[The following remarks by Richard Maibaum are from Backstory 1: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age
The James Bond Films
In 1956 or 1957, when I was in England writing for Cubby and Irving Allen, Cubby gave me two of the James Bond books to read. I read them and liked them enormously. Cubby was very excited, too, but Irving Allen didn't share his enthusiasm. So Cubby put them aside. It’s my personal opinion now that that was a wise thing to do, because with the censorship of pictures that existed then, you couldn’t even have the minimal sex and violence that we eventually put into the pictures. They just wouldn't have been the same.
Later, when Irving Allen and Cubby broke up, Cubby got together with Harry Saltzman, who had an option from Ian Fleming, and he and Cubby joined forces. Cubby went to New York and convinced the United Artists board of directors to give him and Saltzman what eventually amounted to $1 million to make the first picture. I didn’t know Saltzman at the time, but Cubby told him about me, and I was asked to go over there and write the first James Bond script.
was actually the first; we decided it was the one to start with. I finished a first draft, and then Kevin McClory jumped up with a lawsuit against Ian Fleming, claiming he wrote the novel after they’d done a screen treatment together. So we put Thunderball aside until that was settled and decided to do Dr. No
. I was then in London, after having finished the first draft of Thunderball
, so I began to write Dr. No
with Wolf Mankewitz. Cubby and Harry didn't like our first treatment, so Wolf bowed out; and I went on to do the first draft of the screenplay. Later, after I left, a novelist named Aubrey Mather (Jasper Davis is his real name) did some work on it with a girl playwright, Joanna Harwood.
On From Russia with Love
they had Len Deighton start, and he did about thirty-five pages; but it wasn’t going anywhere, so they brought me in. I did the screenplay and got a solo credit on it. Joanna got an adaptation credit, because she worked some with the director, Terence Young, and made several good suggestions. I was a little put out that she was given an adaptation credit because I didn’t think she deserved it, but there are always politics in these things.
I did a first draft. Harry Saltzman didn’t like it, and he brought in Paul Dehn, a good writer, to revise. Then Sean Connery didn’t like the revisions, and I came back to do the final screenplay. That was the first time that happened: where I was followed by someone and then called back to finish up.
I worked on Thunderball
again and got a solo on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
, which is one of the best of the Bonds despite Lazenby. After I did the first script on Diamonds Are Forever
, I left and Tom Mankiewicz came on. They liked his work, so Tom stayed on to do Live and Let Die
. Then they used Tom again on Man with the Golden Gun
. He had a disagreement with Guy Hamilton, and I was asked to come back and rewrite that. Then, on The Spy Who Loved Me
I did the first draft, followed by Christopher Wood, who also wrote Moonraker
. Gilbert, the director, liked his work; I didn’t. Then, after Moonraker
I began to work with Michael G. Wilson, an unusually versatile, talented young man, and we did For Your Eyes Only
, and A View to a Kill
I’ll tell you something about a James Bond script. How many scenes would you think are in the Octopussy
screenplay, for instance? Over one thousand! Whereas it’s rare that scripts have more than two hundred or three hundred scenes. Sometimes directors don’t want the writers to break it up to such an extent, but I always do. I figure, you’re fooling yourself and everybody else if you don’t do that. It’s pretty well worked out in advance—especially with men like John Glen and Peter Hunt, who were great editors. You can’t take short cuts. (I remember once, when I was doing the script for one of my favorite early pictures, Ten Gentlemen from West Point
in 1942, I wrote, “Then follows the Battle of Tippecanoe.” And Darryl Zanuck noted in the margin: “Who are you kidding, kid?”)
Basically, in a way, the pattern of the story is the same in all of the Bonds, and I think that is one of the attractions of the pictures. You have that engine working, the James Bond syndrome—with all the conspicuous consumption, the luxurious locales, the beautiful women, the larger-than-life villains. We’ve carried it much further than Fleming. Bond is absolutely dedicated and devoted to serving Queen and country; he never questions what he does or the morality of it. In an article he wrote, Charles Champlin says that Bond is the man who rides into town to set things right, and he calls him the Musketeer. Well, I told you: the Dumas books had a helluva influence on me.
I met Ian Fleming several times while he was still alive, but I did not speak to him about screenwriting. He didn’t seem very interested. He didn’t have script approval, but as a matter of courtesy we gave him the scripts to read. He would make minimal notes in the margin, in very tiny handwriting, that usually dealt with questions of protocol—what Bond called M in the office as opposed to what he called him at their club, things like that.
He did say to me once, “The pictures are so much funnier than my books.” He was a little bemused and a little obtuse about it, I thought, because he really didn’t understand that we were trying
to make them funnier. That was the thing we changed most about his books as far as the pictures were concerned. We made Bond more humorous, throwing away those one-liners that are now obligatory in Bond films.
Fleming was strange about the books. I think he got bored with the Bond stories after a while, especially after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
, on which he really did a superb job. As a novel I think it’s the best of them and the one we had to do the least with to make a good motion picture script. It was a solid novel, more of a serious effort than most of his books, which are really one hundred pages of brilliant exposition and then some good, swift action.
I told this to Fleming once, “There is an untransferable quality in your writing.” It’s all very well; Fleming writes two and a half pages describing the fish underwater, the beautiful waving weeds, the colors—but, what the hell, it's just a pretty piece of celluloid when you see it on the screen. In other words, we had to popularize to a great extent. I won’t use the word vulgarize, because we’ve tried very hard, and Cubby has tried very hard, to keep the pictures from being vulgar. If someone suggests something that is really vulgar, he’ll wince. Partly the difference is in going from a kind of cult audience to a mass audience. It was only a cult audience of readers that kept Fleming alive for a long time before the pictures really discovered him. As books, they were not caviar to the general.
