A novel is not enough for 007 fans

What a difference a half-century makes.

Forty-seven years ago, author Ian Fleming introduced James Bond, agent 007 of the British Secret Service, in the novel "Casino Royale." The suave and deadly Bond quickly became a literary sensation � and the poster boy for a hip, martini-sipping, villain-pounding, woman-loving way of life that would be embraced as the ideal by a generation of men.

In the early 1960s, a series of films based on Fleming's Bond adventures made actor Sean Connery a star and kept Fleming's hero-spy novels at the top of the best-seller lists.

Then, in 1964, Fleming died. With permission from his estate, nearly 20 subsequent Bond novels have appeared, written variously by Kingsley Amis, John Gardner and Raymond Benson. A new Bond book by Benson, "Doubleshot," has just been published by Putnam.

Straight to the theaters

Although the James Bond mystique continues to fascinate, the excitement and influence of the novels are long gone. Many, probably most, modern-day James Bond fans skip the books and live for 007's onscreen exploits.

James Rumley, news editor for the popular Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Web site (www.ianfleming.org/mkkbb/), which chronicles all things Bond, thinks he knows why interest in the literary Bond is in such serious decline.

"Bond fans look first and foremost now for movies because (the movies) still present Bond as a sort of superhero," says Rumley, a 22-year-old who first shared Bond gossip on the Internet when he was 16. "I read all the books, too, and for a while they tried to make James Bond politically correct. We can't have that. It takes the fun out of it."

"In particular, John Gardner tried to make Bond politically correct, and I think he alienated fans," says Benson, the current keeper of the Bond literary portfolio. "They want a smoking, gambling, womanizing man."

In Gardner's Bond novels, 007 did clearly mellow. After the death of longtime boss/mentor M, a woman became the new head of the British Secret Service. And Bond changed with the times. He became more sensitive and aware, he recognized that women had more to offer than their sexuality. He watched what he ate and drank. Once, he even let somebody else drive the car.

And hard-core fans, steeped in the idea of Bond as the ultimate male fantasy, recoiled in horror.

"James Bond shouldn't have to worry about AIDS," Rumley says. "I agree that some things in the books have to be updated; it would be silly to do period books, keeping Bond in the '60s. But his attitude has to stay the same."

Purists rebel

Benson's first 007 literary turn came in 1984, when he published "The James Bond Bedside Companion," which is out of print.

"It sort of established me as a Bond expert," says the writer, a native Texan who lives in Chicago. "I had loved the early Bond books and movies, and in doing this reference book, I met with Ian Fleming's family. They seemed to like my book."

By the mid '90s, sales of individual Bond titles were flagging � none was making the best-seller lists � and, Benson says, "John Gardner decided he didn't want to do them anymore."

Rumley, for one, was glad.

"Gardner tried to add more to Bond's character, to modernize him," he says. "That upset purists like me."

At the same time, the big-screen Bond was getting the same modern-day makeover, causing Timothy Dalton to flee the franchise in failure and MGM/UA to consider abandoning the series. It took a recommitment to the original concept of Bond and the casting of Pierce Brosnan to breathe life back into the secret agent in 1995's "GoldenEye."

A year later, starting with the aptly titled short story "Blast From the Past," which appeared in "Playboy" magazine, Benson set out to recapture the old Bond swagger in print. Irma Bunt, 007's old "From Russia With Love" adversary, returned in "Blast." Afterward, Benson felt ready to tackle a full-length Bond novel.

"The Fleming people asked if I wanted to take a shot," he says. "I had to write an outline, then the first few chapters on spec. In March '96, I got the go-ahead to write 'Zero Minus Ten' (published in 1997)."

Although his books are published by Putnam, all Benson's Bond material must be approved by the Ian Fleming Foundation in England.

Fleming's appeal

One of the challenges for Benson or any other approved Bond chronicler is how to keep the memory of Fleming and his work alive, since younger 007 fans may have never heard of Bond's creator.

"That name doesn't mean anything to anybody but longtime fans," says Edward Gross, who edited "Bond and Beyond," a book about 007 films that is out of print.

"Remember, the first movies were all based on Fleming's books. Now, they're original screenplays, so people have forgotten about James Bond's literary roots."

Gross even speculates that young Bond fans might not enjoy the Fleming books or even the movies of the '60s and '70s based on them.

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