Bond: Roger Moore
Release Date: 1979
Original Story: Moonraker
Publication Date: 1955
Previous Story: Live and Let Die
Next Story: Diamonds Are Forever
Villain: Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale)
Heavy: Chang (Toshiro Suga), Jaws (Richard Kiel)
Bond Girls: Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), Corinne Dufiur (Corinne Cléry), Manuela (Emily Bolton). Special note here on Dolly (Blanche Ravalec), who pairs up with Jaws.
Other Notable Characters: M (Bernard Lee), Q (Desmond Llewellyn), Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), General Gogol (Walter Gotell), Minister of Defense Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen)
Gadgets: Wrist dart gun (used by 007), X-ray safecracker (used by 007), Q-Branch modified gondola (used by 007), Q-Branch modified speedboat (used by 007), poison pen (used by Dr. Goodhead), flamethrower perfume atomizer (used by Dr. Goodhead), laser torch (used by the US Space Marines), explosive bolos (used by Q-Branch technician)
Plot of Original: Sir Hugo Drax uses his companies and fortune to create a ballistic missile with the secret intention to launch it against London with a nuclear warhead supplied by SMERSH. Bond first gets involved because M suspected something was up with Drax’s luck at bridge.
Plot of Film: Industrialist Hugo Drax uses his company, Drax Industries, to choose a small group of men and women to house in a space station in order to repopulate the Earth after using a rare nerve gas to kill the existing human population.
Other than the name, Moonraker, and the name of the villain, there’s not much in common between the novel and the movie. When Moonraker was written in 1955, the Arms Race and the Space Race were just beginning. The Soviet satellite, Sputnik I, would be launched two years after the novel’s publication. The US and the USSR were building their nuclear arsenals, and other nations were trying to keep up to have their own deterrence, including the UK. The novel fits in with then-current events.
While the Arms Race continued in 1979, other matters overshadowed the world of entertainment. Star Wars, released in 1977, ignited a desire for more science fiction films set in space. The American Space Shuttle program introduced the concept of a reusable space craft. In 1976, only the prototype Enterprise had been built. It’s look, though, was distinctive. Instead of a silver rocket as all previous manned and unmanned launches had been, the new shuttle had wings to help glide after re-entry. Visually, it was a distinctive craft, ideal for being on film.
To get to 007 being in space, though, there had to be a reason for him to go up. Moving Drax’s base of operations from the English countryside to a space station was definitely a way to do that. Since the Space Shuttle plays a large role, an American agent, Dr. Holly Goodhead, is involved, taking the place of the novel’s Scotland Yard Special Branch agent Gala Brand, who is also embedded in Drax’s organization. However, since Dr. Goodhead is involved in the shuttle side of Drax Industries, Corinne Dufour becomes Drax’s aide.
Even the characterization of Drax changed. The novel’s version was boisterous, at least in public. He was a self-made millionaire, and has the apparent luck to find key metal deposits. Bond first meets Drax at M’s club. M had invited 007 there to figure out how Drax could win consistently at bridge. In the movie, Drax is more reserved, using a few layers to separate himself from the general public and even higher level officials. Ultimately, Drax is revealed to be a high-ranking Nazi officer. The movie version of Drax didn’t have the overt Nazi background, though he did have the idea of creating a master race with a base in Brazil.
The Drax of the novel does appear in a way in a later 007 film, Tomorrow Never Dies, in the persona of Eliot Carver. While Carver in the film is based on the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates, he also has the personality of the Drax of the novel. In a nod to the novel, the Minister of Defense mentions playing bridge with Drax.
One scene that did make it from the book is Drax’s attempt at killing Bond and Dr. Goodhead. In the novel, Drax leaves Bond and Gala to die in the exhaust of the launch vehicle. They escape through a ventilator shaft. In the movie, Bond and Dr. Goodhead escape the same way. The difference between the two is that Bond was ready to kill himself to destroy the Moonraker rocket in the novel, one life for millions. In the movie, he is actively looking for escape as the countdown hits ten seconds.
The movie was a way to have 007 tap into the audience that went out to see Star Wars. The Moore-era tended to be far more flamboyant, with Moonraker one of the films used to show how far the movies had gotten from the original concept. At the same time, the film managed to keep the scenes in space believable. The assault on Drax’s space station had no artificial gravity until a tech gets the station to spin again. Outside the station, the battle is in micro-gravity, allowing for three-dimensional movement.
While the desire to pull in the science fiction fan is there, the other problem that the film had was the change in times between 1955 and 1979. The Arms Race was well in gear in 1955, but in 1979, everyone involved was looking at the dangers of mutually assured destruction. The Strategic Arms Limitations Talks, or SALT, were an attempt to scale back arsenals without completely losing the ability for self-defense. SALT I occured in 1967, SALT II in 1972. Having Britain expand nuclear capability in the film would’ve been jarring to the audience at the time. Changed the Moonraker project from ballistic missile to one man’s desire to restart humanity moved the danger out of the Cold War and into supervillainy.
Bernard Lee made his last appearance as M in the movie. He passed away in 1981 before filming started for For Your Eyes Only. Richard Kiel’s Jaws is the first heavy to make a second appearance in a 007 film. He first appeared in the previous 007 movie, The Spy Who Loved Me and was an unstoppable force then. Jaws is also the only heavy to ever switch sides and help Bond, with the help of Dolly, who didn’t meet Drax’s standards for perfection. Shirley Bassey returns for the third time to sing the theme song.
Among the music in the film are shout-outs to a couple of key science fiction films. Also sprach Zarathrusta, Opus 30 by Richard Strauss was originally used in 2001: A Space Odyssey at the beginning, when the Monolith is shown. The other film reference is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with the four notes used by the aliens to initiate first contact with Earth.
One thing that didn’t make it into the movies is Bond’s drug use. It’s not that Bond regularly shoots up heroin. Instead, he takes advantage of pharmaceutical aid provided by the Service. In Moonraker, he requested Benzedrine, an amphetamine, which he then washes down with champagne. His goal was to come across as inebriated and bold while playing bridge with M against Drax. The combination, not recommended, leads to Bond getting far too overconfident. In “The Living Daylights”, Bond uses stimulants to remain alert while on counter-sniper duty, then using sedatives in order to sleep. While he only uses the drugs while on assignment, the extremes he reaches is aiding his burnout and PTSD. Moonraker also has Bond reading about the dangers of a “murder drug” in use in Japan and the dangers of marijuana. Today, the dissonance would be intentional, but in 1955, Fleming may not have been aware of the mixed messages.
One detail from the novel that has gotten lost in the films is the nature of the 00 section. The novel mentions the three agents under M, with Bond having seniority. The other two, 008 and 0011, were both recovering from injuries in the line of duty. Fleming didn’t get into details, but the implication seems to be that there were six prior 00 agents that have since moved on, either through promotion or death.
The movie is filled with double entendres. While Holly Goodhead’s name isn’t quite on par with Goldfinger‘s Pussy Galore or Diamonds Are Forever‘s Plenty O’Toole, the movie more than makes up for it in other ways. Q may have had the best double entendre at the end, with “He’s attempting re-entry, sir.“
The nature of the passage of time is the main factor in the differences between the novel and the movie. Both Moonrakers are a product of their times, with the movie taking advantage of technology that wasn’t even dreamt of when the novel was first released. The further the franchise gets from the years immediately after World War II, the more James Bond becomes a relic of the time. Updating the character and the franchise is needed with each new movie, while still keeping close to the core of the character. It’s a difficult line to walk, and the film may have strayed a little too far.