The novel was adapted in 1973 as the eighth official film in the EON Productions Bond franchise and the first to star Roger Moore as James Bond. Besides the film of the same name, major plot elements from this novel appeared in two other Bond films: For Your Eyes Only (1981) and Licence to Kill (1989).
James Bond is sent to New York City to investigate "Mr. Big", an underworld voodoo leader who is suspected by M of selling 17th century gold coins to finance Soviet spy operations in America. These gold coins have been turning up in Harlem and Florida and are suspected of being part of a treasure that was buried in Jamaica by the Welsh pirate Sir Henry Morgan. Although Bond is at first reluctant to take on the mission, his attitude quickly changes upon learning that Mr. Big is an agent of SMERSH and that this mission offers him a chance of retaliation for previously being tortured by SMERSH operative Le Chiffre and branded on his hand by a SMERSH assassin in Casino Royale.
In New York, Bond meets up with his counterpart in the CIA, Felix Leiter. The two decide to visit some of Mr. Big's nightclubs in Harlem, but Mr. Big is aware of their movements through his network of informers and they are easily captured. Bond is personally interrogated by Mr. Big, and he uses his fortune telling-girlfriend, Solitaire to determine if Bond is telling the truth. Solitaire lies to Mr. Big, supporting Bond's cover story. Mr. Big decides to release Bond and Felix with only a mild beating, but Bond escapes from the nightclub, killing several of Mr. Big's men in the process. Solitaire later contacts Bond and they travel to St. Petersburg, Florida. While Bond and Leiter are scouting one of Mr. Big's warehouses that deals in exotic fish, Solitaire is kidnapped by Mr. Big's minions. Felix later returns to the warehouse by himself, but is captured and fed to a shark. He survives, losing an arm and a leg. Bond finds him in their safe house with a note pinned to his chest "He disagreed with something that ate him". After getting Felix to the hospital, Bond investigates the warehouse himself, and discovers that Mr. Big is indeed smuggling gold by placing it in the bottom of fish tanks holding poisonous tropical fish. Bond destroys much of the warehouse and feeds the henchman who captured Felix to his own shark without leaving evidence that he has discovered the coin-smuggling scheme.
Bond continues his mission in Jamaica where he meets Quarrel and John Strangways, the head of the MI6 station in Jamaica. Quarrel gives Bond training in Scuba diving in the local waters. Bond swims through shark and barracuda infested waters to Mr. Big's island and manages to plant a limpet mine on the hull of his yacht before being captured once again by Mr. Big. In the grand finale, Mr. Big ties Solitaire and Bond to a line behind his yacht and attempts to drag them over the shallow coral reef, with the sharks and barracuda that Mr. Big regularly feeds to keep them in the area finishing them. They are saved when Bond's limpet mine explodes, destroying the yacht. Bond and Solitaire are protected from the explosion by the reef, and Bond watches as Mr. Big, who survived the explosion, is killed by the sharks and barracuda. Bond and Solitaire then stay in Jamaica for a brief holiday in the book's close.
Reaction to the novel has been mixed. Some critics have accused Fleming of barely concealed racism and ignorance regarding the general social behaviour of black people in the Caribbean and America, as for instance when he describes a room in Harlem as:
"the air was thick with smoke and the sweet, feral smell of two hundred Negro bodiesFleming uses several instances to go into great detail in describing the physical characteristics of Africans, using the word "purple" to describe those characters with darker skin tone. His writing style cannot divert attention away from his copious use of the words "nigger", "negroe" or "negress" in the novel. They are used, generally, in reference to black people and, specifically, in reference to Mr. Big. Fleming uses the words to denote people of passion who think by instinct, in contrast to Bond and other white people, whom Fleming regards as thinking by logic.
What contemporary critics deplore is Fleming's suggestion that Mr. Big's leadership qualities stem from his "French" – i.e., non-black – blood. Critics have made the inference that people with "black blood" are regarded as being biologically excluded from leadership.
However, it can be argued that Fleming did not set out to portray all black people in a negative way. For example, M states that "the negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions — scientists, doctors, writers ... They've got plenty of brains and ability and guts." Earlier, Bond generalises that they are "pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought except when they've drunk too much."
What divides critics is whether Fleming was consciously being racist or whether he unconsciously absorbed the racism prevalent in the 1950s in both England and America.
Fleming's natural English reserve has been blamed for his fumbling descriptions of sex scenes in Live and Let Die. Critics tend to agree that there is no finesse in the sex scenes and that they lack passion compared to the movie version. Bond's love making techniques are rudimentary and Fleming does not give any thought to a woman receiving any pleasure from it – instead, women are viewed as objects of pleasure to Bond.
Fleming had a tempestuous love life; he had numerous affairs even though he was married, and there were frequent accusations of sado-masochistic acts in his relationships with women. This has led critics to speculate over how much Fleming projected his own character into the figure of James Bond as Bond, too, has a dismissive attitude towards women. For instance, Bond does not desist from hitting women and his rough handed treatment of women has been noted.
Live and Let Die was Fleming's second novel, and critics have praised the development of Fleming's writing style as he gained experience as a writer. Fleming developed a technique of leaving the reader in suspense at the end of each chapter. Some critics claim that the novel's style is more mature, the language is more refined, and the plot is more taut than in Casino Royale.
The characters as portrayed in the film differ from Fleming's descriptions. Mr. Big's real name in the movie is Dr. Kananga instead of Buonaparte Ignace Gallia, and he smuggles heroin instead of gold coins from Bloody Morgan's treasure. In the novel, Baron Samedi was only a voodoo myth – people believed Mr. Big was actually Baron Samedi or perhaps his zombie. Solitaire's real name is revealed in the novel, she does not lose her virginity to Bond until after the actual events in the novel, and there is no evidence that she risks losing her psychic powers by having sex. Also, in the novel she uses regular playing cards.
Some scenes from this novel were depicted in subsequent Bond movies; for example, the keelhauling sequence was later used in the film adaptation of For Your Eyes Only, and Felix Leiter was not fed to a shark until Licence to Kill.
Live and Let Die was adapted as a daily comic strip which was published in the British Daily Express newspaper and syndicated around the world. The adaptation ran from December 15, 1958 to March 28, 1959. The story was truncated, omitting much of the detail and background information to compress the story into 15 weeks of strips, making Live and Let Die much shorter and less faithful than the previous strip Casino Royale. The adaptation was written by Henry Gammidge and illustrated by John McLusky, whose drawings of Bond had an uncanny resemblance to Sean Connery, the actor who portrayed Bond three years later. The strip was reformatted from its original cells and reprinted in full in the 1967 James Bond Annual, the only 007 strip to be reprinted in this way. Titan Books reprinted the strip in the early 1990s and again in 2005 as part of the Casino Royale collection, which is a collection of James Bond comics including Casino Royale and Moonraker.