Sensitivity Readers Take Aim at 007: No, Mr. Bond, They Expect You to Cry | Commentary
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He’s been pushed out of airplanes, dunked in shark-infested swimming pools and nearly circumcised by an industrial laser. But today James Bond is in the fight of his life, battling a cabal of supervillains so ruthless and cunning they make Spectre look like a rotary club.
They call themselves — cue maniacal laughter! — sensitivity readers.
You might have read about these literary Blofelds a couple of months ago, when they caused a ruckus after Puffin Books hired them to comb through the late Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to remove or rewrite passages that by today’s standards might be deemed offensive (like, say, changing the word “fat” to “enormous”).
But now sensitivity readers have taken aim at the late Ian Fleming, whose 14 Bond books, initially published between 1953 and 1966, were rereleased last month as part of the spy’s 70th anniversary celebration — but only after being scrubbed of affronting verbiage.
“This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace,” read a disclaimer in the new tomes. “A number of updates have been made in this edition, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period in which it is set.”
What sorts of updates? Well, in Fleming’s 1954 novel ‘Live and Let Die,’ the author describes a Harlem nightclub scene in which “Bond could hear the audience panting and grunting like pigs in the trough.” The new, so-called improved version now reads, “Bond could sense the electric tension in the room.”
Shocking, positively shocking.
James Bond Novels Re-Edited to Omit ‘Racial References’
Look, there’s no question there’s racist and misogynistic language in Fleming’s original novels. Racial slurs pop up an uncomfortable number of times. Oddjob, Goldfinger’s hat-tossing Korean sidekick, is subjected to an anti-Asian slur. There’s some outrageously unwoke balderdash about how women enjoy the “sweet tang of rape.”
I get why publishers might want to erase all that from these new editions. Bond, after all, isn’t merely a fictional hero — he’s an ongoing business concern, with 100 million books sold over the last seven decades and the film franchise based on them grossing more than $7 billion since the first movie, “Dr. No,” was released in 1962.
With most products, be they soft drinks or laundry detergents, adjustments are sometimes required to match the changing moods of the marketplace. The producers of the Bond films understand this: They’re constantly evolving the adaptations, updating the character and his habits to keep him relevant to modern times. In the books, he’s eternally a chain smoker (two packs a day). But the last time Bond puffed a cigarette on screen was way back in the 1960s, when he lit up a rocket-firing ciggie in ‘You Only Live Twice’ (“It can save your life, this cigarette,” quipped his Japanese spy pal Tiger Tanaka).
Still, novels are not soft drinks or laundry detergents or even movies. They’re works of literature. For better or decidedly worse, these were the sometimes-offensive words Fleming hammered into his famous golden typewriter when he invented the modern spy genre. As such, they’re a part of literary antiquity, as much so as Shakespeare’s antisemitic portrayal of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Meyer Wolfsheim in “The Great Gatsby.”
Changing Fleming’s words now, even with the best of intentions, is like desecrating a historical monument, as blasphemous (or at least ridiculous) as chiseling a Speedo onto Michelangelo’s David.
It’s also insulting. Fleming’s novels were always intended for adult readers. In fact, even back when they were first published, some critics gripped about the author’s penchant for pulpy sadomasochism (“The nastiest book” he’d ever read, opined a New Statesman reviewer when “Doctor No” was published). The notion that grown-up readers today, in the 21st century, need to be safeguarded from the vulgarities of the 20th — that contemporary adults are so feeble-minded and easily triggered that they’re unable to contextualize the fact that these books were written in a more racist and misogynistic era — isn’t just childish, it’s infantilizing.
It’s nonsensical, too. Sensitivity readers can pluck out all the racist and sexist passages they want from Fleming’s books, but they’ll still be left with a central character who defies modern sensibilities. Bond, after all, has always been a borderline sociopath. You can take away his cigarettes, put him on a vegan diet, raise his consciousness about race and gender politics and he’d still be a government-sanctioned serial killer who murders without remorse or regret.
That’s pretty much the whole point of the books.
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