In a sense, THUNDERBALL is where it all started and where it all ended for James Bond. Although the novel was not released until 1961, it is based upon a earlier screenplay (MR. KISS-KISS BANG BANG) written by Fleming, Jack Whittingham and Kevin McClory, many elements of which were adapted for the first Bond Films.
(In)famously, McClory and Eon Productions became embroiled in an epic lawsuit that lasted decades over the rights to the intellectual property of SPECTRE and Blofeld. As a result, SPECTRE vanished from the later films, the producers decided never to follow another of Fleming's plotlines (much to the detriment of the movies), McClory was awarded partial rights to THUNDERBALL (which was remade as NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN), and Connery was wooed home for the role, a thumb in the eye of Cubby Broccoli, who had argued with Connery years before. In the end, MGM/Eon bought everybody out, this is all a footnote, and CASINO ROYALE is expected in 2006 with as yet an unnamed actor as Bond.
While not one of the best of Fleming's works, THUNDERBALL has a charming wit that makes it irresistible, especially in its earlier scenes at Shrublands the exclusive health spa where Bond is forced to go for the cure.
Fleming obviously wrote the Shrublands episode with his tongue jammed firmly into his cheek, and has a wonderful time poking fun at critics who find Bond's hedonism distressing. After two weeks of drinking wheatgrass juice and eating pine nut tofu, Bond is feeling absolutely "mahvelous," he has practically turned into "Jim-Bob Gandhi," and his Scots housekeeper May is in tears warning him against the danger of a grown man eating such "bairn's food." Bond patiently explains, with the insufferable air of a true zealot, the difference between "live" foods and "dead foods," and dismisses May with the grumbled imprecation, "Change of life."
But May is right. When called to action, Bond immediately reverts to steak and eggs, black coffee, Morland Balkan cigarettes, and whisky neat. His nemesis, Blofeld, by the way, indulges in nothing.
Not so Emilio Largo, who is a true Roman epicurean. Largo's favorite indulgences are the hydrofoil yacht Disco Volante and Domino Vitali. Bond quickly develops a fondness for the latter as well, a far more explicit fondness than the films ever could describe.
The plot is familiar to everyone who has seen the movies. (Isn't that everyone?) SPECTRE steals two atom bombs and holds the world hostage. Bond must retrieve them.
What makes THUNDERBALL the book so vastly different from THUNDERBALL/NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN is Fleming's style as an author. He is a true "sensualist" as a writer, able to pack a scene with smells, sounds, sights and textures, all while practicing an economy with words that is admirable.
While Fleming's Bond is vaguely sketched by intent, it is Fleming's language that essentially animated the "James Bond Style," far and beyond any one film. This is most evident in THUNDERBALL, the movie that became a book that became two movies. The Bond films merely solidified Fleming's prose. The cinematic Bond is a different character, but wears the same shoes.
A blasted good read!