Oct 22, 2007

Book Review: James Bond Encyclopedia

For a while, Bond fans could always look forward to a new, official, lavish, fully-illustrated coffee table book on their hero to coincide with each new movie. But now, they don’t even have to wait for a new movie; they can pretty much expect one every year! The latest officially-sanctioned offering is James Bond Encyclopedia (no "The," strangely), by John Cork and Collin Stutz. Cork is one of the constants on these books (along with the same assortment of official publicity stills), having co-authored The James Bond Legacy and Bond Girls Are Forever, as well as producing the fantastic special features on all the Special Edition Bond DVDs and publishing Goldeneye, the now defunct official magazine of the Ian Fleming Foundation, during the nineties. After sitting out last year’s Art of James Bond (by Laurent Bouzereau), he’s back on the case with this one. It’s a wonder he has anything left to say on the subject of 007, but his name is a mark of assured quality, and a good indication the book you’re holding will be accurate and as error-free as humanly possible.

Cork and Stutz have put a lot of research into this volume, managing to offer up a few nuggets that will surprise even the most dedicated of fans, and even readers of Cork’s previous books. (Plenty of the information will be familiar, too, but that’s to be expected of a book such as this.) Frustratingly, owing to the nature of the encyclopedia, they don’t provide sources for much of this information. For example, they say that Carter, 007's associate in Madagascar at the beginning of Casino Royale (listed in the "Supporting Cast" section), was bitten by the cobra in the pit and died from the bite. The movie certainly doesn’t make his fate clear, and I’ve always wondered what happened to him. So it’s good to know, but I’m curious as to from where they got that information! Is it stipulated in the screenplay? Is it gleaned from viewing scenes cut from the final film? Some form of sourcing would be appreciated.

In a similar instance, the biography in their entry on James Bond himself is well-written and a great capsule for someone just getting their feet wet in Bondian waters. But again, they don’t reveal where much of the information comes from. I can identify some bits as coming from certain movies (the "First in Oriental languages at Cambridge" bit is obviously from You Only Live Twice, although Raymond Benson did a good job of reconciling it in his novelization of Tomorrow Never Dies with the schooling Fleming provided for Bond... so I guess they’re not using novelizations as sources here...), and a lot from the dossier on Bond that was available on the official website around the release of Casino Royale, but not everything!

Perhaps the authors are simply picking, choosing and embellishing, doing their own reconciling of multiple conflicting sources. If that’s the case, though, I’d like to know. Speaking of reconciling, they come up with a good excuse for the differing birth dates listed for Commander Bond in various places (6 May, 1961 on the medical records in The World Is Not Enough, 13 April, 1968 on the passport in Casino Royale, etc.): As 007 is a spy, the documents are usually cover papers, and it’s hard to say if any actually reflect his true birthday! (They explain that the April 13 date in Casino Royale was chosen because that was the day on which Fleming’s Casino Royale was first published in 1953, one of those nifty facts I hadn’t known.)

As you may have gathered from the birthday example, most of the entries treat the characters (like Bond) as if they were real people, focusing on what Cork and Stutz, in their introduction, call "the world inside the Bond adventures." So the information you find under the entry "Anya Amasova," for example, will be that she "arrives in Moscow after a period of leave with her KGB agent lover..." and not that she was dreamed up by Christopher Wood in the second draft of his screenplay for The Spy Who Loved Me or something. (I’m making up that bit about the second draft, by the way, but I would be interested in knowing the truth.) So, personally, I would have preferred a book that gave production information about all the characters, and treated them as fictional creations rather than real people. But that sort of take has been done many times before (including in Stephen Jay Rubin’s Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia), so perhaps a fresh approach is a good thing.

Confusingly, though, the authors don’t fully embrace even that approach. They sometimes break the "fourth wall" to reveal a behind-the-scenes tidbit, or continuity reboot, and there are also entries on the filmmakers, in their own sidebars. The authors could have had more fun with the conceit, as Andrew Pixley did with his The Avengers Files, a similar alphabetical listing which treated all the characters as if they were real people, but gave extensive information on their creators as "chroniclers" in elaborate footnotes (which also listed the sources for all information provided).

I’ve spent a lot of time detailing shortcomings that amount to personal preference and nitpicking. Of course, when there have been as many books on the subject of the Bond films as there have, that’s really the kind of stuff a reviewer has to tackle! But for someone who hasn’t read loads of other volumes on the topic, James Bond Encyclopedia is a great place to start. It fills a void in the current market as an "introductory" book on Bond movies. If you’re not prepared to delve into as much gloriously obsessive detail as offered in James Bond: The Legacy, but still want broader coverage than found in the more specific Bond Girls Are Forever or The Art of James Bond, then this is the ideal place to start. Furthermore, the same goes for its pictures. It may not offer a lot that dedicated readers haven’t seen before, but it does offer a truly amazing assortment of handsome, color images in one place, as lavishly illustrated as any DK book. The layout, typical of the publisher, is truly beautiful, and helps suck the reader into the page. This aspect is certainly an improvement over Rubin’s volume, which provided only black and white stills.

Even if their choices on how to arrange the book are questionable, Cork and Stutz have been successful in differentiating their book from Rubin’s, which is definitely a good thing. Precisely because it’s arranged differently, reading it is an entirely different experience. The authors are completely successful at the goal they set for themselves in their introduction: "We have tried to have fun with this book and make it somewhat like James Bond’s world. The enjoyment is not in the logic, but in the discovery, the visual sweep, and the intricate details." It’s similar to reading the source books for the 80s James Bond roleplaying game. You can flip through pages and pages of weapons, then browse the fictional biographies of Bond Girls. You don’t read it cover-to-cover, as you might The Legacy, and you don’t necessarily flip to a specific entry as you would with Rubin’s Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia. A different reading experience is definitely enough for me to recommend this book to Bond completists as well as neophytes, especially when it’s so beautifully produced.

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