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Benson and the Spirit of Pulp

A reading of Tomorrow Never Dies, the novelization

[TND Book Cover] American paperback edition
New York: Boulevard Book
December 1997

by Ian Dunross
August 9, 2007
This review contains spoilers of the novelization and the film.

When I first heard the title of the eighteenth Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, I remembered lines from Macbeth:

To-morrow and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!  (5.5.19-23)

Sure, I was a literary nerd at the time (or, to be precise, an unemployed English major), and I carried the hope that maybe, just maybe, this Bond film would contain an allusion to the Bard’s lines to provide some meaning to the title. But I realize, in retrospect, that the idea was quite inflated by the six-pack of Heineken beer I had downed in my home theatre, just after I watched Matt LeBlanc in Ed, a film that I mistakenly thought would be a biography of Edward VII.

[Jonathan Pyrce Photo] Now, as I glance at the cover of the Tomorrow Never Dies novelization, it’s reasonable to assume that something could have been done with that allusion to Macbeth—if not in the film, then in the book. The lines are suitable for the villain—the psycho media baron, Elliot Carver—considering his penchant for dramatic oration. I imagine Carver uttering the lines in the final showdown with agent 007 while his media empire begins to crumble.* The allusion would have at least supported the notion of impermanence suggested in the film’s title. Perhaps with John Gardner, who had a knack for sprinkling his Bond novels with allusions, the scenario would have come to life. But not, we must admit, with Raymond Benson. Since his first Bond tale, the dismal short story, "Blast From The Past," the Texan writer has churned out low-quality fiction for the 007 literary franchise. His novelization of Tomorrow Never Dies remains true to his forte.

[FIST Book Cover] The world of novelizations frightens me—it conjures images of anonymous men with abundant back hair and potent body odor seated in a dank factory, cranking out disposable dime novels that would only be sellable around the time a movie is released. The only thing more frightening is that the quality of the writing doesn't matter one bit. Of course, I kid. This is not the view of a literary snob—I’ve been known to hole up in the basement reading Joe Eszterhas' novelization of the Sylvester Stallone classic F.I.S.T and thinking it was a work of unbounded genius. Then again, if pressed, I would admit that such an opinion was the direct result of downing twelve pints of Guinness. For Tomorrow Never Dies, I eagerly dove into Raymond Benson’s prose without intoxication but realized, about halfway down the first page, that I made the mistake of reading the novelization before I watched the film. In this state, the junk prose was too recognizable: I did not have any memories of the film and, consequently, no lingering visual representations in my mind to render the scenes in the book.

Sad to say, Benson still hasn’t improved his writing skills. The Tomorrow Never Dies novelization doesn’t do any justice to Bruce Feirstein’s witty and thrilling screenplay. The entire narrative smacks of an amateur’s voice that is nervous about telling us a story. One of the manifestations of the weak narrative is Benson’s inability to provide the precision of detail to paint a fictional world. But in fiction, the writer’s first task is to convince the reader that the events recounted have really happened. Through concrete details, the writer creates a dream-like sequence, a rich and vivid play unfolding in our minds as we read. Unfortunately, Benson resorts to generalizations, and the prose suffers from lack of vividness. Take, for example, the scene where Bond discovers the dead Paris Carver in his hotel room. We're simply told that Bond is "overwhelmed with shock, grief, and anger" (113). No authentic drama is created.

[Khyber Pass Photo] Curiously, for a thriller, Tomorrow Never Dies lacks dynamics in its narrative to evoke suspense. The opening paragraph, for example, does not lure the reader into the story. In a flat tone, Benson begins with a description of the landscape of Afghanistan, but his focal point of interest is inconsistent. He introduces from a distance, so to speak, what eventually will turn out to be a legion of terrorists in an arms bazaar: "They had come from different parts of Europe and the Middle East to make their deals, trade, haggle, and—they hoped—return home with bargains" (1). There’s boundless suspense for you. The "camera" of the omniscient narrator is positioned too far to show us details. There is no sense of a crisis that is about to occur, or is occurring in the moment, and that the hero will have to do something about it. As I said, I read the novelization before I watched the film, and this opening paragraph gave me the impression that a group of elderly women were haggling over a bag of figs at a farmer’s market.

Several topics are then introduced: something about the Khyber Pass as a "narrow winding, passage through the Safed Koh mountains of the Hindu Kush range" (1) and a historical synopsis of the region from the reign of Darius I to the era of British colonialism and its romanticism in Kipling’s poetry. In other words, the narration is haphazard with its abrupt shifts in topics. It is Benson’s attempt at emulating Ian Fleming’s travelogue narration, but something is missing—namely, those touches of mystique about people, places, and things that we often encounter in Fleming’s prose.

