Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen

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As Dr No returns to cinemas nationwide this weekend, Mark looks back at the troubled development of the first 007 film, almost 60 years ago.

This feature contains mild spoilers for 1962’s Dr No and 2022’s The Duke.

“World domination. That same old dream.”

Dr No is not the first James Bond novel, and nor was it Ian Fleming’s first attempt to bring Bond to the screen. Based on the author’s sixth 007 novel, the film brought the literary phenomenon of Bond to a global filmgoing audience, as well as making a movie star out of Sean Connery.

It’s also a very different James Bond film from most of those that followed. Dr No and the following year’s From Russia With Love are neither as close to the dynamite Bond formula minted by the third instalment, Goldfinger, nor as comfortable as that film’s successors are repeating it. Inevitably though, it hits on some iconography and character archetypes that have stuck around through all 25 Bond films to date.


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One of the things that sets Dr No apart is that it’s the only film made when Bond’s glamorous brand of post-empire British exceptionalism was a truly unproven quantity at the box office, and it had the budget and production difficulties to match that early status. From Fleming’s extensive attempts to drum up interest in screen adaptations to the scepticism of its eventual stakeholders, the film’s box-office success was by no means a sure thing, and nor was the franchise that followed.

October marks the 60th anniversary of Dr No, and this weekend not only sees the return of the first Bond movie to VUE and Odeon cinemas nationwide but also the entire 25-film catalogue streaming for Prime Video subscribers for the first time.

Whether you’re watching the film for the first time this weekend, or you know it like the back of the title character’s metal hand, here’s the story of the first Bond movie’s long road to the screen…


No deal

Published as a novel in 1958, Dr No was initially devised as a story treatment for American TV producers. While Fleming saw cinema as a more lucrative medium, which would come with rights royalties and, in turn, drive sales of his novels and thus appealed to him enormously. By all accounts, he was not shy about wanting to monetise his writings.

However, the sexual and violent content of the bestselling Bond stories made a screen version a hard sell at the time. These bits certainly helped the books become popular internationally, as well as in Britain, but including them in a film or TV show was a different story. And so, most Hollywood studios deemed the source material either “too blatantly sexual” or simply “too British”.

The first Bond novel, 1952’s Casino Royale, had already been adapted for US TV network CBS, as a 1954 episode of the anthology series Climax!, starring Barry Nelson as “Jimmy” Bond and the great Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. This hour-long adaptation was tailored for American audiences, losing much of the source novel’s sex and violence but focusing on the gambling intrigue.

With his pitch for Dr No, Fleming anticipated and capitalised upon the growing Jamaican tourism industry. When it didn’t garner any interest from studios or television networks, he adapted it into a new novel, as was a habit with various unfilmed screen stories.

He would do the same with 1960’s For Your Eyes Only, a short-story collection based on treatments with titles like From A View To A Kill and Quantum Of Solace, and 1961’s Thunderball, a novel he adapted from an unproduced screenplay for a Bond film. As has been extensively chronicled elsewhere, Fleming’s fateful decision to use this story without crediting his co-writers Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham kicked off a decades-long legal copyright battle, including franchise staples such as SPECTRE and Blofeld.

Critics disliked Fleming’s books, especially Dr No, for many of the same reasons they were growing increasingly popular – the sex, the violence, and the pulpy adventure. Meanwhile, in June 1961, Fleming got the movie deal he was angling for – Canadian film producer Harry Saltzman paid the author $50,000 for the screen rights to all published and future James Bond stories barring Casino Royale and Thunderball, both of which were tied up with different stakeholders.

Having originally thought to adapt Thunderball first, Saltzman immediately tasked writer Johanna Harwood with providing coverage to determine which of Fleming’s stories would be most suitable and affordable choice for the first film in the planned series.

Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond 
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake

They decided on Dr No, which didn’t have too many expensive set pieces, and was mostly set in Jamaica, which was at that time a British territory, and thus came with additional tax credits for film productions. Furthermore, they considered its villain’s unusually topical scheme, messing about with American rockets launched from Cape Canaverel, might appeal to US audiences, much as Fleming had when he included it after reading headlines about the space race.

Towards the end of the six-month option period, Saltzman partnered with Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who had previously made an unsuccessful bid for the rights, and the pair got working on Dr No under the banner of the newly formed Eon Productions.

The first draft of the script came from screenwriters Wolf Mankowitz (who introduced Saltzman and Broccoli) and Richard Maibaum (who would write on the Bond series all the way up to 1989’s Licence To Kill. In a radical departure from the novel, they changed the title character into a marmoset, which the real villains used to manipulate the locals from their island lair. Having spent all that money on optioning the book, the producers weren’t impressed, and they insisted on a new draft.

It fell to Harwood to write a more faithful second draft that was later rewritten by thriller novelist Berkely Mather. Though her contribution to the Bond movies at this early stage has only been appreciated in recent years, Harwood is notably the only female screenwriter to be credited on a Bond movie until Phoebe Waller-Bridge on last year’s No Time To Die.

In no small part due to President John F. Kennedy’s recommendation of Fleming’s From Russia With Love in a 1961 interview with TIME Magazine, Bond’s worldwide brand was growing all the time. United Artists’ head honcho Arthur Krim was close to the President. He’d also overseen the opening of the studio’s London office in 1961 and had previously worked with Broccoli.

Some combination of these factors finally led to a seven-picture deal being struck. Most pressingly though, the budget for Dr No was set at…


“One MILLION dollars!”

There’s a memorable joke in Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery is about how a million dollars doesn’t go as far in the 1990s as it did in the 1960s. Even adjusted for inflation, it pales with the reported $250m+ budget of No Time To Die. It was a big gamble for United Artists too, but next to what the producers had in mind for Bond, it was hardly a mega-budget back then either.

Still, UA was reluctant to go ahead without an established star playing 007, which proved difficult on a relatively slim casting budget. Broccoli and Saltzman favoured Bond fan Cary Grant for the lead role, but the 55-year-old star was deemed too expensive. Furthermore, when asked, Grant didn’t want to sign a multi-picture deal, which the producers felt was crucial to the series’ success.

Other big names who were considered included Patrick McGoohan, David Niven, and Roger Moore (we’ll come back to him) but Eon eventually wound up having to insist on the less well-known Sean Connery. Krim and the UA executives were sceptical of Connery’s screen test, but Broccoli and Saltzman eventually got their man, signing him up for a five-picture deal.

The cast also included Joseph Wiseman as Dr No, Bernard Lee as M, Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, Eunice Gayson as first Bond girl Sylvia Trench, and of course, Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder. Not a starry cast, but as mentioned, there wasn’t a big budget. For context, Andress was only paid £1,500 for her role as Honey, while the ivory hipster bikini that costume designer Tessa Prendergast created for her iconic entrance scene sold for £41,125 at auction in 2001.

British director Terence Young had worked with both Connery and Broccoli before and was selected to make the first Bond picture. Along with other key members of the crew, he’s credited with many of the tonal and stylistic aspects of the series that have endured to this day, starting with giving his star a “Bond finishing school” by taking him to tailors and restaurants ahead of shooting.

Production started Jamaica in January 1962, not far from Fleming’s estate, Goldeneye, (we’ll come back to that too!). The shoot was also disrupted by poor weather and technical problems, meaning that location filming concluded with some footage unfilmed.

The rest of principal photography took place in Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, latterly known as the home turf for 007 productions, with a comparatively paltry budget of £20,500 (£6,000 of which came out of the producers’ own pockets) for production designer Ken Adam to create Dr No’s base, a nuclear reactor room, and various other sets. In one case, the use of magnified aquarium footage as an actual aquarium was ingeniously covered by a quick rewrite, incorporating Bond and No’s verbal sparring about “minnows pretending they’re whales”.

