Wednesday, August 25, 2010

007 In Depth: Is there a lost Casino Royale film adaptation written by Ian Fleming?

When Daniel Craig made his debut as James Bond in Casino Royale in 2006, a circle was closed: Ian Fleming’s first novel had finally been filmed by EON Productions. The full story of the attempts to film this book has not been looked at in great detail by cinema historians, perhaps because the film that was released in late 1966, starring David Niven and Peter Sellers, was a self-indulgent and messy parody of the EON Bond films. But the early plans for the film – which predated the existence of EON – were to make a straight thriller, and the developments over the years are, I think, worth looking at more closely.

From the start of his career as a novelist, Fleming was keen for his books to be adapted into films. The first serious bites both came in May 1954, when Gregory Ratoff (pictured) bought a six-month film option on Casino Royale, which had been published the previous year. Just a week later, CBS bought the TV rights. CBS was quick off the mark with its new property, and on October 21 1954 broadcast an hour-long performance of Casino Royale as an episode in its Climax! series, with Barry Nelson playing American agent ‘Jimmy Bond’ and Peter Lorre playing the villain, Le Chiffre.1

This was the first on-screen incarnation of Fleming’s character, but it was a one-off for television and made little impact. A Hollywood feature film might be another matter entirely, and Gregory Ratoff was therefore a much more promising prospect. The Russian-born American was a well-established and eclectic actor, writer, producer and director. He had directed Intermezzo, Ingrid Bergman’s first Hollywood film, played a leading role in The Forbidden Territory and much more besides. The six months of his option on Casino Royale came to an end with no film in production, but in March 1955 Ratoff converted his option and bought the full rights to the novel, which he held until his death in December 1960.2

The development of Casino Royale between 1955 and 1960 is rarely examined, perhaps because no film was produced in that time. But not for want of trying by Gregory Ratoff. On January 8 1956, The New York Times reported on Ratoff’s newly formed independent production company, Maribar, which he had set up in partnership with Michael Garrison, an actor-turned-agent who would go on to create the TV series The Wild Wild West. The article mentioned that the company was working on two projects: an adaptation of Sylvia Regan’s 1953 play The Fifth Season, which Ratoff had recently directed on Broadway, and Casino Royale:
‘The company also has acquired rights to “Casino Royale”, a novel by Ian Fleming, and the plan is to film it in CinemaScope and color this summer in England, Estoril in Spain and San Remo. Twentieth Century-Fox is slated to release this feature, too.

Although the author has written an adaptation, Mr Ratoff, who is now in Paris, is negotiating with a “noted scenarist, as well as with two well-known stars to play the leads,” Mr Garrison said. “Casino Royale”, he explained, “may be described as a World War II spy story, set partially in the gambling casino of the title and dealing with a search for stolen Government secrets which take the principals through such colorful places as Estoril and San Remo.”’3
This article offers several intriguing pieces of information. One is simply that, ten months after he had bought the rights to the book, Ratoff was serious enough about making the film to be announcing the project in The New York Times and, apparently, negotiating with well-known actors and a scriptwriter. Another is that he had apparently also decided on which locations in which to film. Ratoff knew the Italian port of San Remo well, having filmed Operation X, starring Edward G Robinson, there in 1950. Estoril is in Portugal, not Spain, and is a very interesting location to have chosen, as Ian Fleming’s visit there in May 1941 had been an inspiration for the novel. Fleming mentioned this incident many times – here he is discussing it with his editor William Plomer in a radio interview from 1962:
‘William Plomer: Well now, could you pinpoint for us one of the adventures in your books which you actually experienced yourself?

Ian Fleming: Well, the gambling scene in my first book is more or less a blown up version of what happened to me during the war, because I was flying to Washington with my chief, the Director of Naval Intelligence, and we came down at Lisbon and were told that if we wanted to go and meet some German secret agents, they were always gambling in the Casino at Estoril in the evening. So we went along and my chief didn’t understand the game of chemin de fer they were playing. I explained it to him and then it crossed my mind to have a bash at the Germans who were sitting around, and see if I couldn’t reduce their secret service funds. Unfortunately, I sat down and after three bancos my travel money had completely disappeared. Now that, greatly exaggerated, was the kernel of James Bond’s great gamble against Le Chiffre in which he took Le Chiffre to the cleaners.’4
As The New York Times’ article mentioned England as another filming location and the Second World War for the setting, it seems that the idea at this point may have been to cleave the film adaptation of Casino Royale more closely to Fleming’s own wartime experiences, rather than make a modern-day Bond adventure, or one with an American agent as its hero, as CBS had done in 1954.

But most intriguing of all is the mention that Ratoff was negotiating with a scriptwriter even though ‘the author has written an adaptation’. The idea that Ian Fleming wrote a film adaptation for Casino Royale has, to my knowledge, never been revealed elsewhere. Could it be true? On the one hand, articles such as this, even when in newspapers as respected as The New York Times, often contain inaccuracies – the location of Estoril, for instance – and the grand plans discussed in them do not always come to fruition. Ratoff, after all, never filmed Casino Royale. On the other hand, the information about Fleming having written an adaptation was not being used to build up the film, because Michael Garrison was quoted as saying that they were choosing not to use it, but were instead in negotiations with a ‘noted scenarist’. Garrison appears to have been promoting the idea that a well-known screenwriter’s work would be used rather than the adaptation by the then relatively unknown Fleming, so even if he were unscrupulous there doesn’t seem to be anything he could have gained from inventing the idea that Fleming had written an adaptation. If Fleming hadn’t done so, Garrison could simply have said that they were looking for a noted scenarist to write the screenplay and that would have had precisely the same promotional effect. In the context, then, it seems a peculiar and unlikely thing to invent.

