The movie version of Live and Let Die was used to introduce a new actor, Roger Moore, playing 007, but on the page it was pretty much just another adventure. Unlike Casino Royale, there are many differences to be found between the source novel and the film adaptation. Both find 007 investigating Mr. Big, an African American crime lord based in Harlem, NYC. His investigation draws 007 into a dangerous world of voodoo and gang violence, drawing him to an explosive confrontation in the Caribbean. After that they’re as different as can be, but both are also accidentally racist in a big way.
There will be spoiler ahead, so consider yourself warned.
The Book Version
There’s a full book review here so I’ll only touch on elements that are different in the movie now. In the novel, Mr. Big is supporting SMERSH (a Russian spy network) financially by laundering pirate treasure from Jamaica into Florida, then up to NYC, where it is being exchanged for real money. 007 gets on Mr. Big’s shit list for meddling into his Harlem nightspots and offing three of his henchmen, including the barely-even-mentioned Tee Hee (in the book, Tee Hee has no distinctive physical features to speak of). Big controls a vast network of underlings and can make pretty much any black person do his bidding because of his ties to voodoo (that’s not racist at all, amirite?). You see, Big is believed to be the zombie of Baron Samedi, the most powerful and darkest practitioner of voodoo.
Bond is assisted in his mission by the CIA’s Felix Leiter until Leiter is brutally maimed and left clinging to life when Big’s goons feed half of him to a shark. Leiter loses an arm and a leg (this plotpoint wouldn’t make it to a Bond film until it was used in the opening of 1989’s Licence to Kill).
Mr. Big has a psychic named Solitaire and intends to make her his wife in order to keep her and her powers close. She does not have a say in the matter until she betrays Big to join 007 as he escapes NYC. She is kidnapped by Mr. Big in Florida, just before Leiter’s date with a shark. Now James’ mission is not only to take down the laundering operation, it’s to rescue Solitaire (and maybe take her to bed).
Bond trains for a SCUBA journey to Surprise Island, home of the pirate treasure and Mr. Big’s Jamaican base. He fights off an octopus on his way to the island but makes it with only a flesh wound from a barracuda. Unfortunately, he’s immediately captured and placed in a cell with Solitaire, but not before he was able to secretly place a mine with a seven-hour fuse on Mr. Big’s boat. Big’s fiendish plan is to drag 007 and Solitaire in the water behind his boat and over a coral reef as he pulls out to return to NYC in the morning. Passage over the reef will leave James and Solitaire bloody and draw in sharks, who will devour them in no time (this scheme was later resurrected as a set piece toward the end of 1981’s Bond movie For Your Eyes Only). Bond is able to make sure the boat leaves on time so he and Solitaire are dragging in the water behind it when the fuse runs out and the boat blows up. In the meantime, he is able to keep Solitaire and himself from drowning and the timing works out so they don’t get dragged over the coral reef.
M grants 007 some ‘passionate’ leave so he can recover, which means he gets to take an island vacation with Solitaire.
The Movie Version
There’s a full movie review here, so let’s just hit what’s changed. On film, Mr. Big’s criminal empire is founded on drugs–specifically heroin. When Bond investigates Mr. Big’s ties to the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique, he discovers that Mr. Big is actually a disguise used by San Monique’s dictator, Kananga, to hide his criminal activities. The heroin is farmed from poppies on San Monique and distributed up to NYC.
Mr. Big Kananga’s closest henchman is a man named Tee Hee, who menaces 007 for the entire length of the movie with his crocodile fetish and robotic arm. Big Kananga controls a vast network of underlings and can make pretty much any black person do his bidding because of his ties to voodoo (that’s not racist at all, amirite?). These ties are embodied by Baron Samedi himself, who appears to be a henchman of Kananga’s who also dabbles in dinner theater.
Bond is assisted in his mission by the CIA’s Felix Leiter, who escapes the movie unscathed. He’s also ‘assisted’ by a field agent named Rosie Carver who is terrible at her job, turns out to be a double agent working for Kananga, and finally gets murdered by Kananga so she won’t spill the beans on his scheme.
Kananga has a psychic named Solitaire he keeps captive by his side. Solitaire remains by Kananga’s side until 007 finds her home on San Monique. Celluloid’s Solitaire can only keep her psychic gift as long as she remains a virgin, so naturally she attempts to reject Bond’s advances. Not to be deterred, he tricks her into thinking they were destined to make passionate love with a trick tarot deck (because there’s nothing rapey about that, is there?). Now that Bond has stolen her virginity Solitaire’s gift is gone and she is useless to Kananga, who will kill her when he finds out. Solitaire has no choice but to help 007 in order to save her own life.
Kananga does find out about Solitaire’s newfound impurity and hands her to Baron Samedi to sacrifice. Bond saves Solitaire and tosses Baron Samedi into a coffin full of snakes. They then enter Kananga’s underground lair and confront him once and for all. Kananga intends to slowly lower them into a shark tank but they escape and Bond shoots Kananga with a shark gun pellet–which causes Kananga’s head to blow up like a balloon and explode (?).
Bond and Solitaire board a train to go home but are attacked by Tee Hee, who is killed. As the train speeds away and 007 and Solitaire get amorous again, the apparently immortal Baron Samedi is seen laughing maniacally on the front of the train as the credits begin to roll.
Which is Better?
First, let’s agree that both are wildly racist by accident. The movie’s addition of Solitaire’s virginity problem tips the scales against it when it comes to misogyny, so at least the novel can claim (relative) innocence there. If you can get passed those woeful attributes, Live and Let Die can be great fun in both forms–and given that they’re so different, there’s no reason you shouldn’t enjoy both. I will say this though: the book doesn’t have the execrable character of Sheriff Pepper, so there’s another mark in its favor.