show. I did learn a few things from this, including the connections between Fleming’s family and various other prominent families of the age, although most of that came from looking things up after going “is that really true?” And it’s certainly well-made, except for the last ten minutes, which are absolutely wretched.
I did discover some great new names, such as this guy’s:
That is Admiral the Honourable Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, and not only was he an admiral and all that, but — I thought this as soon as I saw “Plunkett” and “Drax” — he was Lord Dunsany’s younger brother! I still don’t think his name is as good as that of Admiral Sir Manley Power, but it’s pretty great.