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Is That a Martini in Your Pocket…? Best Bond Girls from the Books

In time for Skyfall, a look back at Ian Fleming’s top 5 most interesting Bond girls (yes, they exist)

For recent generations, Bond has been a strictly cinematic institution, a Hollywood pursuit – which is a shame because Mr. Fleming’s original writings are really something to behold (so that’s what it feels like to be “the-book-is-better” guy). One part tantalizing travelogue, another part Cold War fantasy, and three parts old, racist great uncle bending your ear; they are rich, pulpy, espionage tapestries. Bond on film became a genre standard that is inexplicably now chasing Bourne… but Bond on the page? It feels like Mad Men stirred in a bubbling cauldron of Marvel Comics. Let’s be honest, that sounds awesome (and it so totally is).

One of the more subtle wrinkles lost during Bond’s leap from the page is his varied cast of of love interests. Sure, Fleming wrote quite a few vacant, doe-eyed vamps as Bond girls, but Bond films have by and large bobbled the opportunity to bring the few more interesting ones to life. The author’s misogynist leanings are well-documented, but his exceptions – whether to serve story, comment, or dynamic characterization – are not. So, just in time for the promising Skyfall, let’s declassify five of Fleming’s more fascinating feminine depictions, starting with:

5. Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale

Speaking of vacant, doe-eyed vamps, Vesper totally is one. But she’s the first one, goddammit, and that’s gotta count for something.

Before Bond became a smash, it was just one volume, Casino Royale, about a world-weary MI6 agent contemplating retiring from being a blunt government instrument in the cold, lonely world of espionage. Thanks to Vesper, his newly-assigned young assistant, Bond finally sees a way out: Love, marriage, and all that settling down rubbish. But Vesper’s enigmatic distance culminates with her shocking suicide in the book’s final chapters. She’s been a double agent the whole time, blackmailed by Soviets. Even though her Ophelia impression kept Bond from danger, Bond realizes Vesper, or the idea of Vesper, is probably a mirage for someone in his line of business. The last staggering line of the book (“The bitch is dead now”) feels less like the worst eulogy ever and more like post-humiliation male posturing. Bond was so occupied protecting his genitals from Le Chiffre, he forgot to guard his most vulnerable spot from Vesper: his heart. -cue live studio audience: awwwwww!-

If Casino Royale had been a stand alone volume, Vesper would be mildly interesting at best, but because Bond exploded into a series with continuity, her shadow stretches on after her demise. Is Bond a miserable womanizer because this is war and bros will be bros? Or is this whole government-funded globe-trotting tail festival history’s most righteous rebound? Either way you look at it, Vesper was there at kick-off and that trajectory wouldn’t have been the same without her. That gets her on the list.

Plus, she has a wicked tasty martini named after her.

4. Domino Vitali from Thunderball

Bond continuity can almost be split into two halves. Thunderball is the booming, gnarly debut of the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. half – and also the best Bahamas Bond yarn out there. Ursula Andress’ Honey Rider in the Doctor No flick might be pin-up gold standard, but Fleming’s Domino in Thunderball has that character beat by a nautical mile.

A lot of Ms. Vitali’s presence riffs on Bond girl go-tos: bikinis, athleticism, caged as the villain’s mistress, and initially unimpressed by Bond’s advances. Despite an oddly erotic scene in which Bond must suck sea-egg spines from Domino’s foot (hot…?), his charms dry out pretty quick. But something else turns her to his side: sweet, sweet revenge. As it turns out, Bond’s rival, Emilio Largo, secretly ordered the murder of Domino’s brother in the theft of nuclear warheads. Domino does not take the news well.

She briefly falls into damsel territory when she’s captured and tortured by Largo, but it isn’t until the climatic underwater scuba clash between gov’t agents and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. that she really earns her stripes. Cornered by Largo in the vicious battle and about to run out of air, Bond is only saved when Domino intervenes and HARPOONS LARGO IN F*CKIN’ THROAT. Jesus. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – especially when you expose yourself in an internationally sensitive, terrorist-funded scuba joust. That’s like page two in the Bro Code, dude.

Bond girls are rarely even present for climatic showdowns and likely sidelined if they are. With Bond’s help, Domino is able to emerge from her gilded cage, but executes one of the most bad ass death strokes in the series to save Bond. No other Bond baddie falls by a woman’s hand – and for that, Domino falls at number four.

3. Kissy Suzuki from You Only Live Twice

Okay, so her name is “Kissy.” I know. But bear with me.

You Only Live Twice concludes the Blofeld trilogy – Bond’s three book struggle against the arch-nemesis who ran S.P.E.C.T.R.E and murdered his wife – and is one of the darkest books in the series. Mourning and despondent, Bond tracks Blofeld to a Japanese castle and holes up in a nearby fishing village. There, Kissy Suzuki, a former actress, schools him in the ways the community. I know, we’re dangerously close to Pocahontas/Dances With Wolves/The Last Samurai/Avatar territory here, but because of her film career, Kissy is more worldly and savvy – and quick to poke fun at Bond. She’s breezily accessible, not as some hot-to-trot farmer’s daughter, but in a self-assured tomboyish way. Kissy definitely sat at the cool kids table at school.

