For the love of entertainment
Casino Royale was the first book in Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, but it was the 21st movie in the film series. In both cases, it serves as a sort of introduction to the suave British agent with the cold eyes. Unlike many adaptations of Fleming’s novels, the plot is remarkably consistent with what you find on the page. In both versions 007 is sent to bankrupt Le Chiffre, a criminal money man who is on the brink of disaster after losing his client’s money. If Bond can bankrupt Le Chiffre at the casino, it could force Le Chiffre to help them out as an informant in exchange for protection. 007 is assisted in this mission by Rene Mathis, Felix Leiter, and the devastatingly beautiful Vesper Lynd, who manages to get underneath 007’s armor and worm her way into his heart. The stakes only get higher after the dust settles on their high-stakes game as Bond is drawn into a showdown with Le Chiffre and a betrayal from one of his allies comes to light. Turns out, Vesper was acting as a double agent the whole time. She was blackmailed into working against MI6 when her lover was captured. Her betrayal and ultimate death leave James Bond reeling as he had been willing to give up his life as a spy for her.
A lot of Bond movies diverge from the books so much that all they really take from the source novel is the title, maybe some character names, and a touch of inspiration from the plot. The amount of similarities between Casino Royale and its film adaptation are striking–especially considering that the film version was made 53 years after the book was published. Still, there are differences. Let’s examine them and see which is better.
I have a full book review here, so I’ll just hit the big differences now. In the novel, Le Chiffre is specifically working for the deadly Russian criminal organization SMERSH (an abbreviated form of the Russian words for “death to spies”). He played fast and loose with money SMERSH entrusted him with and lost it. Desperate to replace the funds before SMERSH comes after him, Le Chiffre has arrived at a casino in Royale-les-Eaux to hit the baccarat tables, then take those winnings into a high stakes baccarat game he is arranging.
Le Chiffre has thugs who have identified 007 as a secret agent and attempt to stop him from getting into Le Chiffre’s big game. The couple in the room above his is actually on Le Chiffre’s payroll and they listen to what Bond is up to in shifts. Two goons accidentally get blown up trying to take 007 out with a bomb in the streets. The two primary henchmen lurk around Le Chiffre himself, and one threatens Bond with a pistol hidden inside a walking cane he carries to the big game. 007 only escapes by pretending to fall backward in his chair at the baccarat table, disarming the thug while keeping the fight secret from spectators.
When Le Chiffre kidnaps Vesper and James, he tortures James by smacking the shit out of his balls through a hole in the bottom of his chair (no really, that’s in the book. They didn’t make it up for the movie). All the foreplay stops when a SMERSH agent shows up and shoots Le Chiffre between the eyes for losing their money. Bond and Vesper are spared because the spy has no orders to kill them, too (three cheers for clerical oversight!), but he does carve a symbol on James’ hand to let any other SMERSH agents he comes across know that he’s working for MI6 (in the next book, Live and Let Die, James has had the scar covered over with skin grafts).
How Le Chiffre and his men were tipped off to 007’s arrival (and how they seem to always know his next move) is initially a mystery, but in the end it turns out Vesper Lynd sent intel about the plan and Bond’s movements. There are cues that Vesper is helping Le Chiffre but Bond mistakenly thinks she is simply a silly girl making rookie mistakes. Bond strongly dislikes women in the field because he considers it a form of babysitting, and Vesper’s subtle betrayals play directly into this notion. Vesper gets around Bond’s usual disdain for relationships but their love affair following Le Chiffre’s murder is short-lived as Vesper sinks into depression and remains terrified that someone is still after her. Bond is committed to making things work, at one point even considering proposing and leaving MI6 for her. Vesper’s betrayal is only revealed when she commits suicide with sleeping pills and leaves a note to James explaining everything. She killed herself because she knew she had to tell James the truth and knew he would never forgive her.
It’s a surprisingly solid, suspenseful introduction to James Bond and his world. You might think it would be dated, but outside of the technology at his disposal and some deeply misogynist comments (at one point 007 excitedly thinks that sex with Vesper would carry “the tang of rape,” which is unsettling to say the least). The characters are paper thin but the action and the detailed descriptions of food, clothing, and cars make Casino Royale a thrilling read. It helps that it’s also short enough to read in one sitting if you were so inclined.
