Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, favorites of Navy World War II veteran and President John F. Kennedy, are getting an update for the 21st century under the direction of the late author's estate. The new editions will be published in April 2023.
Fleming, a WWII veteran of Britain's Naval Intelligence Division, published his first Bond novel, "Casino Royale," in 1953 and completed twelve 007 novels and two collections of short stories before his death from a heart attack in 1964 at age 56.
The author was a product of the British upper classes and displayed many of the prejudices that were common in his circles when he wrote the James Bond novels. The Fleming estate has decided that those prejudices detract from the experience of reading the books in the 21st century and has revised the novels to scrub what it has deemed to be racist content.
To be fair, the movie James Bond plays a much greater role in our collective imagination and the producers ditched both the language and many of the attitudes from the movies they made with Sean Connery during Fleming's lifetime. The Bond we love isn't really the Bond from the novels.
What's changing? The first thing to go was the casual use of the n-word. Fleming threw that word around even more than you'd expect in an era when white people were still using it, and those passages have been jarring to read for decades.
Here's a surprising fact revealed by The Telegraph, a British newspaper: Racial references in the original U.S. versions of the Bond novels that many of us grew up reading had already been toned down with the full knowledge and approval of Fleming during his lifetime.
The estate hired "sensitivity readers" to do a closer reading of the texts, and The Telegraph newspaper has the details about what they found and a statement about the process: "We at Ian Fleming Publications reviewed the text of the original Bond books and decided our best course of action was to follow Ian's lead. We have made changes to Live and Let Die that he himself authorized.
"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."
When the ethnicity of minor characters has no bearing on the plot, those references have been excised. In the new version of "Live and Let Die," a scene where he attempted to write in what he thought of as Harlem patois was deemed unsalvageable and chopped altogether. A passage that describes homosexuality as a "stubborn disability" has also been cut.
The editors left in Fleming's questionable terms for East Asian characters and didn't tone down Bond's viciously negative ideas about Oddjob, the Korean bodyguard in "Goldfinger."
These Bond edits seem to be quite different from the changes to Roald Dahl's children's books that caused such controversy earlier this year. In that case, sensitivity readers seemed determined to edit out the meanness from Dahl's prose, and for reasons arguably good and bad, the meanness was the point of those books. The publisher has backpedaled and will now keep the original versions in print alongside the edited versions.
Of course, we'll all have to wait to read the new editions to see whether the James Bond novels pack the same punch after these edits. It would be a shame to see the 007 character fall out of the culture because of Fleming's racist attitudes. Fingers crossed that the new editions get the job done.
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