Ian Fleming – You Only Live Twice

The last completed novel Ian Fleming wrote about his famous character James Bond is You Only Live Twice (1964), in a time when the movie franchise was starting to sky-rocket into world-wide fame. Nevertheless, Fleming proves to be an independent mind. While his novels stick to a general, well-known, format he has played in several occasions with the story and approach. One major difference with the movie adaptations is the more personal touch. The reader experiences a Bond outside his missions, in his off-mission work at the office, and some of his views and feelings which provide a sometimes strange depth and picture of the times and nature of spy work. Another difference is that the movies make the stories far more adventurous and often change the plot considerably. Bond’s missions in the novels are at times more straightforward and singular.

The novel You Only Live Twice contains a very different plot than the movie which is far more exhilarating and action-packed.These are however extensions to the essence of the story of the novel. Bond is taken to a completely different surrounding, Japan, and experiences several elements of Japanese society and culture. Many of the experiences from the book are also there in the movie adaptation. The great difference is that the movie remains somewhat superficial. The viewer gets a rather fast picture of many different things and has little time to contemplate or get a good feeling for it. The novel really goes into depth of Japanese culture, society and history. Perhaps I am biased by my own interest in Japanese culture and history of many years, but I was really taken by Fleming’s impressive and (to my opinion) accurate description of Japan in the early sixties. This is in contrast to other stories taking place in foreign countries where Fleming only adds some general flavor to the scene. Only his first descriptions of Jamaica in his early novels come close. Fleming is a master of detail, certainly considering the short average length of his novels (200 pages). The range of detail concerning Japan goes far beyond his earlier writing. While Fleming at times added the details in the form of info-dumping, this time it is done very naturally during the course of the story in an engaging way.

In stark contrast to the movie adaptation and less so with the other novels, You Only Live Twice contains very few action-scenes. It is not just as story about Japan, it is also very much a character-story with Bond in the center. Throughout most of the novel Bond is paired with another character and no other characters take part in their interaction. The dialogues are very strong and insightful. To me it felt that they lifted the novel to a literary quality. These days such elements are quite common in thrillers. The Bond-novels always were something quite more than the average pulp thriller, but the focus was still on sex, gambling, smoking and drinking, and violence. Character interaction was always part of the suspense. While these elements are not absent in You Only Live Twice, they are more an element than a focus. Fleming has given Bond a mission of a different nature. Bond approaches it in the way he always does but with very different effects. To me it was great to read. A new experience.

Looking at the series as a whole Fleming managed to cover a wide spectrum of ideas. The Bond-novels have common elements, but many have their own unique character and flavors. It’s not always the same deal. The reader gets much more and Fleming also takes up challenges of his own.

You Only Live Twice is a great book. Not the best concerning actions scenes or plot complexity, but certainly the best in characterization and dialogue. Knowing the series coming to an end, the reader is treated with more Bond. You know him and you will know him more. The story itself has its typical peculiarities and Bond-feel, and to me it was quite satisfactory, even with the lack of action scenes. Highly recommended.

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