On screen, Dr. No is the very first James Bond adventure. But in the series of books the franchise is based on, Doctor No actually came sixth. In keeping with that, when we meet up with Bond in the book he’s reeling from the events of Diamonds Are Forever and From Russia, With Love. Without any history to build it up, there’s none of that context in the movie.
Otherwise, the movie and the book are surprisingly similar. Both find James Bond in Jamaica to find out what happened to MI6’s local man, Strangways. And in both cases Bond eventually works his way to Crab Key Island, where he finds himself in the middle of a diabolical scheme put together by the villainous Dr. No. There are some key differences, however.
The Book Version
Our familiar friend James Bond is returning to work after being on medical leave following the events of From Russia, With Love. He blames himself for getting carried away on that case and is eager to prove his worth to M all over again. So it’s something of a slap in the face when M hands him what appears to be a mere personnel issue in Jamaica for his first assignment back on duty. There’s only a small chance that something sinister happened–otherwise, the mission is strictly a personnel problem that needs attending to: MI6’s man in the Caribbean, Strangways (whom we have already met in Live and Let Die).
Right off the bat Bond zeroes in on the last case Strangways was investigating. The Audubon Society in the U.S. had asked for an investigation into why the endangered bird population on Crab Key Island, where they have a sanctuary, appears to be declining. Several previous attempts to find out what is happening on the island have met with either strange fatalities or equally strange evasions courtesy of the island’s other resident, Doctor Julius No. Ostensibly, Doctor No is there to harvest the island’s guano for shipping and exporting. But it’s fairly immediately clear that he’s up to no good out there. Bond thinks there’s more to the story.
There’s one last attempt on Bond’s life as a centipede crawls all over him in the middle of the night. With that plot literally squashed, Quarrel and Bond sneak onto Crab Key Island to do some investigating and meet Honeychile “Honey” Rider as she is collecting rare shells in the nude. Doctor No’s goons give chase and 007, Quarrel, and Honey must evade them in order to live. Ultimately Quarrel is burned to death by a vehicle that has been decorated to look like a dragon in order to fool the superstitious locals. Bond and Honey are kidnapped and brought into Doctor No’s lair, where he explains his sinister plot (he is going to disrupt the path of rockets from the U.S. with his technology, which he will be paid handsomely for by the Soviets). Doctor No, it should be mentioned, has two mechanical claws for hands thanks to a run-in with the Chinese Tong gang in his youth. They also attempted to shoot him in the heart but failed because Doctor No is one of those rare people whose heart is on the right side of his body.
Doctor No sends Honey to be tied up on the shoreline where he expects crabs will devour her as they crawl onto shore overnight. As for 007, he will be put to the test in a deadly obstacle course Doctor No has built. Naturally, this course is supposed to be unbeatable, and naturally James Bond beat it. After surviving the final obstacle (a giant squid), Bond makes his way to the loading bay where Doctor No is supervising a crane loading guano into a freighter. Bond kills the crane operator and swings the conveyor belt around to dump tons of guano directly on top of Doctor No, who is killed. Bond runs to find Honey’s remains, but she pops up alive and well because she has mad skills dealing with animals thanks to a lifetime spent on Jamaica’s shores. They escape the island and head back to Honey’s house for ‘slave time,’ which is not offensive at all.
My full review of the book is here.
The Movie Version
Well for starters this is the first time we’re meeting James Bond on film, so there’s none of that continuity from previous adventures. We meet James Bond for the first time at a card table, where he flirts with and seduces the beautiful Sylvia Trench (who does not exist in the book). Then he gets an assignment from M to go to Jamaica to find out what happened to their agent Strangways (who we have never met before), who was investigating a strange situation where rockets from Cape Canaveral were disrupted by radio jamming. So none of that bird stuff from the book (and it actually makes more sense this way).
Bond arrives on the island and immediately gets involved in some action set pieces that weren’t in the book, like taking down a cab driver who attempts to kidnap him, because movies need more action. He also meets up with CIA agent Felix Leiter, who will be his buddy in the movies but has already been maimed out of the CIA in the books (hence his failure to make an appearance in the book version). It isn’t until James locates a man named Quarrel, who had been helping Strangways, that he begins to see that Crab Key is the, um, key to Strangway’s mysterious disappearance. In the novel the duplicitous secretary working in the Intelligence office is only mentioned or seen in passing, but because the movie needs more sex and violence the secretary, now named Miss Taro, has an amplified role. Using seduction as a front, Bond attempts to get close to her to find out what she’s up to. She in turn tries to lure him into not one but two deadly traps and only manages to get him to sleep with her just before she gets arrested.
Instead of using the centipede encounter from the book, Bond questions a professor who had helped Strangways analyze rock samples from Crab Key. The professor attempts to kill Bond with a tarantula, and is ultimately interrogated and killed by Bond.
Bond and Quarrel go to Crab Key, where Honey Ryder (not Honeychile Rider) is collecting shells in a white bikini instead of naked like in the book, because nudity doesn’t really go well with the censors. Dr. No’s goons give chase, burn Quarrel to a crisp, and take Bond and Honey to meet Dr. No, just like in the book. But the movie Dr. No is a member of SPECTRE, not a lone gun selling a service to the Soviets. He still has mechanical hands, but because special effects were expensive the hands just look like thick black gloves. The whole business with the book’s obstacle course and death-by-guano is scrapped to have James Bond escape his cell and confront Dr. No in his control center. Bond manages to overload the nuclear reactor and save an American missile from disaster, then pushes Dr. No into the reactor’s cooling vat. Bond then saves Honey from the crabs and they escape the island together.
My full run-down of the movie is here.
Which is Better?
So far the books have mostly outdone the movie adaptations, but this time around I’d actually go with the movie. I still liked the book a great deal, but the whole Audubon Society/endangered bird/guano business was overly complicated. The movie actually manages to streamline Dr. No’s plot to make it easier to swallow. And the final showdown is actually more exciting when Bond and Dr. No get to have a face off instead of just dumping a ton of guano on Dr. No from afar. While both are great entertainments, the movie definitely has the edge here.