[Book Cover] On Her Majesty’s Secret Service comes to mind: the opening image of the sea, the sunset at the beach, and the "twitter of children’s cries that waxed and waned with the thrill of their games" is juxtaposed with the image of the solitary figure of James Bond, who is watching the scene from "one of the concrete shelters with his face to the setting sun" (9). Fleming combines setting and character in the hook. We have the carefree innocence of children playing on the beach, which reminds Bond "almost too vividly of childhood" (10), in striking contrast to his solitude as a spy in a dark world of danger. The main character is introduced and we know the situation, the crisis. In contrast, Benson’s opening hook fails to evoke a deep sense of curiosity about what is going to happen in the story.

Benson’s narrative also spends too much time explaining the obvious: "The world's business and all news reporting depend upon communication satellites, for without them modern civilization would be crippled" (17). As if we didn't know that! Even action scenes contain the obvious, even cliché-ridden, descriptions. Cars, for example, are not rendered vivdly in the BMW car chase scene; instead, we're given stock bland images and sounds: a sedan "exploded spectacularly," while another car "plowed into its rear with a resounding screech" (121).

The failure in narrative voice culminates in the stilted, forced tone of a narrator attempting to be an authorial figure. This is evident in the way that Benson, who comes across as an over-enthusiastic 007 fan, is so eager to showcase his Bondian knowledge to readers. In the love scene between Bond and the Danish linguist (Chapter 4, “Mission Du Jour,” 49-50), we encounter references to Fleming's Bond (his school days in Eton) and Sean Connery's Bond in You Only Live Twice (the business about Bond studying Oriental Languages at Cambridge). We get it, Mr. Benson—you've memorized all the films and read all the books. Unfortunately, in his self-importance, he fails to grasp that the principle readers of this novelization (Bond fans) are familiar with this information. We therefore encounter nothing new about the Bond character. Hence, Benson really has nothing to say.

In the film, there are shades of a love rectangle that the filmmakers never really explored: Bond and Carver are involved with the same woman, Carver’s wife, Paris; yet both men are also interested in Wai Lin, the Chinese agent who allies with Bond. A skilled novelist would have exploited this weakness in the script, exploring the symmetry between these characters. Benson, however, fails to take advantage of this opportunity.

Tomorrow Never Dies reads like a book targeted for 5-year olds and banged out against a deadline by a hack with no concern whatsoever for the quality of the prose. Yet Benson remains popular among fan-boys of the Bond universe and some of his 007 novels have had commercial success. Perhaps it’s indicative of the state of contemporary culture that, with its decline in literary taste, the writer of such schlock should be hailed with admiration and low-quality movie novelizations remain popular, considering how they continue to be included as part of the product packaging of new films.

Nevertheless, it is not my intention to give the impression that I’m completely down on movie tie-in books. On the contrary, despite my concerns, when I’m faced with the choice between a novelization and a 5,000 page Tolstoy snore-fest, it’s hands down a cheap movie tie-in book for me. Moreover, we cannot forget that the popularity of the novelization holds the potential to extend into the highbrow world of literary studies. I can personally foresee a time when graduate courses will be devoted to Charlie’s Angels 3: Full Throttle. Many of us even long to embark on a deconstructionist study of Emilio Estevez's Men At Work.

* Ironically, Jonathan Pryce, who played Elliot Carver in the film, tackled the role of Macbeth in a 1987 Royal Shakespeare Company production.

List of Illustrations

"Tomorrow Never Dies Book Cover." Online Photograph. Bondian. 9 June 2007
<http://www.bondian.com/books/images/16972348.gif >.
"Jonathan Pyrce as Macbeth." Online Photograph. Royal Shakespeare Company 22 July 2007
"F.I.S.T Book Cover." Online Photograph. Trash Fiction. 14 March 2007
"The Khyber Pass." Online Photograph. Wikipedia. 5 April 2007
"On Her Majesty's Secret Service Book Cover." Online Photograph. Bondian. 9 June 2007

Works Cited

Benson, Raymond. Tomorrow Never Dies. New York: Boulevard Books, 1997.
Fleming, Ian. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. 1963. New York: Signet,
22nd printing: n.d.
Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Macbeth. The Arden Shakespeare Edition. London:
Routledge, 1989.

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