As readers who’ve recently seen 2022’s The Duke will know, there was also a nice topical touch for British audiences, where Bond spots Goya’s “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington” displayed in Dr No’s lair. The painting was stolen while on exhibition at London’s National Gallery in 1961 and its whereabouts were the subject of intense press speculation. As well as telling the unbelievable true story behind the theft, The Duke features a cinema trip to see Dr No, where Connery double-takes at seeing Adam’s reproduction of the stolen artwork.

Shooting wrapped in March 1962, over budget and over schedule, which led to a harried post-production, with the film’s financiers providing additional funding to complete it. Associate producer Stanley Sopel, who took a hand in post-production, once boasted that they’d made a $5m picture for $1.2m.

All due credit for that goes to editor Peter R. Hunt, whose use of quick cuts, combined with Norman Wanstall’s sound design, gives the film some much-needed tempo and style, as well as covering up some of the cost efficiencies of this first outing.

Another crucial post-production addition was Maurice Binder’s opening title design, starting with the gun-barrel sequence, which recurs in some form in every single Bond film that Eon has made to date, and rolling right into the animated opening title sequence, heralded by Monty Norman’s iconic James Bond theme.

And oh boy, it’s impossible to overstate how much that theme does for the finished film, immediately establishing a specific tone that the franchise would only properly grow into over a longer franchise run. Many of the Bond trappings are here, present and correct, but as a consequence of that million-dollar budget, it’s the only entry that feels characterised by its small scale and simplicity.

In a televised 1965 interview, Saltzman later said of Fleming’s source material: “The books are larger than life. As a matter of fact, I think we are closer to life-size than the books are.”


World domination?

Saltzman and Broccoli screened Dr No for UA in summer 1962 and the reception was not enthusiastic. The assembled executives saw the film as a B-movie, and the head of the studio’s European operations reportedly remarked that the only good thing about it was that they wouldn’t lose a lot of money on it. In another blow, Mankowitz requested his name be removed from the writing credits after an early screening.

Undeterred, the producers went ahead with launching the film in the UK. The London premiere in October 1962 was much more warmly received than the studio screening, and in a major promotional coup, Dr No was booked at the iconic Odeon Leicester Square in London as part of its quota for showing British-made films.

007 looked set for a warmer reception on his home ground than he’d received from the US studio executives, and sure enough, Dr No had a record-breaking opening, making £69,000 in its first week. Fleming hadn’t much liked the film (or Connery’s performance in it) when he saw it either, but he changed his tune when it became a giant commercial success.

UA quickly greenlit a second Bond feature, but despite its overseas success, Dr No didn’t get the red-carpet rollout when it arrived in the United States the following May. It didn’t show in New York or Los Angeles, still the biggest launchpads for new movies in the States but was snuck out in drive-in cinemas throughout the country instead. It peaked at #42 at the US box office, but its worldwide box-office total was a cool $59 million.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Eon chose From Russia With Love, Kennedy’s favourite and a US best-seller, as the next novel to adapt. We don’t doubt that it was next on the list of easily adaptable novels though, as it’s another more straightforward spy thriller than most of the Bond films we’ve seen since.

Then again, we wonder how drastically different things might have been if Dr No had been backed by a studio that gave this the equivalent budget and heft to the more modern blockbuster entries. What if they’d been allowed to make Thunderball first as originally intended? Starring Cary Grant? Or they’d realised expensive sequences from the novel version of Dr No, like Honey being tortured by crabs, or Bond fighting a giant squid on his way to the final confrontation?

Dr No might not have taken the entire world by storm right away, but the filmmakers arguably came upon some of its most iconic and enduring choices through the necessity of being an unproven big-screen draw. Maybe an actual $5 million version of the same story might be remembered only as an expensive folly rather than a game-changing franchise starter.

Dr No is streaming on Prime Video from Friday 15th April and will also screen in select VUE and Odeon cinemas nationwide this weekend.

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