You Only Edit Twice

If you rewrite a super spy to avoid retrograde racist attitudes, are you throwing out the Bond with the bathwater?

Ian Fleming Publications, the corporate arm of the Fleming literary estate, has announced its intention to subject the James Bond novels to a fresh edit prior to re-release of the series on its 70th anniversary this April.

James Bond first appeared in 1953. World War II was still fresh in the minds of Europeans and Jim Crow was a reality for millions of black Americans. Although racial segregation did not exist in England, racial attitudes were roughly proximate either side of the Atlantic. Although one was more likely to encounter black Britons on the high-street than black Americans at the local lunch counter, it would be years before the social norms of either nation reflected anything approximating racial equality.

The Bond novels clearly reflect those attitudes. The title, for instance, of chapter five in Live and Let Die includes the N-word, which Fleming places liberally in the mouths of American characters such as Bond’s CIA sidekick, Felix Leiter, who, ironically enough, is black himself in the most recent Daniel Craig James Bond films. It also appears periodically as part of a compound noun (“n***erhead”), which is Caribbean slang for a small atoll. They will clean up such usages, alongside the uncomplimentary descriptions of Harlem nightlife that appear in the novel.

James Bond
A somewhat questionable illustration on the original paperback edition of ‘You Only Live Twice.’

Throughout the original series of Fleming novels, Bond travels widely and interacts with people of many different nationalities – mostly European or Slavic. But occasionally, his adventures draw him into contact with the more exotic ethnicities one might see in Jamaica or the Orient. Fleming, a former travel writer, handles scene description with ease. But his upper-class attitudes toward other races are evident and tend toward the clichéd.

Where Fleming treats the American and Jamaican blacks of his early books with affectionate disdain (Fleming himself enjoyed the company of black people and had a keen ear for dialogue), he portrays the Japanese characters in You Only Live Twice with the generosity with which one might expect a Brit to treat “honored enemies.” It will be intriguing to see how the editors modify Fleming’s descriptions of Tokyo or meetings with Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese secret service (to say nothing of his sexual yearnings toward geisha).

Much has been made of recent decisions to subject older books to the scrutiny of modern sensitivity readers. Roald Dahl’s oeuvre narrowly avoided a fisking by the Mod Squad thanks to the intervention of royalty. We have yet to see whether the “shock and dismay” felt by Queen Consort Camilla upon learning of the proposed edits are readily applicable to Fleming, or if Her Majesty’s fears of “those who may wish to curb the freedom of your expression or impose limits on your imagination” will menace James Bond. But I would place Dahl and Fleming in entirely different categories as writers. As such, they should be subject to very different standards.

It is important to distinguish the “enduring” nature of beloved children’s literature from the relative ephemera of thrillers. The hope with children’s books is that adults can pass down beloved treasures from their own youth to their own kids. As such, editing language and scenery is apt to raise objections from the nostalgic. And rightly so. While one hopes that any book for children, written at any time, would avoid racist or prejudicial sentiments, one can understand a parent’s desire to bequeath the same immersive experience to their child that they once enjoyed.

Thrillers are an entirely different animal. Written on the fly, light on characterization and heavy on action, they invariably portray a rougher world – one on the shadowy fringes, filled with society’s losers and the criminal element. The “mean streets” of Raymond Chandler are not a recommended destination for any child’s bedtime hour. And they are not the “enduring” stuff of beloved literature.

The mean streets persist. Many of the same types of bad actors still live there. But how we understand those streets and the language used to describe them are fair game for those who would question the use of racist or otherwise objectionable vocabulary. One can describe the bombed-out streets of Calcutta without descending to colonialist stereotypes, just as one can describe the interior of a Harlem nightclub without referring to it as “n***er heaven.”

The challenge for modern editors will be to shore up those areas of the narrative that may weaken without the objectionable language. Racist language and attitudes, deplorable as they are, serve as shorthand for recognizing the era in which books appeared. Additional exposition may therefore prove necessary. And let us not neglect to recognize that language serves as an indicator of human behavior. If one removes racist language from an old book, does that not suggest that perhaps such language never existed? And if racist language did not exist, are we then expected to pretend that racist attitudes and behavior did not exist, either?

 Editing old thrillers with sympathy for modern sensibilities is all well and good. But replacement dialogue and descriptors are essential for establishing time, place and social attitudes. Anything less and one risks throwing out the Bond with the bath-water.

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Jamie Mason

Jamie Mason is the author of The Book of Ashes, Certain Fury, and The North Atlantic Protocol. His most recent effort, THE BOOK OF JAMES, is a historical epic set in Viking-era Britain.

2 thoughts on “You Only Edit Twice

  • March 1, 2023 at 7:54 am

    Why are we all just complaining about rewrites now? Here’s an interesting thought. Every film adaptation of a book results in the book being “rewritten”. As John le Carré said, “having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes”.

    Let’s hope that masterpieces from Ian Fleming, Roland Dahl and other spies are not destroyed through unwarranted censorship by the current ridiculous woke process. Mind you, if they are re-writing the Bond stuff do read Bill Fairclough’s fact based spy thriller, Beyond Enkription, the first stand-alone novel of six in The Burlington Files series. One day he may overtake Bond, Smiley and even Jackson Lamb!

    Intentionally misspelt, Beyond Enkription is a must read for espionage illuminati. It’s a raw noir matter of fact pacy novel. Len Deighton and Mick Herron could be forgiven for thinking they co-wrote it. Coincidentally, a few critics have nicknamed its protagonist “a posh Harry Palmer.”

    It is a true story about a maverick accountant, Bill Fairclough (MI6 codename JJ) aka Edward Burlington in Porter Williams International (in real life Coopers & Lybrand now PwC). In the 1970s in London he infiltrated organised crime gangs, unwittingly working for MI6. After some frenetic attempts on his life he was relocated to the Bahamas where, “eyes wide open” he was recruited by the CIA and headed for shark infested waters off Haiti.

    Bill Fairclough was one of Pemberton’s People in MI6 (see the brief News Article dated 31 October 2022 in TheBurlingtonFiles website). The thriller is the stuff memorable films are made of, raw, realistic yet punchy, pacy and provocative; a super read as long as you don’t expect John le Carré’s delicate diction, sophisticated syntax and placid plots. It’s like nothing we have ever come across before … and TheBurlingtonFiles website is as breathtaking as a compelling thriller. It’s a must read for espionage cognoscenti.

    • March 4, 2023 at 9:59 am

      Criticizing the editing of the Bond books because of “wokeness” is ridiculous. The publisher and Fleming’s estate want to make money. To do so, they want a product that is easily digested by modern audiences. This is no different than in the 1960s when Fleming’s American publisher requested edits to make Fleming’s Live and Let Die more appealing to American audiences.

      According to the publisher, Fleming had no issue with revising his novels:
      ‘Ian Fleming Publications claims that Fleming himself was on board with the inclusion of less offensive racial language, and approved the changes to “Live and Let Die” before he died in 1964. Many of the changes reportedly involve replacing various pejorative terms for Black people with “Black person” or “Black man.”’

      ‘The publisher added: “Following Ian’s approach, we looked at the instances of several racial terms across the books and removed a number of individual words or else swapped them for terms that are more accepted today but in keeping with the period in which the books were written.’

      Moreover, copyright on James Bond ends in 2034; so, now is the time to grab as much cash as possible and to have a new copyright in place for the revised texts. New copyrighted versions of Ian Fleming Estate’s officially approved Bond books is

      The original versions of the books will still exist to center the story in its original time period. That is important because those books will provide a snapshot of UK society’s culture at that time.


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