Friday, 18 May 2012

Bond, UNCLE and The Prisoner

From Page to Screen

Ian Fleming's twelve James Bond novels inspired many screen adaptations, imitations and parodies. One parodic imitation, with some input from Fleming, was The Man From UNCLE TV series. Danger Man, a pre-Bond TV spy series joined the Bond-wagon. The Prisoner, a post-Bond Danger Man sequel, featured high-tech intelligence-gathering and a powerful secret organisation with numbered members controlled by a mysterious "Number One," like the criminal organization SPECTRE in the James Bond films. This article focuses on the Bond novels and on these three TV series.

From Screen to Page

Adaptations from screen to prose have been less creative. There are novelizations of films and original novels based on TV series. UNCLE novels came first but were poorly written. David McDaniel's UNCLE novels presented a history for the villainous organization, THRUSH, deriving it from the main villain of the Sherlock Holmes series. The Prisoner was complete as a screen drama and did not need three novels, one by McDaniel, as sequels. (Years later, better written Smallville novels read like new episodes of the Smallville TV series.)

From Screen Treatment to Page 

Several authors have written prose and screen versions simultaneously: L Frank Baum (Oz); Arthur C Clarke (2001); Ian Fleming (Bond). The novel, Dr No, and the collection, For Your Eyes Only, were each based on a proposed TV series. The novel, Thunderball, was based on a feature film treatment. Thus, some page-screen interactions are "behind the scenes."

Cyclical Summaries

James Bond novels:
(i) Defeated by Bond, the Russian organization, SMERSH, disbands and some of its members join the independent organization, SPECTRE;
(ii) Bond destroys SPECTRE twice but its founder and chairman, Blofeld, known in the films as "Number One," escapes both times;
(iii) Bond kills Blofeld and re-engages Russian Intelligence.

UNCLE/The Return of The Man From UNCLE:
(i) Defeated by Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, the independent organization, THRUSH, disbands and a leading member is imprisoned;
(ii) Waverly dies, Solo retires, Kuryakin resigns, time passes;
(iii) The prisoner escapes, THRUSH is re-formed, UNCLE's new Director contacts Solo...

Danger Man/The Prisoner:
(i) Defeated by John Drake, Russian Intelligence survives;
(ii) a secret agent resigns but is immediately imprisoned by order of "Number One";
(iii a) the Prisoner realizes his identity and escapes but (pessimistically) only temporarily;
(iii b) the Prisoner realizes his identity and (optimistically) permanently escapes from an otherwise endless cycle.

Bond defeats Russian Intelligence, including its enforcement arm SMERSH, several times. UNCLE and Drake defeat their enemies many times. "...several..." and "...many..." reflect the difference in number of episodes between a series of novels and a TV series. Independent organizations as collective villains reflect detente. Bond and UNCLE end where they started. Only The Prisoner is ambiguous. The imprisoned former secret agent may or may not be Drake and may or may not escape permanently.

Patrick MacNee played John Steed in The Avengers TV series, Sir John Raleigh, the new UNCLE Director in The Return, and Tebbit, Bond's assistant in a later film, but these are different characters. Patrick McGoohan played Drake and the Prisoner but denied that they were the same character possibly for copyright reasons. The clear continuity between the two series implies that the characters are identical. Ingenious steps are taken to avoid naming the Prisoner. An Intelligence officer's daughter confronts her father with the accusation that he, the father, knows where "he" is to which the father replies, "I take it you are referring to your fiancee?" When claiming to be the rightful occupant of a London flat and owner of the car parked outside it, the Prisoner, asked his name, unaccountably pauses and offers what is clearly a false name, "Peter Smith." He has to think to avoid using the commoner "John Smith."
On the other hand, at least twice in The Prisoner, one actor does play two characters in different episodes.

The Bond Novels

We have come a long way but are back where we started. SMERSH, SPECTRE and Blofeld are no more but Russian Intelligence remains and other opponents would have replaced it if Fleming had lived longer and had continued writing. A seven-volume SMERSH cycle and a five-volume SPECTRE/Blofeld/aftermath cycle are complete and a third cycle could have followed. Insofar as Bond had become a mythical figure, the cyclical structure of the series might express an eternal recurrence. A character like Bond exists only to fight villainous organizations. Thus, he always defeats yet ever re-fights them. Fleming does not set out to say this but simply demonstrates it by writing the series.