A Pretense of Seriousness
Penelope Gilliatt once said that Bond films were “modern mythology.” In my opinion, they started this whole larger-than-life approach to action-adventure pictures. There have been others, of course; and Burt Lancaster always ribs me about imitating the style of The Crimson Pirate
. But I do think the Bond pictures started this whole cycle, and then everybody else climbed on the bandwagon. That’s not generally accepted. I think Raiders of the Lost Ark
 was, except for having a wonderful gimmick (the ark itself), a kind of Bond picture. The action, the villains, the unexpected!
You know, Hitchcock once told me, “If I have thirteen bumps in a picture, I think I’ve got a picture.” A bump is something like someone says, “I’m looking for a man who has a short index finger,” and a totally unexpected guy says, “You mean like this?” That’s in The 39 Steps
. After Dr. No
Cubby, Harry, and myself decided that we weren’t going to be satisfied with thirteen bumps in a Bond story, we wanted thirty-nine.
As a writer I think one of my contributions to the Bonds is that I maintained a pretense of seriousness. I took them seriously, the way Cyril [Hume, Maibaum’s early screenwriting partner] took the Tarzans, as if they were really happening, although of course such things don’t. There are no secret agents like Bond; secret-agenting is really a pretty dull business most of the time, despite all the legends and the myths. But I took it seriously, and I learned something quickly: the audience is willing to be lenient about what is real and what is not real. They will allow you to be humorous, and then they will allow you to strike the humor and be serious for a moment as long as they are being entertained. Any time you are not serious about it, the picture suffers.
Then, I think, my work on the first four films set the pattern and had something to do with the character of Bond—his humor, his savoir faire. I know I insisted on the elegance of the villains—especially after I saw how great Joseph Wiseman was in Dr. No
. “You disappoint me, Mr. Bond; you are nothing but a stupid policeman.” I tried to add a touch of elegance to the dialogue, and some of the directors didn’t approve. Terence Young would say, “Oh, for chrissakes, stop writing Chinese, Dick.” I wanted Bond to have some of that elegance too and not to be the monosyllabic hero that, for example, Harrison Ford is in Raiders of the Lost Ark
. He has not a flicker of class or humor, even though he is supposed to be an educated anthropologist.
I feel, about dialogue, Chinese or not, that I try to use words that are proper from a semantic standpoint. And, of course, I object when what I consider to be a good line is omitted. In Octopussy
, for example, when Bond goes clandestinely into East Germany, M says, “Take care, 007.” My line for Bond’s reply was, “I promise to look both ways before I cross the street, sir.” It put a father-son relationship between him and M. All gone! The line was cut, I suppose, because Roger [Moore] didn't like it. But a star can say any goddamned thing he wants really. You know what William Goldman says in Adventures in the Screen Trade
, that a star is a person no one ever contradicts. He has to be pampered even when it hurts the scene.
Of course, directors also change dialogue. Terence Young is a writer too, but I groaned each time he threw in his favorite cliche, “Easy come, easy go.” But there are always some added lines that are funny, lines I ruefully wish I had thought of. That is one of my strong points as a collaborator: I have a tolerance of other people’s ideas and am able to select the good ones and fight like hell against those I think are bad. I am able to take an idea someone else has thought of and go beyond it.
In retrospect, I’ve had a great deal of fun doing the Bonds, although the fun was mixed up with many problems that had to be solved, problems that look so simple once they are solved. Once I become involved in a Bond film, I get fascinated all over again with the difficulties and the possibilities. In between, I keep saying, "Well, I’d like to do another Bond, but to try and think up a new caper, something we haven’t done…” But something new always comes up. And, of course, I’m well paid.
…I haven’t written a stage play in thirty years. Every now and then I get a possible glimmer, but I haven’t been able to overcome my block. Did you happen to see the letter I sent Time
magazine about writer's block? They had an article about it that suggested a cure: “Don’t try to write, just go for a long walk, have a drink, and then see a James Bond picture.” So I wrote to Time
and said, “I was pleased by the suggestion to see a James Bond movie to cure writer’s block. Any thoughts about how to cure mine?”
: What you have read is part of a much larger interview with Richard Maibaum that covers his education, playwriting career, and screenwriting/production jobs at MGM and Paramount. If there's any demand for the rest of the interview I can add it to this thread.
Maibaum's memory is inaccurate in one area. "Aubrey Mather" was actually Berkely Mather, whose real name was John Evan Weston-Davies, not Jasper Davis. Mather also performed uncredited script work on From Russia With Love
. He had been recommended by Ian Fleming, who had loved
Berkely's novel The Pass Beyond Kashmir
The editor of Backstory
adds the following note of interest to the appendix: “Interestingly, considering Maibaum's credentials as a staunch liberal, there is a political attack from the right on the Bond themes, ‘Updating James Bond’ by Richard Grenier, in the June 1981 issue of Commentary. Maibaum penned a fierce reply, but it was never published.”
I’d love to read it!
For more on with Maibaum, consult this Starlog interview from 1983
and an unpublished interview
conducted at the time of The Living Daylights
. The book Speaking of Writing
collects several of Maibaum's articles and speeches, along with a lengthy, never-before-published interview on the Bond films.