Thunderball by Ian Fleming: Part 1

Published 1961

James Bond book 9, the 8th full-length novel

Thunderball Lippe

[Count Lippe] was extremely handsome – a dark bronzed woman-killer with a neat moustache above the sort of callous mouth women kiss in their dreams.

He was an athletic-looking six foot, dressed in the sort of casually well-cut beige herring-bone tweed that suggests Anderson and Sheppard. He wore a white silk shirt and a dark red polka-dot tie, and the soft dark brown V-necked sweater looked like vicuna. Bond summed him up as a good-looking bastard who got all the women he wanted and probably lived on them—and lived well.
[Patricia] was an athletic-looking girl whom Bond would haveThunderball smock casually associated with tennis, or skating, or show-jumping. She had the sort of firm, compact figure that always attracted him and a fresh open-air type of prettiness that would have been commonplace but for a wide, rather passionate mouth and a hint of authority that would be a challenge to men. She was dressed in a feminine version of the white smock worn by Mr. Wain, and it was clear from the undisguised curves of her breasts and hips that she had little on underneath it. Bond asked her if she didn't get bored. What did she do with her time off?

commentary: After the placesaver of the short story collection For Your Eyes Only (did a blogpost on Quantum of Solace recently) it’s back to the proper books, which suit Fleming and Bond much better, without any doubt. But actually this one still isn’t a full return: Thunderball has a very strange and difficult history, and the lawsuits went on for years.

Briefly: Fleming was very keen for there to be Bond films, and it is hard looking back from the other end to see how difficult it was to achieve this - it seems very surprising but he was working away at it and trying to sell film rights for years. He had complex agent-ing arrangements, he wondered if TV was the way to go, or a different series character. In the midst of all this, a film producer told him that none of the books to date was really suitable: what was needed was a brand new treatment, a plot and story designed for a filmscript. Four people (apparently) were involved in what came next: Ian Fleming, his friend Ivar Bryce, producer Kevin McClory and writer Jack Whittingham came up with an idea for an adventure involving an underwater shenanigans around the Bahamas.

Nothing came of the film (at that time) and Fleming needed a new book, and took parts of the plot and turned it into the novel we are considering now. McClory tried to get an injunction to stop the book being distributed – that failed, but a subsequent court case did give him certain rights over the story and book. That didn’t stop the lawsuits, which went on for years.

The eventual producers of the Bond films we know didn’t want to mess with Thunderball while the court cases were ongoing, and so (apparently almost randomly) Fleming suggested Dr No.

When Thunderball did come to be made, McClory had the right to be involved in the production, which he took up, and also the rights to a ‘remake but not sequel’ – which is where that odd, non-canon, Never Say Never Again came from in 1983.

The whole story is strange and twisting and actually fascinating and sad. There is a whole book just on the case – The Battle For Bond by Robert Sellers, a book that the Fleming estate attacked, forcing the pulping of one edition. Most of my information comes from a riveting and highly recommended piece by Len Deighton called James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for his Father, some of which is in an introduction to the Sellers book. Are you keeping up with this? – I am the least likely person to be explaining this, but I did find it riveting.

Whatever the ins and outs, I found this one odd and think I could have guessed there was something strange about its genesis. For a start there is a terrific opening third (one I remembered well over the years) featuring Bond in a duel of wits at a health farm, Shrublands. Those wits aren’t up to much: Bond tries to do some research in an easily overheard phone conversation in a public phone booth, alerting the enemy. But it’s good knockabout stuff: the problem being that it has only the most tenuous connection with the rest of the book. The man he defeats, Count Lippe, described above, is vital to the wicked Thunderball plan, and as a result the plan is delayed by several days. That’s it.

My favourite line here is when Bond has left the health farm with its tiresome regime: that night he
[scores] a most satisfactory left and right of Spaghetti Bolognese and Chianti at Lucien’s in Brighton and of Miss Patricia Fearing [the masseuse above] on the squab seats from her bubble car high up on the Downs.
The glamour is almost too bright for the reader’s eyes. Although she has been massaging him with special mink-covered gloves:

Thunderball mink glove

Earlier on, Bond was seen to be
executing a passable Veronica
- which doesn’t mean that he killed off a random young woman: it’s a matador’s move, and the only way that he could save Patricia from the path of an oncoming car.