When the first four novels had not (yet) been as successful as Fleming had hoped, he had planned to complete the series as a single five-volume cycle culminating not only in the expectable defeat of SMERSH but also in the unexpected death of Bond. Fleming was persuaded to continue the series and therefore to explain away Bond's apparent death, like Doyle with Holmes. After an unsuccessful attempt to make Bond a more rounded character, Fleming then decided to " '...write the same book over and over again...' with only the settings changing." (1)  Thus, "...the formula for James Bond was finally established..." at the mid-point of the series. (1) The first cycle was extended by two more volumes and SMERSH lingered on after its decisive defeat in From Russia, With Love.

Despite his decision to "...write the same book over and over again...," Fleming, tired and ill, did not expect to write any more novels after the seventh but instead wrote a TV series and, with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham, a film treatment. The TV series became a short story collection separating the two cycles of novels and the film treatment became the opening novel of the second cycle. Throughout this second cycle, Bond seems, but only seems, to be breaking out of the cyclical narrative:

in a single film-derived novel, the collective villain changes from Russian to independent and the continuing villain changes from an organization to an individual;
a Bond heroine supposedly co-writes with Fleming the story of her life including, in just a third of the book, the account of her single encounter with Bond;
Bond drafts a letter of resignation from the Secret Service;
he is married but instantly widowed;
he goes to pieces and is nearly fired by M;
he is moved to the Diplomatic Section and sent on a different kind of mission, no longer 007 but 7777;
he is missing, believed dead, with an obituary in The Times, while in fact amnesiac on a Japanese island;
he returns from Russia brainwashed to kill M;
de-brainwashed, he is sent on a mission that will either kill him or reinstate him in the Secret Service;
he is shot in the stomach and lies unconscious in a Jamaican swamp...

Threats to Bond's life were routine but threats to his status in the Secret Service were merely a new dramatic development. Fleming did experiment with different kinds of writing within the Bond canon but, since by now he was writing "...the same book over and over again...," there was no way that Bond was going to resign or be fired or be tried for attempted murder. He is back to his old self by the end of the twelfth novel. The concluding sentence is a perfect epitaph:

"For James Bond, the same view would always pall." (2)

The Return of The Man From UNCLE

This TV film connects ostentatiously with Bond but almost subliminally with The Prisoner. It cameos George Lazenby, who had played Bond once, driving an Aston Martin with the license plate JB 007. In a memorable moment for screen spy fiction, he and Solo nod to each other while driving in parallel. Ironically, Fleming had stolen the name James Bond from a writer on ornithology but is said to have suggested the name Napoleon Solo for the UNCLE TV series.

Prisoner-like, Kuryakin resigns from UNCLE although there is no mystery about his reason. He is disenchanted with the outcome of a mission. Publicity about the film included the information that Kuryakin's resignation was to have been based on the Prisoner's, complete with grim-faced pacing down a corridor etc, but this idea did not survive onto the screen.
The Prisoner

Possibly, The Prisoner TV series expresses an eternal recurrence not inadvertently but self-consciously. At the beginning, mysterious men disguised as undertakers kidnap the just-resigned secret agent from his London flat. (He resigns, is rendered unconscious and removed in a hearse. The beginning is an ending.) Very near the end of the concluding episode, when the Prisoner has escaped from the island prison of "the Village" and returned to London, the hearse re-passes his flat. I anticipated the hearse's return a moment before it occurred. It seemed appropriate. At the very end, he drives his car at great speed as he had done at the beginning when hastening to Secret Service Headquarters to resign. Is the cycle about to recur, as it did at the mid-point of the series in "Many Happy Returns"?

Perhaps, although I interpreted the concluding sequence differently on first viewing. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The forces of unfreedom, represented by the hearse, threaten to return but the former Prisoner, now actively a "free man," is sufficiently on his guard and has broken the cycle. The hearse merely passes. We hope. Shortly before returning to his flat, he had looked directly into the camera as if to address viewers with something like "I am free. Are you?" When, at the very end, he drives the car built by himself at great speed, I suggest that this scene is a dynamic expression of his freedom, not the prelude to a recurrent descent into the underground car park. 

The Prisoner is reflective where Bond is not although both originated in the Cold War milieu. Are the Village authorities a foreign state organization like SMERSH, an independent organization like SPECTRE or THRUSH or even the same state organization that the hero had worked for? The last episode transcends these distinctions but most of the preceding action was set in this Fleming context. Fleming did not address larger issues but McGoohan and his collaborators did. Bond and Solo definitely remain imprisoned in a cycle of duality and unresolved conflict but the Prisoner at least potentially goes beyond it.

(1) Pearson, John. The Life of Ian Fleming, London, 1966, p. 307.
(2) Fleming, Ian. The Man With The Golden Gun, New York, 1965, p. 158.


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