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James Bond and the Dangers of Literary Censorship

ByFreddy Lowe

Feb 28, 2023
James Bond

We live in an era of literary rewriting.  Following the news that Roald Dahl’s works are being rewritten to remove offensive language (which we covered in The Student), James Bond is the next target.  Major news outlets have revealed that Ian Fleming’s novels are to be reissued with many potentially offensive lines removed.

Once again, the good intentions behind such changes are clear.  The publishers are endeavouring to keep Bond up-to-date and accessible for new generations.  As a mega Bond fan, I applaud them for this.  Nevertheless, the news still makes me uncomfortable.

Many of our Literature articles have spoken against literary censorship. If our offended feelings can justify rewriting literature, then we have no moral grounds to argue that tyrannical dictators cannot too censor, ban, or ‘rewrite’ books of dissenting ideas.  I believe that rewriting classics, therefore, sets a worrying precedent.

However, let us temporarily play Devil’s Advocate.

In 1939, Agatha Christie published a novel about ten strangers stranded on a remote island who die one by one.  Readers today will know it as And Then There Were None, but in 1939 it was published as Ten Little ___, followed by the N-racial slur (and yes, I see the irony that I am censoring it).  Was changing the title ‘censorship’?

I don’t think it was.  That decision arguably helped the novel to thrive as a well-recognised masterpiece without being hampered by a racist title.  Additionally, Christie’s American publishers had used the title And Then There Were None from the beginning!  Later altering the UK version wasn’t ‘censorship’ but rather a reversion to an alternate title that was agreed to be better.

In the text itself, the publishers changed that one word.  That was it.  The rewriting was quick, brief, minutely specific, and extremely unimportant to the plot. One slur was (rightly) removed and nothing more.

That is not the case for Roald Dahl and James Bond.  The Guardian reports that, like the Dahl Estate, Ian Fleming Publications Ltd employed “sensitivity readers” to discover things to change.  I disagree with this process. To quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we cannot tell stories that are only light when life itself is light and darkness. (…) literature is about how we are great and flawed.”

Again, like with Dahl, the decision implies that we cannot historicise literature.  We all know that standards change and that literature changes with it.  Many of my English Literature student pals can appreciate fantastic literature, even if it is of its time.  (Or, if they hate it, they still don’t think we should ban or republish it).

If anything, I would argue that reading a book of its time can be revealing.  These books remind us that nobody is perfect and that even the best authors were subject to conscious or unconscious bias.  This allows us to learn for the future without sitting in judgement over historical figures.

Additionally, just like Roald Dahl, this re-editing does not achieve its objective. According to Variety, references to characters’ ethnicities are removed, but the reference to homosexuality as a “disability” is staying! Just like with The Dahl Estate, how much offensiveness are we policing? If we tried to account for everything, we would end up with blank pages. This is a path with no victory. Instead, we can leave the books as they are, enjoy them, and accept that they are of their time.

For instance, the reissued James Bond novels contain a disclaimer: “This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace.”

Do they not think we know this?  This disclaimer applies to every book ever written!  Today’s literature may too be deemed offensive in fifty years for reasons we cannot predict. The entire body of English Literature ages, and that is fine.  The overwhelming majority of readers are aware of this.

This disclaimer implies that the book is a special case for offensiveness before the reader has even started it. Incidentally, Bond often receives accusations of being fundamentally objectionable and I find it unfair. Most male Bond fans will recognise this situation: revealing to a friend that they love Bond, and then being subjected to a sanctimonious lecture on sexism.  While I understand why some women hate Bond, it is not the antithesis of feminism some believe it to be!

Fleming’s Casino Royale, for example, is arguably ahead of its time: it features a cold, hardened man knocked flat by his love for a woman – Vesper – and only through this female influence does his armour of masculinity fall. This, I would argue, is pro-feminism, not anti-feminism. 

Goldeneye – Pierce Brosnan’s first film – sees M (Judi Dench) call him a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur”, and they embark on a perfectly civil working relationship where she understands and brings awareness of his flaws.

Many Bond instalments feature memorable female accomplices: Goldfinger, Tomorrow Never Dies, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Licence to Kill, Die Another Day, and more are examples of this. 

This is not to suggest that the Bond series contains no misogyny or racism at all (because of course there are problematic elements), but to brand Bond as just wrong with no positive cultural value is a big mistake.

The University of Edinburgh’s very own Dr Kim Sherwood, author of Double or Nothing, put the cultural importance of historicising Bond very succinctly. She said this in an interview:

“If we are to say, ‘I won’t read that because it doesn’t match the politics of my time’, or, indeed, the progressive politics of its own time […], we’d be missing out on works of art, and we’re missing out on the opportunity to learn from a cultural artefact.  It tells us about its era, and it tells us about ourselves.”

(DISCLAIMER: this interview was given prior to the news of the re-edits. Dr Sherwood may or may not agree with my views on this particular issue. The above quotation purely summarises her view on Bond’s general legacy when asked five months ago.)

Fleming’s publishers have defended themselves, saying that they are following the author’s wishes.  He apparently left notes on desired changes which they are using as inspiration. 

Nonetheless, I am discomforted by taking the licence to rewrite classics.  Not only does it erase past flaws and thus avoid difficult truths, but it assumes we will be instantly offended at the slightest historical nuance. If this rewriting increases Bond’s popularity, of course, that can only be a good thing. However, I shall always choose the original, unedited, wonderful but flawed literary works over the “let’s-pretend-Fleming-never-used-bigoted-language-and-brush-it-under-the-rug” versions!

Image Credit: Sean Connery as James Bond” by johanoomen is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

By Freddy Lowe

Former Literature Editor Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh International Book Festival