Moonraker is a sort of oddity among the James Bond novels written by Ian Fleming. For one thing, our villain, Hugo Drax, isn’t viewed by Bond to be a true antagonist until the third act of the book. For another, the love interest isn’t a paper thin husk that succumbs to Bond’s charms immediately and spends the rest of the narrative clinging to him like a lifeless parasite. Fleming’s female characters didn’t tend to get any sort of development of their own, but Gala Brand diverts from the path with gusto.
At the same time, Moonraker is quintessential Bond in so many other ways. The first section of the novel is spent with Bond and M playing a game of bridge with Hugo Drax and a luxurious English country club in an attempt to undermine the man’s suspected cheating habit. The tense back and forth of the gambling scenes are so fervently Bond-ian in nature that it is somewhat hard to keep in mind that this is only the third outing for the character. These moments have been played with in the film world of the character so much that it is hard to disassociate high-stakes games of chance from James Bond in any incarnation.
The rest of the story reads like a detective pulp. Bond is assigned to investigate a strange murder case that skirts Drax’s operation in developing a missle defense system called the Moonraker that Britain’s government is heavily invested in. Bond infiltrates the organization and soon finds himself surrounded by suspicious characters and attempts on his life. The book culminates with a fantastically written car chase that gives us a little insight into why James Bond is such a fantastic wheelman (apparently he has a fascination with the racing world, name dropping references to Le Mans and the Nurburgring) and a finale that has Bond willing to sacrifice his life for the good of his country. It really is one of the better Bond stories I have read.
Compare this to the film version, which is all sorts of dreadful. Hugo Drax, such an extravagant and overpowering villain in the novel, is reduced to almost an afterthought. None of the elements of the book make it into the movie aside from using Drax’s name. Brand is replaced by Holly Goodhead, who is a competent female sidekick in her own right, but the dynamic between herself and Bond doesn’t resonate the way Brand and Bond do in the novel.
Honestly, this is one of the top tier Bond novels and it translated into one of the most ridiculous of the film adaptations. If you did not like the film, and I suspect many fall into that category, I implore you to read the book and find yourself pleasantly surprised.