Fleming had also already written a film adaptation of his own work, and would do again. In 1955, The Rank Organisation had optioned his third Bond novel, Moonraker, but had failed to develop it. Frustrated by his dealings with Rank’s script department, Fleming had written his own screenplay of the novel.5  Two years later, Rank paid £12,500 for the film rights to Fleming’s non-fiction book The Diamond Smugglers, which collected a series of articles he had written for The Sunday Times. According to an article in the trade publication The Bookseller, Rank ‘commissioned Ian Fleming to prepare the film treatment’.6 Fleming apparently told Rank that he would provide them with a ‘full story outline’ for a further £1,000, but would not be able to bind himself to writing ‘the master scene script’ or to be available in England for consultations.7

The rights to The Diamond Smugglers were later bought by the producer George Willoughby, who it seems had Fleming’s treatment. In a letter to John Collard in 1965, Willoughby wrote:
‘Fleming himself wrote for the Rank Organisation a film treatment on this subject and although he used the name of John Blaize for the hero, his treatment had, nevertheless, very little to do with the actual articles he wrote for the “Sunday Times”.’8
Willoughby added that for the film he was planning, ‘our basic story would be based mainly on the treatment written by Ian Fleming himself’.9

Neither Fleming’s screenplay of Moonraker or his treatment for The Diamond Smugglers have yet come to light. Could it be that there is also an undiscovered film adaptation of Casino Royale from the 50s, written by Ian Fleming? If so, what could it be like? Is it set in the 1950s, like the novel, or based on his experiences during the war? And how might it differ from the James Bond films we know and love? These questions remain unanswered – for now, at least.

Note: This article was modified on January 14 2011 to reflect new information. Since writing it, I have unearthed Ben Hecht's 1964 drafts of Casino Royale. For more information on that, please go here.


1. pp264-265, Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett, Phoenix, 1996.
2. p268, Lycett.
3. By Way of Report, A.H. Weiler, The New York Times, January 8 1956.
4. ‘The Writer Speaks’, Ian Fleming and William Plomer, 1962, courtesy the Archives and Special Collections, Durham University Library.
5. p276, Lycett.
6. p1808 The Bookseller, Compendium of Issues 2698-2714, Publishers’ Association, Booksellers Association of Great Britain and Ireland, 1957.
7. p317, Lycett.
8, 9. Letter from George Willoughby to John Collard, June 21 1965, courtesy of the Collard family. For more about the long-running attempts to make a feature film of The Diamond Smugglers, please see my article in The Sunday Times of March 7 2010: How Ian Fleming's book on gems was neglected.

 This is part of 007 In Depth, a series of articles on Ian Fleming and James Bond.


  1. Rather curious, then, that the closest adaptation of Fleming's work in the '60s, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, eventually went back to Estoril for their casino scenes, no? ;-)

    Also, Fleming did write screenplays after The Diamond Smugglers, Jeremy; he wrote several treatments for the Thunderball project, but they were revised by Jack Whittingham and Kevin McClory because they felt it dragged too much -- Fleming included great heaping piles of narration -- as well as the fact that Fleming killed off Felix Leiter in both of his drafts!

    There's probably a reason Ratoff and co. didn't use Fleming's proffered screenplay...

  2. Thanks for the comment, Matthew. My comment about Fleming writing treatments of his work was that he had *already* done so, ie by January 1956.

    There probably is a reason Ratoff and co didn't use Fleming's treatment, if he wrote one, but I'd still like to read it and judge for myself. After all, Fleming's the one who was the world-class writer of thrillers, not Ratoff! And the same could be said of McClory and Whittingham. At any rate, even if it's awful (which I somehow doubt), would you really not be interested in reading a film adaptation of Casino Royale written in the 50s by Ian Fleming? :)

  3. I would, at that... but, then, I've read The Man with the Golden Gun, which is quite bad. :-P

  4. Great post Jeremy. The Bond/Fleming fix is most welcome! I think it would be a very intresting read. I dont think it would be bad as Fleming was a wonderful story teller. I loved The Man with the Golden Gun Matthew and I even loved The Spy who Loved me! (I cant pick fault with any of Flemings work) :)

  5. My apologies, Jeremy; I'm really glad you found this, and had it been recovered, I'd love to read it. :-)

  6. Thanks, Matthew and Nicholas. Glad you're enoying the series so far. More to come.

    I agree, Matthew, that The Man With The Golden Gun is one of the weaker, if not the weakest, Bond novel. But Fleming was dying when he wrote it, remember. This would be a film adaptation he wrote in the 50s, of his first (and perhaps best?) novel. I suspect it would be at least interesting to Bond fans to read. Personally, I'd be interested in reading most things Fleming wrote.

  7. Regarding my first comment above, I was a bit muddled. What I should have said was that Fleming's work on Thunderball was not an adaptation, but a whole new story. The point about Moonraker and The Diamond Smugglers is that they show that Fleming was amenable to adapting his own books for film, which strengthens the statement that he did so for Casino Royale.

  8. I'm loving this series--it's proof of how impoverished the commanderbond site has become in your absence. A holy grail of hidden Fleming would definitely include his script work for Moonraker (if it survives), CR (if it exists), Thunderball, and FYEO (if the scripts deviate enough from the later short stories). But now I'd also like to get my hands on Ben Hecht's screenplay for Casino Royale, which I had forgotten about. I wonder what it's chance of surviving is? Did Hecht keep track of his work? Is it stored somewhere, as the Lilly stores Fleming's?

  9. Thanks, IA, whoever you are. :)

    I'm in the final stages of finishing a novel but once I'm done with that I will come back to this series. Yes, Hecht's screenplay has survived, and much more that has been forgotten, missed or left unexplored. I won't say more, as it would ruin it - but I've barely started.

  10. Least he looks more like Fleming's Bond than Daniel Craig