James Bond books edited: Is the reaction over shaken and over stirred?

This is not Fahrenheit 007

Sean Connery as James Bond in 1962's 'Dr No'. (Credit: United Artists)
Sean Connery as James Bond in 1962's Dr No. (United Artists)

‘The lament and ‘woke!’ of an online panic are nauseating at three in the morning. Or indeed any time.’

To somewhat paraphrase the opening line from the first James Bond novel Casino Royale as it approaches its seventieth anniversary, Ian Fleming Publications have been in the crosshairs of an #outrage this week as news emerged some components of the Bond novels have addressed how it is not actually 1953 anymore, following a 'sensitivity review' of the texts.

Fully grasping how the world has moved on from derogatory terms when presenting Black characters, stories and attitudes is not really disinfecting Commander Bond. Or the voice that created him. Writers do not write. They rewrite. This is not actually a global call to burn Bond books. This is not Fahrenheit 007. And certainly not when the ‘n’ word and all its sidebar bigotries were hardly acceptable parlance back in 1953.

Read more: James Bond books edited to remove racist references (4 min read)

‘It’s a slippery slope!’ some have cried. To what? Not being able to be derogatory to Black people in 2023? As Ian Fleming Publications have fairly pointed out, the US editors suggested more racially sensitive changes back in 1955. The author mostly agreed. These small changes of literary garnish are no different to already printed amendments – some of which Fleming himself sanctioned when Live and Let Die first hit US bookstores.

Novelist Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond 007, sits at his typewriter while in Jamaica for the filming of the movie Dr. No. (Photo by © Bradley Smith/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Novelist Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond 007, sits at his typewriter while in Jamaica for the filming of the movie Dr. No. (Corbis via Getty Images)

And, of course, the original versions are — and always will be — readily available. Let’s not overlook the commerce of a Twitter storm in a ‘woke!’ cup. Or did we miss that recent sales of Roald Dahl’s books have dramatically risen across the globe when the news broke that the work is being updated? The phrase ‘progress’ sometimes starts with PR.

I call it ‘The Fairytale of New York Complex’. Every December it emerges in certain ‘you need to be panicked about this!’ headlines how The Pogues and Kirstie MacColl’s festive anthem has had the ‘f’ word removed to remove offence.

And that is right. It is no fairytale in any city to have that word thrown at you in the street by ill-meaning strangers. But the #outrage headline fails every year to also mention that the radio edit of that song is now years old too.

Read more: Roald Dahl once said he would set an ‘enormous crocodile’ on publishers if they changed his work

However, and in defence of the better minded discussions about art, culture and their timestamp – it is also wholly, totally defendable to suggest a published tome by any author should remain sacrosanct. Unless of course it is the Bible – the world’s biggest publishing sensation which has seen more amendments, ghost writers and re-writes than the original Star Wars trilogy.

Ian Fleming’s biographer Andrew Lycett and others have recently expressed fair concern about altering the sanctity of original texts – especially when the author himself is not around to oversee such fluctuations.

English actors Roger Moore and Jane Seymour surrounded by extras from the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique in the James Bond film 'Live And Let Die', being filmed at Pinewood Studios in England, 8th February 1973. (Photo by Milne/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Roger Moore and Jane Seymour surrounded by extras from the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique in the James Bond film Live And Let Die, 1973. (Milne/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One might suggest that the outlined revisions could well have shown a different finesse and Fleming eye for societal detail. But these are new, sporadic lines and brief turns of phrases that do not alter — or even want to — the flow, blunt grace and impact of the literary Bond.

Other potentially impactful allusions to Koreans, east Asians, women and the ‘stubborn disability” of homosexuality remain. As a gay man, I am bereft with disappointment that I cannot whistle because [gay ally] Ian Fleming says in The Man with the Golden Gun ‘there is a popular theory that a man who cannot whistle has homosexual tendencies.’ I would dog whistle here for a reaction. But apparently I am unable.

Read more: Every James Bond film ranked

In all seriousness, it is always ever curious how those panicking about the sanctity of racial descriptors are rarely the ones that have had vicious ones thrown at them in the street by strangers. These small amendments are more of a mindful seatbelt rather than a handbrake turn. No one is suggesting Live and Let Die needs to be felled like an old statue to a slave trader in a town square.

'Dr No' 1962 Sean Connery as James Bond 007 with John Kitzmiller as Quarrel standing by bar in the Bahamas. (Photo by Screen Archives/Getty Images)
Sean Connery as James Bond 007 with John Kitzmiller as Quarrel in 1962's Dr No. (Screen Archives/Getty Images)

Is anyone unable to now find the monochrome originals of Casablanca and Citizen Kane after Turner Entertainment so controversially colorised them in the late 1980s? Not at all.

The central beats and cadence of the world Fleming and his most famous spy lived in should always remain in plain sight. And they will. Yet, various events in the last decade of western politics have seen the lid lift on the bigot box to create a genuinely concerning rise of fascistic and racist behaviour: something Fleming — an officer in the Royal Navy's Naval Intelligence Department during WW2 — would have been deeply mindful and observant of.

There is a reason Bond producer Barbara Broccoli recently produced the film Till. And it was not to depict a civil rights tableau from the past.

If we want to aim an angry golden gun at one author’s estate for being mindful of current contexts, is it really the fault of Ian Fleming Publications to sense a wider, societal picture — and quietly know that even words in seventy-year-old texts can have implications?

Not when one of the survival mechanisms of Bond in both his cinematic and literary forms is reinventing to find new audiences moving forward.

"We believe the new Bond editions will extend their pleasure to new audiences," the Fleming family has said. "We are certain that is something lan Fleming would have wanted."

Mark O'Connell is a writer, author, Bond fan and pop-cultural pundit behind Catching Bullets: Memoirs of a Bond Fan and Watching Skies: Star Wars, Spielberg and Us.