Van Jensen is the writer of the new adaptation of the James Bond novel Casino Royale as a graphic novel, with artist Matthew Southworth from Dynamite.
I was allowed to ask him some questions. I was pretty nice…
Rich Johnston: Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, has always struck me as an oddity, in that it was written and published before anyone knew what James Bond was. We all have a far broader picture of the character now, is there any way you can preserve or revisit that freshness?
Van Jensen: I completely agree. It's almost wholly absent of the tropes (the gadgets, the girls, the iconic drink, the quips) that I think most people associate with Bond. Even Bond's character is very different. There's a degree of naïveté and trusting that gives way to a colder, shrewder Bond in subsequent books.
My approach, simply, was to adapt Casino Royale as it is, which meant not adding in the recognizable symbols, and instead allowing the story to carry itself. I do hope that allows new readers to discover Bond with fresh eyes.
RJ: Talking of fresh eyes, there's an awful lot of procedural Baccarat. Fleming is known for his various flights of fancy in his work, diverting to talk about architecture or history that he suddenly has a desire for the reader to know, studiously ignored by the subsequent adaptation. How do you address this, do you suddenly turn the graphic novel into a work of instruction for those periods, so it looks like an air flight safety manual, or do you skip those points?
VJ: Honestly, one of the reasons I took on this project was the challenge of it. I re-read Casino and thought, "How in the hell can I take all this narration and make it visual?" I always feel like creative constraints can push me to up my game, so I dove in.
As far as the two extremes you mention, I chose a different route. Certainly, there's some condensing. But throughout, I looked for ways to take narration and represent it visually. For instance, in the scene in which Bond explains Baccarat to Vesper, I use what we call Bond-Vision, which is basically a visual representation of the analysis going on inside Bond's head. So they're sitting at a table, and the reader can see these virtual Baccarat players around Bond as he explains the game. The other players are all in Bond's head, so I just took those thoughts and found a way to layer them on top of reality. It's kind of a new approach, I think, and I'm really happy with how it came together.
RJ: On that point, do we go for close-ups of Bond's swelling testicles while he is being tortured or do you draw a veil?
VJ: I know this will be personally disappointing, Rich, but the adaptation has an utter dearth of swelling testicles.
That said, I love how brutal and extended that torture scene is, and we don't shy away from the nastiness of it. I just think there's a way to represent action without being overly literal or graphic. Like the film Jaws, with this menacing fin cutting through the water, hiding the rest of the shark. And yes, in this analogy, the shark is Bond's swelling testicles.
There's also a long scene in which Bond is in the hospital, recovering, and he wants to have sex with Vesper, but he's also concerned that the torture might have left him impotent. I really struggled with that one, but I ended up coming up with a pretty weird conceptualization that everyone really liked.
RJ: Well, the novel has been turned into a film twice and a comic strip once. Do you use any of the visual elements of those adaptations, even as Easter eggs, or is it completely its own thing?
VJ: I very purposefully did not go back to any of that material. Like you mentioned before, this book is very different. I wanted to embrace that fully and hew as closely as possible to Fleming's original vision.
RJ: It's stated that Casino Royale is due for November. Given the famous micromanagement of the Bond franchise, do you think this is in any way achievable?
VJ: Script is long since done and approved. Art is well under way by the eminently talented Matthew Southworth. I'll say this: Bond is one of the biggest properties on Earth. Of course the Ian Fleming Publishing Library treats it with extreme care. I found them to be nothing but a great resource (along with Mike Lake), in helping me craft a book that is true to Fleming's work.
Of course, there have been some surreal moments, like having a conversation with the Fleming folks about what bath robe Bond would be wearing.
RJ: Can't wait. Is Dynamite planning to adapt all the Fleming novels? Van, are there any that you specifically have your eye on aside from Casino?
VJ: My eye is very acutely trained on the second novel, Live and Let Die, at the moment. That adaptation is next, and the plan is to continue on with the series. I'm not certain how many of them I'll do, but I'm beyond thrilled to be able to work in the world of 007.