As with the previous novels in the series, aspects of Thunderball come from Fleming's own experiences: the visit to the health clinic was inspired by his own 1955 trip to the Enton Hall health farm and Bond's medical record, as read out to him by M, is a slightly modified version of Fleming's own. The name of the health farm, Shrublands, was taken from that of a house owned by the parents of his wife's friend, Peter Quennell. Fleming dedicates a quarter of the novel to the Shrublands setting and the naturalist cure Bond undergoes.
Bond's examination of the hull of the Disco Volante was inspired by the ill-fated mission undertaken on 19 April 1956 by the ex-Royal Navy frogman "Buster" Crabb on behalf of MI6, as he examined the hull of the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze that had brought Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin on a diplomatic mission to Britain. Crabb disappeared in Portsmouth Harbour and was never seen again. As well as having Buster Crabb in mind, Fleming would also recall the information about the 10th Light Flotilla, an elite unit of Italian navy frogmen who used wrecked ships in Gibraltar to launch attacks on Allied shipping. The specifications for the Disco Volante herself had been obtained by Fleming from the Italian ship designer, Leopold Rodriguez.
As often happened in Fleming's novels, a number of names were taken from people of whom he had known. Ernst Stavro Blofeld's name partially comes from Tom Blofeld, a Norfolk farmer and a fellow member of Fleming's club Boodle's, who was a contemporary of Fleming's at Eton. Tom Blofeld's son is Henry Blofeld, a sports journalist, best known as a cricket commentator for Test Match Special on BBC Radio. Additionally, when Largo rents his beachside villa, it is from "an Englishman named Bryce", whose name was taken from Old Etonian Ivar Bryce, Fleming's friend, who had a beachside property in Jamaica called Xanadu.
Other names used by Fleming included a colleague at The Sunday Times, Robert Harling, who was transformed into Commissioner of Police Harling, whilst an ex-colleague from his stock broking days, Hugo Pitman, became Chief of Immigration Pitman and Fleming's golfing friend, Bunny Roddick, became Deputy Governor Roddick. The title Thunderball came from a conversation Fleming had about a US atomic test.
Writing and copyright
In the summer of 1958 Fleming and his friend, Ivar Bryce, began talking about the possibility of a Bond film; in the autumn of 1958 Bryce introduced Fleming to a young Irish writer and director, Kevin McClory, and the three of them, together with Fleming and Bryce's friend Ernest Cuneo, formed the partnership Xanadu Productions, named after Bryce's Bahamian home, but which was never actually formed into a company. In May 1959 Fleming, Bryce, Cuneo and McClory met first at Bryce's Essex house and then in McClory's London home as they came up with a story outline which was based on an aeroplane full of celebrities and a female lead called Fatima Blush. McClory was fascinated by the underwater world and wanted to make a film that included it. Over the next few months, as the story changed, there were ten outlines, treatments and scripts. Numerous titles were proposed for these works, including SPECTRE, James Bond of the Secret Service and Longitude 78 West.
Much of the attraction Fleming felt working alongside McClory was based on McClory's film, The Boy and the Bridge, which was the official British entry to the 1959 Venice Film Festival. However, when the film was released in July 1959, it was poorly received, and did not do well at the box office; Fleming became disenchanted with McClory's ability as a result. In October 1959, with Fleming spending less time on the project, McClory introduced experienced screenwriter Jack Whittingham to the writing process. In November 1959 Fleming left to travel around the world on behalf of The Sunday Times, material for which Fleming also used for his non-fiction travel book, Thrilling Cities. On his travels – through Japan, Hong Kong and into the US – Fleming met with McClory and Ivar Bryce in New York and McClory told Fleming that Whittingham had completed a full outline, which was ready to shoot. Back in Britain in December 1959, Fleming met with McClory and Whittingham for a script conference; shortly afterwards McClory and Whittingham sent Fleming a script, Longitude 78 West, which Fleming considered to be good, although he changed the title to Thunderball.
In January 1960 McClory visited Fleming's Jamaican home Goldeneye, where Fleming explained his intention of delivering the screenplay to MCA, with a recommendation from him and Bryce that McClory act as producer. Additionally, Fleming told McClory that if MCA rejected the film because of McClory's involvement, then McClory should either sell himself to MCA, back out of the deal, or file suit in court.
Fleming then wrote the novel Thunderball at Goldeneye over the period January to March 1960, based on the screenplay written by himself, Whittingham and McClory. In March 1961 McClory read an advance copy of the book and he and Whittingham immediately petitioned the High Court in London for an injunction to stop publication. The case was heard on 24 March 1961 and allowed the book to be published, although the door was left open for McClory to pursue further action at a later date. He did so and on 19 November 1963, the case of McClory v Fleming was heard at the Chancery Division of the High Court. The case lasted three weeks, during which time Fleming was unwell—including having a heart attack during the case itself—and, under advice from his friend Ivar Bryce, they offered a deal to McClory, settling out of court. McClory gained the literary and film rights for the screenplay, while Fleming was given the rights to the novel, although it had to be recognised as being "based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and the Author". On settlement, "Fleming ultimately admitted '[t]hat the novel reproduces a substantial part of the copyright material in the film scripts'; '[t]hat the novel makes use of a substantial number of the incidents and material in the film scripts'; and '[t]hat there is a general similarity of the story of the novel and the story as set out in the said film scripts'." On 12 August 1964, nine months after the conclusion of the trial, Fleming suffered a further heart attack and died at the age of 56.
When the script was first drafted in May 1959, with the storyline of an aeroplane of celebrities in the Atlantic, it included elements from Fleming's friend Ernie Cuneo, who included ships with underwater trapdoor in their hulls and an underwater battle scene. The Russians were originally the villains, then the Sicilian Mafia, but this was later changed again to the international organised criminal organisation, SPECTRE. Both McClory and Fleming claim to have come up with the concept of SPECTRE; Fleming biographer Andrew Lycett and John Cork both note Fleming as the originator of the group, Lycett saying that "[Fleming] proposed that Bond should confront not the Russians but SPECTRE ..." whilst Cork produced a memorandum in which Fleming called for the change to SPECTRE:
My suggestion on (b) is that SPECTRE, short for Special Executive for Terrorism, Revolution and Espionage, is an immensely powerful organisation armed by ex-members of SMERSH, the Gestapo, the Mafia, and the Black Tong of Peking, which is placing these bombs in N.A.T.O. bases with the objective of then blackmailing the Western powers for £100 million or else.Ian Fleming: memo to Whittingham and McClory
Cork also noted that Fleming used the word "spectre" previously: in the fourth novel, Diamonds Are Forever, for a town near Las Vegas called "Spectreville", and for "spektor", the cryptograph decoder in From Russia, with Love. Others, such as continuation Bond author Raymond Benson, disagree, saying that McClory came up with the SPECTRE concept.
Those elements which Fleming used which can be put down to McClory and Whittingham (either separately or together) include the airborne theft of a nuclear bomb, "Jo" Petachi and his sister Sophie, and Jo's death at the hands of Sophie's boss. The remainder of the screenplay was a two-year collaboration among Fleming, Whittingham, McClory, Bryce and Cuneo.