Things take a turn when Bond returns from his vengeful mission wounded and with amnesia. Kissy saves him, plays nurse… and the totally decides not to remind Bond of who he is! In black and white, this might seem deceptive, but considering what a sorry, heartbroken sonuvabitch Bond is at the start of this book, Kissy’s decision is an act of mercy. Bond emerges a new man, free of his demons. Better yet, Kissy is the spirited, frisky one – insisting on trips to town and experimenting with some kind of Japanese Kama Sutra book. Both mischievous and loving, Kissy injects a rare, ignorant bliss in Bond and might be the only woman who comes close to possessing him – and not the other way around.

Sadly, the fantasy lasts only so long – Bond’s demons re-emerge and drive him away… but not before Kissy starts to sense she might have to start pearl diving for two. I smell a spinoff!

2. “Trigger” from The Living Daylights

The Living Daylights is a short story, but might be the best Bond story ever.

Sure, it’s lacking a mutilated megalomaniac bent on global domination, but it’s the kind of micro lens on a concept that Hollywood would describe as “gritty” and “psychological.” And it is. But it’s also contained, tense, and funny. Assigned to assassinate a sniper operative known as “Trigger,” Bond spends three days pacing and drinking in crumby hostel, waiting for Trigger to appear and paired with insufferable company man. Turns out it’s easy to kill a man in the heat of a fight-or-flight moment… but stewing over plans to do it for three days sucks a whole bag of dicks.

Then, after the tireless monitoring of an orchestra pacing in and out of the building in question, Bond finally spots Trigger… and sees it’s the orchestra’s cellist: just a young girl trying to defend her side of the Berlin Wall. Bond makes the split-second decision to fire on her gun and not her, just to frighten her – a call that douchebag pencil-pusher is eager to report to MI6. But Bond is zen in his decision. It’s one of the few times Bond disobeys directives without redemption and reveals of sliver of empathy – there’s no getting laid or advancing the mission here, just genuine principle. She’s a story device, yes, but few other female Bond characters inhabit the illuminating narrative space that Trigger does.

Note: Recently, “The Living Daylights” story is packaged in the anthology titled “Octopussy.” WHICH! By the way, is the name of an actual pet octopus and not some ‘buy-seven-and-get-one-free’ harem discount. So there you go.

1. Special Branch Agent Gala Brand from Moonraker

Moonraker has it all: a tense gambling sequence, a Nazi villain, and a giant goddamn warhead. It’s also a Fleming work of notable exceptions: it’s the only Bond novel entirely set in the UK and contains the only Bond girl never adapted for the screen (who also manages to avoid being seduced by Bond).

That’s right, Gala Brand never falls into the deep icy pools of ole’ James’ eyes. She comes close at one point, but fate (and missiles) intervene and she recovers her composure. Truth of the matter is Gala doesn’t have a lot of time to get swept off her feet. When James is sent to investigate Hugo Drax, Gala is already embedded in Hugo’s staff. That’s right, Comrade Bond – you ain’t even the first spy all up in this piece! Gala continues to exercise further bad-assery: uncovering murder clues, discovering the true trajectory of the warhead, and ultimately helping to sabotage its launch. Hey, James? Go ahead and take a knee. Gala sews the whole thing up with not a goodbye kiss or bedroom eyes to Bond… but a handshake.

Given the world of Bond, one might assume that a woman that rejects him is frigid or somehow evil or deranged (or in the case of Goldfinger‘s Tilly, an angry lesbian), but Gala never feels like an oppressive stereotype. She is attracted to Bond. She is vulnerable. She is over her head. But the Moonraker plot keeps her proactive and driven. She’s brave and capable. And the final reveal that she’s actually been engaged the whole time not only speaks to the internal dilemma she faced as Bond’s partner, but also suggests that pairing with Bond isn’t this adventure’s reward – returning to her life is. Not too shabby for a book named after a massive phallic symbol.

Bond maintains the spotlight in Moonraker, but no other book has such a satisfying female presence. And with the number of Bond book characters ripe for movie adaptation dwindling, Gala Brand is far overdue for the silver screen. MGM, Columbia – get on this.

So what lovely ladies did I miss? From the books and films – which women deserve a top five spot?

  • Bryan

    I spent hours today trying to come up with honorable mentions (Tracy from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? At least she’s helpful) to no avail.

    You made the comparison to Mad Men, but it becomes clear very quickly that Matthew Weiner is trying to say, “Look, these are not good people, and you shouldn’t admire them.” In contrast, Ian Fleming uses Bond as an author stand-in, and it’s hard to believe at times just how bigoted the Bond from the novels can be.

    And what was that line from “The Spy Who Loved Me”?

  • http://heroesareboring.com Rob

    I always disliked Tracy. She barely gets any page real estate and always felt so lifeless. Especially after Blofeld kills her (SPOILER ALERT on this half-a-century-old book).

    To be honest, I couldn’t think of many runners-up, either. I’ve always liked Tiffany Case from Diamonds, but couldn’t really put my finger on what’s made her more memorable.

    We can’t admire Bond OR Draper? How’d this become a morality contest?

    (But yeah that’s a pretty atrocious line from Spy Who Loved Me.)

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