There’s something very English about this section, along with the cool young man whose ambition in life would be to become Tommy Steele. I enjoyed it all hugely, but was then ready to head off for the Bahamas as the real plot began… More later this week.

The man in the suit is a young-ish Laurence Olivier, and he is wearing Anderson and Sheppard tweed.

The young woman is advertising modern spa-wear from My first thought was to find a still from a Carry On film for Patricia, but I decided to give her some respect. And there weren’t any good pictures anyway, disappointingly.


  1. Moira, it was interesting to read about this novel and how it came to be embroiled in controversies and lawsuits. I guess there were quite a few stakeholders to Fleming's legacy and output. He'd have probably handled it all better in this day and age.

    1. It was a fascinating story Prashant. I guess wherever there is a lot of money, there's going to be a lot of interested parties...

  2. I didn't really know the ins and outs of that lawsuit, Moira - thanks fr sharing. And it's interesting to learn how very long it took Fleming to his work on screen. Funny those films have made so much money and been so popular...

    1. Me neither, Margot, it was all news to me, and did make for fascinating reading. When you're reading it you're thinking 'how could they not see what a goldmine the books were?' but of course hindsight is a useful thing!

  3. I never knew there was such a backstory to this book/film, possibly more of interest to me than the actual product of the dispute - that said I do think I have this particular Bond book.

    1. I really recommend the Len Deighton version - I think you would enjoy it, it's a cheap Kindle. I do know you don't need more books...

  4. How I enjoy your blog, Moira. This is fascinating.

  5. THUNDERBALL does have a very weird structure, although I suspect that it is to do with its roots as a screenplay. It probably seemed that the theft of the atom bombs would be a huge set-piece, but if you do that at the beginning of the film you have to find something for Bond to do, hence the health farm. Fleming had recently attended one in real-life, so it wasn't a stretch fo write about.

    The court case is fascinating, although I always felt that Fleming was rather hard done by. He was very naive in thinking that he didn't need to credit the others, but the story doesn't include much stuff that isn't in the other books. It is self-consciously a 'Best of Bond' collection, with atom bombs (MOONRAKER) card games (CASINO ROYALE) skin-diving (LIVE AND LET DIE) and even an octopus or two! There's even some anecdotal evidence that Fleming asked commentator Henry Blofeld if he could use his name for the villain.

    There's a very funny running joke that I remember from the last time that I read the book. After the farm, Bond tries to keep to his healthy regime, but the more stressful that things become the more that he reverts to his ciggies, his booze and his rich foods! It's quite subtle, but it does show up the self-mocking side of Fleming's writing that a lot of the critics of the time missed.

    1. yes, Fleming is very funny on the health regime, and how it makes Bond annoying to everyone around him at first, when he is back at the office, and then it just all disappears. Yes, it is a mishmash. I'm intending to watch the film, I am intrigued...

  6. Moira: I hardly know where to begin.

    Sir Laurence is the very image for suave and debonair. Only Sir Roger Moore may have been his equal.

    I started poking around looking for the actual court judgments and have started reading them. The judges were so eager to be writing about Bond and martini's - shaken, not stirred - before eventually getting around to the more prosaic details of contract law.

    I was startled by mink mitts. With my Dad a trapper I handled lots of mink pelts and the fur has a luxurious feel to it. I do worry about the masseuse in the mitts having hot and sweaty hands. Mink is an excellent insulator.

    1. Thanks Bill - I was absolutely delighted with that picture, and I didn't straightaway recognize it as Olivier - he could look so stately, and have gravitas, but he could certainly put on a slightly demonic look too!
      It sounds like a very complicated set of lawsuits, you probably would find them interesting.
      I didn't know if mink mitts was a thing or not, but I found plenty on the internet.

  7. Very interesting story about the writing of Thunderball, I never knew any of that. I had wondered how Never Say Never Again happened. Never saw that movie at all. It would all be interesting to read about but too much on my plate right now, so maybe someday.


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