Friday, June 21, 2024


This ninth book in Ian Fleming's James Bond series has a special place for me. It was the first Bond book I read when I was 13 years old.  And I was hooked on both the books and the movies. This was the first time for me to read Thunderball in well more than 50 years, and five decades later, it still holds up as a great thriller.

For movie fans, this was originally intended by Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to be the first Bond movie. But costs of production and legal issues with the book caused them to look first to Dr. No. More on that later.

Much of the movie comes directly from Fleming's book. There are some modifications, but the movie is very true to the book. This is the book that introduces SPECTRE and Ernst Stavro Blofeld (in a limited roll). The super-criminal organization hijacks a NATO bomber and takes possession of two atomic bombs, demanding a ransom or the organization will explode the bombs in some undefined populated area.

Perhaps one of the reasons that the movie followed so much of the book was that Thunderball was originally written as a movie script. This gets us to the legal issue which plagued Fleming for the rest of his life.

Fleming was eager to get James Bond on the screen. His only meager success was a 1954 Climax TV production for American television of Casino Royale with Barry Nelson as an American "Jimmy" Bond and Peter Lorre as LeChiffre.  (If you want to view the 54-minute black-and-white production, it can be viewed on YouTube, CLICK HERE.

Efforts to market a Bond-style television show failed, although Fleming drafted the scripts for 13 episodes. So in 1959, Fleming sat down with Kevin McClory, a wannabe movie producer, and Jack Whittingham and created a script for a movie originally titled Longitude 78 West.  Fleming changed the title to Thunderball. When the movie effort was unsuccessful, Fleming in January-March 1960, turned the screenplay into the novel Thunderball, not crediting either McClory or Whittingham for their contribution. Undoubtedly that was a mistake, but after all, Bond was Fleming's creation. The book was published in 1961.

Kevin McClory was an Irish scoundrel who overplayed his qualifications and connections in the movie business. When Thunderball was ready to hit bookstands, and with Dr. No on tap for the movies, McClory launched nothing short of a legal vendetta in British courts against Ian Fleming. His attack was vicious. The legal fight sapped much of Fleming's energy and perhaps health. He suffered a heart attack. After years of legal fighting, during the trial, Fleming threw in the towel and settled in November, 1963, giving McClory the film rights to Thunderball while Fleming kept the book rights. The stress of the litigation is credited by many, including Fleming's wife, as adding to Fleming's health woes and causing his death. Fleming, a life-long heavy smoker with a family history of heart problems, died on August 12, 1964 at age 56.

McClory's movie rights resulted in Sean Connery's last appearance as James Bond in the remake of Thunderball, titled "Never Say Never Again." McClory stubbornly refused to part with the rights to Thunderball, hoping to launch his own Bond series. Only after McClory's death in 2006 did his heirs sell the movie rights to ION, which after more than 50 years, finally unified all the movie rights to James Bond.

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