I have a full review here, so I’ll just hit the big differences now. In the movie, Le Chiffre is employed as the financier for vague terrorist groups. He loses a vast amount of money when a scheme of his own he was financing with money from one of those groups goes south (thanks to James Bond, who spends the movie’s opening literally blowing up Le Chiffre’s plan before tracing it back to him–a subplot not in the book). Who Le Chiffre owes money is left vague; we won’t find out that this organization is Quantum until the next movie, Quantum of Solace (and in Spectre we’ll find out Quantum was a shell for Spectre). Desperate to replace the funds before they come after him, Le Chiffre arrives at the Casino Royale in Montenegro to participate in a high-stakes poker tournament. At the time Casino Royale was made, the film series had been barred from using SMERSH and SPECTRE following decades of fighting over creative control of the plotpoints, hence the shift away from SMERSH. As for the replacement of baccarat with Texas Hold’em poker, you can credit baccarat’s decline in popularity over the years. Hold’em was a much trendier choice.
Le Chiffre has thugs who are easily dispatched by 007 in a stairwell. Le Chiffre is given a girlfriend as an ally as well, but mostly even Le Chiffre is being menaced by goons in the movie. Goons sent by the mysterious organization he owes money. They even threaten to cut off his girlfriend’s arm at one point.
And because Bond villains in the movies always have to have an odd quirk, Le Chiffre has been gifted with an eye injury and malformed tear ducts that cause him to weep blood.
Finally, Vesper’s betrayal isn’t foreshadowed in the movie–I can only suppose because the book’s misogynist misdirection that Vesper was prone to silly mistakes as a woman was hopelessly outdated, plus film tends to rely on surprise twists far more heavily than books. As such, her betrayal feels sudden and doesn’t make as much sense at all. Even with the misdirection, James always suspected Vesper was hiding something from him in the novel. The movie just has her make an abrupt left turn. Furthermore, because the stakes had to be higher and the movie needed to close with a big action set piece, her betrayal is revealed when Vesper steals Bond’s poker winnings before they can be transferred to the British government. He uncovers the deception earlier than she had anticipated and intercepts her meeting to hand off the money, which devolves into a shootout and somehow collapses a building into one of Venice’s canals. But before it slips away, Bond attempts to rescue Vesper from the elevator car she has become trapped in. Laden with guilt over her betrayal, Vesper refuses his assistance and drowns right in front of him. It is implied that Vesper’s betrayal is what causes him to refuse to allow any woman to really get close to him in all his subsequent adventures. But we do find out in Quantum of Solace that Vesper really did love him and essentially sacrificed herself to save his life by promising to get Quantum the winnings–which is how they both survived when Quantum agents came to kill Le Chiffre while they were being held captive (and James’ balls were being tortured). That’s the only part of the movie’s ending that makes more sense than the book.
But if the twist doesn’t make much sense in the movie, you’re willing to forgive it because it’s such a thrilling ride. In essentially rebooting the Bond films with Daniel Craig, producers were wise to go back to Fleming’s original novel–and lucky for them its title and plotline hadn’t already been cannibalized for previous movies. It was wise of them to recognize that Fleming’s narrative was perfectly suspenseful despite a lack of doomsday devices. Beyond updating some of the more dated nuances, there was little that needed to be changed.
This is probably the only time when there will be a tie. Perhaps its because they’re essentially so similar, but honestly I can’t recommend one over the other. Yes, the movie bungles the twist about Vesper’s betrayal a little bit by making it so sudden that it doesn’t make sense anymore, but the rest of the film makes up for the book’s more nonsensical ploys to kill 007. I mean, two of Le Chiffre’s goons blow themselves up in an overly elaborate scheme to toss a bomb at 007 when literally all they had to do was shoot him. And is there really any way a henchman could have shot 007 in the base of his spine with a walking cane and not have anyone notice? So in the end the book improves the movie’s shortcoming, and vice versa. I suppose if I absolutely had to pick one I might go with the movie just because it’s so sleek and the characters are a little deeper–and Daniel Craig’s performance as James Bond is so pitch-perfect it’s almost scary. After the lighter, funnier 007s we got for so many years with Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan, it was nice to see him portrayed more in the manner Ian Fleming originally intended. But anyone who plunges into the book will be equally pleased by its perfectly pulp, almost noir style of storytelling.
But the movie does have Daniel Craig in a skimpy bathing suit. Just putting that out there.