There's nothing like a good spy thriller to get your imagination running wild. And perhaps no one was better able to give his readers such a trip as the legendary Ian Fleming. Indeed, the titular hero of his James Bond series of books started out as an intentionally flat character, someone onto whom readers could project a more complex identity. And project they did. 26 film adaptions (and original reimaginings of the character) later, James Bond is one of the most well-known and well-loved characters in Western film and literature, his exploits having evolved over the years into a full-fledged mythology. The other characters who populate Ian Fleming’s literary universe, seemingly to compensate for a milquetoast Bond, were frequently more colorful and memorable, developing their own cults of admiration among readers. Here are five of Ian Fleming’s most memorable characters (who are not James Bond).
Honorable Mention: Horror
Ian Fleming essentially disavowed the text of The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) for being too brutal in the violence it depicted. As a result, the film that bears the same name shows little resemblance to Fleming’s text–except for the presence of a frightful assassin with steel-capped teeth. Horror, as the character is called in the novel, would directly lead to the inclusion of Jaws (one of the most iconic screen villains of all time) in the otherwise unrelated film. A perfect example of an instance where readers’ imagination took Fleming’s work to new heights.
5. Caractacus Pott
Because of the looming shadow of James Bond, readers sometimes forget that Ian Fleming was also the author of an acclaimed children’s book: Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang (1964). Caractacus Pott, the protagonist, is an eccentric English inventor who creates the eponymous flying (and seemingly sentient) automobile. The book, which was originally written for Fleming’s son, and its subsequent film adaption have left an indelible imprint on the culture, with the work as a whole and Pott in particular becoming beloved icons of children’s literature.
4. Le Chiffre
Le Chiffre, the antagonist of Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale (which is the first book in which James Bond appears) sets the stage for all future Bond villains. Though he isn’t the most cunning or unhinged of the men that Bond faces down, he does manage to capture and torture 007, who is ultimately saved only because SMERSH agents come and shoot the villain between the eyes. Not only did his skill as a gambler make him an engaging foil for the baccarat-playing Bond, he was rumored to be based on the famous occultist Alistair Crowley, which, if true, would be objectively awesome.
4a. Vesper Lynd
Obviously this list is going to flout its own rules by inflating what is ostensibly a ‘top five’ ranking, but if Le Chiffre sets the tone for future Bond villains in Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd does much more complex work in establishing the role of Bond girls. Revealed to be a traitor at the novel’s end (after Bond has already fallen in love with her, and vice-versa), she proves to be a much more complex character (with a much more complex relationship to Bond) with a much more complex character arc then many of the love interests that would follow her, especially in the movies. She casts a long shadow over Bond’s adventures (more so than any other female lead, with the possible exception of Tracy Bond, who is briefly married to 007 before being killed by Blofeld). Plus, she has a martini named after her.
3. Emilio Largo
Emilio Largo is the second in command at SPECTRE and features prominently in Thunderball (1961). He is a vulgar but handsome Italian stereotype who throws his own henchman into a pool full of sharks. Enough said.
Speaking of stereotypes—Oddjob is certainly not the least offensive portrayal of a Korean man in existence. Still, he is perhaps the quintessential henchman. Though the film version of the character is perhaps the more iconic, the iteration of Oddjob that appears in the novel Goldfinger (1959) is a 6-foot-tall, cat-eating martial artist with black teeth and borderline super-strength. Unintelligible because of a cleft palate, he is a looming, frequently silent source of terror in the background (and foreground) of much the novel. He can throw a razor-edged bowler derby with deadly accuracy and at the book’s end he is sucked out of a shattered window in a rapidly depressurizing airplane. Ian Fleming in his works sometimes erred on the side of cartoonish violence and characters, and Oddjob was undoubtedly the best thing to come of that tendency.
1. Ernst Stavro Blofeld
By now you’ve noticed that the phrase ‘most memorable characters’ was basically code for ‘most memorable villains’. That may, however, be less a function of an overly narrow scope and more a result of the fact that great villains often have an imaginative staying power that heroes and sidekicks tend to lack. If we’re talking about villains, Blofeld is not just one of Ian Fleming’s most engaging creations, but one of the great literary villains of all time. As the head of SPECTRE, he is behind many of the schemes that Bond tries to foil. Each time he comes out of the shadows (which he does thrice, in Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963), and You Only Live Twice (1964)) he presents a new and more dangerous threat to 007. He begins as a brilliant ascetic bent on world domination and slowly drives himself to insanity by the time of his final confrontation with Bond. Virtually every evil genius in literature or film owes some debt to the lasting image of Ernst Stavro Blofeld.