Casino Royale - Audio Book Review

Casino Royale was Ian Fleming's first (and some would argue best) James Bond novel. It's adapted here in an abridged audiobook version that was read and performed by the actor Rufus Sewell in 2002. Casino Royale was published in 1953 and the first of many Bond books by Fleming - who delighted readers (many still in the midst of post-war austerity) with his mix of escapism, sex, sadism, travel and his obsession with good food and drink.
I'm sure there were many readers back then who wouldn't have minded being James Bond just to sample a few of his dinners let alone the exotic women and locations he encountered. The story in Casino Royale concerns a communist agent in France named Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre is connected to SMERSH (a ruthless organisation similar to the KGB) and has used SMERSH money to take over a number of brothels in the West. Le Chiffre's problem is that a new law has outlawed this lucrative sideline and he must now replace the money he has hived off to fund his dodgy business activities because SMERSH will kill him otherwise.
Le Chiffre decides that his best option is to deploy his famed gambling skills and make up his losses at baccarat in the casino of Royale-les-Eaux. The British would like very much to eliminate Le Chiffre to negate secret Soviet influence in France but they know if they do that it will be used for propaganda purposes against them. They decide instead to use MI6 agent James Bond 007, famed as the best gambler in the service, to play against Le Chiffre at the gaming tables. All Bond has to do is clean him out at the casino and Le Chiffre will be ruined and eliminated by SMERSH. But will this be easier said than done, even for James Bond?
Although this is abridged and dispenses with some of Fleming's longeurs and one or two bits and pieces, it's an enjoyable audiobook on the whole that captures some of the atmosphere and mood of the book. Casino Royale is a little more downbeat and subdued than many of the books that followed and Bond himself is more of a jaded character but a very cultivated one nonetheless. In the 2006 film version, Bond was turned into a Jason Bourne type character jumping off cranes like Spider-Man and was supposed to be at the start of his career or something.
Here though it's as in the book. 007 is not a rookie agent and earned his Double-O status by killing a Japanese cipher expert in New York and a Norwegian double agent in Stockholm in the previous decade. He is a 'blunt instrument' used by the British government to protect their interests and a slightly enigmatic and quite sophisticated loner with the darkly handsome good looks of a film star who has rather fastidious tastes when it comes to grub and his drink.
Rufus Sewell does a good job here doing all the characters and is quite adept at giving them a distinctive tone and allowing you to sometimes forget that one person is doing all of this. There was a BBC Radio adaption of Goldfinger and it was sort of ruined for me by Toby Stephens as the voice of James Bond. Stephens had an annoying lazy transatlantic accent where he frequently pronounced the letter 'd' instead of 't' like a local radio DJ. He was far too contemporary to be the literary Bond and his voice seemed too weedy and laid-back, having the unfortunate effect of making him sound incredibly bored in the adaptation at times. Sewell is better though. He's more crisp and has a more natural quality. He does a creditable job in conveying the overall arc of the story and bringing some personality and life to the different characters.
Fleming's Bond books are rather dated today, and a trifle sexist in places. This is conveyed in parts where Bond is teamed with another British agent named Vesper Lynd. "Do they think this is a bloody picnic?" complains Bond when told that he will be working with a woman. Lynd, the original Bond girl, sets the template for many of the women that Fleming would write about in his books - gamine, beautiful and slightly messed up. The romantic aspect to the novel is used well to imbue James Bond with an introspective quality in the story. He is often gazing out to sea or questioning his loyalties and life. This makes the character in this novel more human and enigmatic than his cinematic version.
Casino Royale works quite well as an audiobook because they didn't have to try and update it and invent entire new sections of storyline as the filmmakers had to. We are taken back to another era here and have the story lovingly described. The decor of hotels and casinos, the cars, food, clothes and style comes through. The actual plot of Casino Royale doesn't bear too much close inspection but suspension of disbelief is an important part of anything to do with James Bond, which is principally supposed to be about escape in a world heightened a few notches from our own. James Bond was essentially Ian Fleming's fantasy version of himself, drawn from his own espionage experiences in World War 2. It's always fun to enter this world even you don't know your Taittinger 45 from your Blanc de Blance Brut 43.
On the whole, this is a decent audiobook and, for me, was less irritating than the much trumpeted full cast BBC Radio version of Goldfinger. Rufus Sewell does a fine job and some of the ambiance and descriptive style of Fleming is conveyed as the story unfolds. The audiobook is a reminder that a faithful film or television version of Casino Royale would be very interesting as a Cold War period piece, not that it is ever likely to happen. While it is not completely perfect and slightly truncated in this adapted form, it is an entertaining listen and not bad at all as far as audiobooks based on novels go.
- Jake

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