The Living Daylights: adaptation of a short story

Living daylights at 35

The decision to translate a short story into a feature film presents a unique set of challenges. In 1985, after a remarkable streak of 12 years and 7 films, Sir Roger Moore hung up his Walther PPK and called him one day as James Bond 007. As is often the case when a new actor arrives, the producers tend to dial things back up a few levels. Current co-producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson reiterated the importance of finding inspiration in Fleming’s work (see 2006 Casino Royale).

By the late 1980s, there was little valuable Fleming material left to adapt for the big screen. An intriguing mission caught the studio’s attention; a short story called Living daylights (from now on TLDs). Published posthumously with other stories under the title Octopussy and the Living Daylights, it was pure Fleming. Additionally, producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli’s choice for the 4e 007 was the classically trained Welshman, Timothy Dalton. A self-proclaimed student of Fleming and early Connery films, Dalton was the perfect choice to take the series back to its grittier roots.

The little story

by Ian Fleming TLDs barely 30 pages. What it lacks in scope, it makes up for by going succinctly to the heart of what the literary 007 was all about.

M enlists Bond for an unpleasant mission. 007 must travel to West Berlin to protect an insider. Their sleeper agent plans to rush across the East-West border on one of the next three evenings. The problem is that the opposition’s own spies caught wind of the double agent’s hopeful escape. As such, an East German or Russian sniper will surely overlook the designated area. Bond’s mission: kill the sniper.

The British spy heads towards a dreary apartment building in a dreary part of West Berlin in gloomy weather. His handler Sender is a stuffy pencil pusher. Days are spent in cafes and wandering museums and parks. In the evening, it focuses exclusively on the four dark windows of a humorless Soviet ministry across the border. Or so he should. On the first day, Bond notices a group of female instrumentalists entering the building and a pretty blonde with a cello case. In love, the protagonist cannot help but think of her and how curious it is that she wields such a gigantic instrument.

On the third and final night, when the British double agent crosses the restless zone, the eastern sniper appears better. The beautiful cellist! Rather than liquidate her, the Englishman mutilates her. The man inside makes it through, but Sender despises the hero for not buying into the mission. Bond replies:

“She scared him in broad daylight. In my book, that was enough. Let’s go.”

The heart of the story

That’s about it for the record. It presents a wonderful, focused take on Bond and his world and can be read in about an hour. But a 2 hour feature film, that’s definitely not the case.

As had to be done with the three previous films (Just for your eyes, Octopus, A view to kill), a brief and timely adventure inspired the script of a feature film. Easier said than done. Working in favor of the film was the return of co-writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson. The latter would go on to become one of the leading producers in the 1990s and the former was a seasoned scribe. His film adaptations date back to Dr. No in 1962, although he did not work on all of them. Additionally, director John Glen has embarked on his 4e 007, after going through Moore’s last 3 releases and adjusting the tone from film to film.

Movie adaptation
Image: EON/DANJAQ

At the heart of Fleming’s work are two things. First, the protagonist falls in love with a woman who turns out to be his target to kill. Second, the infamous East-West tensions of the Cold War, in this case through the prism of the defection of a double agent. The key here was to take those ideas and weave them into a package that global audiences would recognize as an animated Bond extravaganza. Obviously, the drive from East to West Berlin couldn’t serve as the film’s climax. It can work for a Adapted by John Le Carrébut not a Bond picture.

cute girl with cello

It could, however, serve as a plot point through which the protagonist meets his leading lady. This chance encounter would be wrapped around the plot of a Soviet double agent’s defection, much like in the source material. The latter would be rooted in the modern geopolitics of the time, a period during which the Soviet Union lived its own version of the Vietnam War in Afghanistan.

Without getting bogged down in all the details, John Glen’s film sends its protagonist (Dalton) to Bratislava (now the capital of Slovakia) to oversee the defection of rogue Soviet general Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) on the evening of a big concert. The gentleman spy meets his contact at the opera where he notices a lovely cello girl (Maryam d’Abo). Sure enough, on the night Bond watches from his safe house and General Koskov crosses the street, the sniper tasked with taking down the traitorous Soviet is the beautiful cellist. Bond aims her gun, sensing that she cannot distinguish one end of the rifle from another. She couldn’t be a real shooter. Something is wrong.

Living daylights
image: EON/DANJAQ

007’s instincts serve him well. The wife, Kara, is actually Koskov’s lover. Why the theatre? Koskov wants MI6 to believe that notorious Russian general Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) has gone mad with power and needs to be liquidated. Bond is too good a detective and smells a trap. He returns to Bratislava, meets Kara, claims to be Koskov’s friend and promises to take her to her boyfriend. In truth, the secret agent uses Kara to find out exactly why Koskov double-crossed the British. What ensues is a labyrinthine get-rich-quick scheme involving a disgraced US Army man turned arms dealer (Joe Don Baker), the mujahideen, the war in Afghanistan, opium and an old villain from the stories. from Fleming: SMERSH.

True to Fleming

There is no doubt that TLDs features a head-scratching plot. It’s hugely complex, and while it ultimately makes just enough sense, most won’t understand it on first viewing. No harm, no fault.

Beyond the overly convoluted plot, it’s a story that directly recalls the best of Ian Fleming. Le Lien des livres can only come to the aid of a woman in peril. He’s also an excellent detective and spots clues that end up adding to the villains’ ridiculous storylines. Finally, the Cold War was a regular background threat, especially in the first 5 books, although tension with the Soviets rears its ugly head in some of the latest stories (property of a lady).

Living daylights
Image: MGM/DANJAQ

The chemistry between Dalton and d’Abo serves as a terrific romantic anchor. Those who know the news are rewarded with its expansion. In the final lines, Bond thinks he will never see her again and that she will most likely be punished by her superiors for not killing the traitor. In the film, he sees her again and slowly but surely a romance develops. The simplicity of a Soviet defection is revisited, revealing a much grander but overall realistic scheme. Finally, tying Koskov’s lens to the grueling war in Afghanistan of the 1980s is another example of Bond films drawing inspiration from current events. It wasn’t the first time, it wouldn’t be the last.

Not all of Fleming’s short stories have been tactfully made into movies. From a sight to a murder has more than one plot but has yet to be exploited (the movie has nothing to do with the Fleming text). TLDs is an excellent example of marrying the characteristic Flemish touches with the brilliance of the film series.

-Edgar Chaput

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