Bond Movies Catch up to Books in Quality After a Mere 50 Years

In James Bond, Movies on November 13, 2012 at 2:33 am

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond 007 film series, and while I have identified myself as a serious James Bond nerd, and I loved this year’s film, Skyfall, I have always had very mixed feelings about secret agent James Bond.

When I was a kid, I hated his movies. I thought they were stupid, that Bond was a smarmy jerk whose entire purpose was to get laid and make corny jokes while killing people. While this was the reason a lot of people believed Bond was cool, he reminded me too much of the bullies that harassed me throughout junior high, high school, and later. He was kind of a killer frat boy for the British government. And this is not even to mention how absurd and cartoonish his adventures became. Dick Tracy was grittier and more realistic than some of Roger Moore’s Bond films.*

However, I’ve always been interested in cultural icons and popular mythology and so out of curiosity I read Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale, when I was a teenager. Through Fleming’s writing and characterization, I suddenly found James Bond intensely fascinating.

The main difference between Book Bond and Movie Bond is that Book Bond, while being an intensely dangerous individual, was undeniably vulnerable: physically, psychologically, emotionally. By contrast, Movie Bond was an invulnerable super-hero. Nothing phased him, not the violence that he doled out or was directed at him, not any physical encounter with any number of women, and not the constant death of those women either. **

Book Bond did not enjoy violence. He was effective at executing it, but he didn’t make witty remarks after killing someone. In fact, at the beginning of the book Goldfinger, he’s getting drunk in an airport bar to drown his depression over having killed an assailant at the end of what should have been a bloodless mission. He was also not immune to the violence inflicted upon him. In Casino Royale, Bond considers leaving MI6, not because he’s fallen in love (which is what the movie heavily implies) but because his near-death-by-torture has him rethinking his ability to handle the danger of espionage. This also has him rethinking the ethics of “The Great Game”. The fact that he’s fallen for Vesper is another nudge towards resignation, instead of being his prime motivation.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I think Book Bond is a wonderful human being, just a three-dimensional one, especially in comparison to Movie Bond. His author, Ian Fleming, didn’t see Bond as a role model by any stretch of the imagination. In a letter to his editor, Fleming wrote “I had become increasingly surprised to find that … young people were making a hero out of James Bond.”*** So Fleming decided to write The Spy Who Loves Me as a cautionary tale to show how “Bond himself is in fact no better than the gangsters [he fights in the story]”. If Bond’s a hero at all then he is a classical, not a modern, one: powerful but very flawed. And while his exploits make for entertaining reading, he is definitely not someone to be admired or emulated.

Skyfall is so good because the filmmakers bring this vulnerability and gritty, flawed heroism to the core of Movie Bond. It is easily the best Bond film not adapted from an Ian Fleming novel. I’m still mulling over if it’s the best film in the franchise’s 50 year history. Skyfall reveals the current series of Bond films starring Daniel Craig to be a serious reinvention of James Bond in much the same way the BBC TV series Sherlock updates Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In both franchises, the technology and time period have been brought to the 21st Century, but what’s essential about the character is kept intact.

Director Sam Mendes also does with Skyfall what he does best. While this is definitely an action-thriller with plenty of stunts, sex, and violence, Mendes weaves in a subtext that places Bond in a contemporary family drama turned on its ear (ala his previous work: American Beauty, Six Feet Under, Road to Perdition). Though the film’s plot is concerned with retrieving a hard drive containing a list of undercover MI6 agents, underneath it all M, played by Judi Dench, is the strict mother and Bond is the rebellious son. The family, AKA The British Secret Service, is already in trouble at the story’s beginning and then events shake them up further and they find they must come together and reconcile or be destroyed by the coming crisis.

I do still have my mixed feeling about James Bond and our fandom around his adventures. What does his popularity say about our beliefs around masculinity and macho in our culture, the glamorization of government extra-legal powers in espionage fiction, our respect for violence as a sign of strength? I have so much more I could say about Bond, and I probably will. However, for now I will acknowledge that I am happier than I have been previously about the state of the James Bond films if Skyfall is any indication for the future.

*I’m not even making a joke here. Read Dick Tracy vs. Mrs. Pruneface and then watch The Spy Who Loved Me or Moonraker  and tell me which was less ridiculous.

**Yes, there’s the exception of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but it’s considered a minor footnote in the history of Movie Bond, as opposed to a defining characteristic.

***Source: James Bond: The Man and His World by Henry Chancellor

  1. SKYFALL is definitely one of the best Bond films and Daniel Craig has become my favorite Bond. Since that the latest Bond films are considered a reboot of the series, I’d be happy if they decided to re-adapt some of the novels for Craig’s Bond.

  2. […] I’ve said enough about Skyfall in another blog so I’ll just link you to that here. […]

  3. Granted, I have not seen many Bond films and I have read zero Fleming novels. But I love the grit that Daniel Craig brings to Bond. I imagine if Bond had cognizance of his multiple reincarnations he would find himself hulking over a toilet trying to retch out any Pierce Brosnan (worse still if someone were to hand him a copy of Mama Mia). Maybe that’s taking it too far. But from Casino Royale’s “First Kill” sequence (The second is easier. Considerably… Or something along those lines) you realize that this man is human and he has always been human. Skyfall reminds you that he will always be human.

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