License Up for Renewal: Where Does James Bond Go Next?

The 007 series has come to a crossroads.

Warning: this article contains Spectre spoilers…and they start right away.

At the end of Spectre, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is faced with a choice. He’s standing on a bridge, pointing a gun at arch-enemy Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), with M (Ralph Fiennes) at one end and new love Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux) at the other. The implication is clear: kill Blofeld, remain a cold-blooded assassin and head back to MI6, or let his nemesis live, throw down his weapon and head off in the direction of love and, possibly, some sort of humanity.

Bond chooses the latter, although the film’s finale is somewhat ambiguous: is he leaving MI6 for good, or just taking off on a well-deserved and perhaps extended holiday, this time with the woman he has come to care for along for the ride instead of drowning in a submerged elevator like his last great lady love, Vesper Lynd, did? We’ll find out for sure in Bond 25, due out most likely in 2019.

If you ask me, I don’t think Bond is leaving his job entirely. At the very least, he’ll step out for a while. But the indefinite way in which Spectre ends is a reflection of where the Bond franchise itself now stands, 53 years and two dozen official movies in. Spectre was heralded as a return to a more traditional style of Bond film, with more gadgets, more humor and of course the comeback of 007’s classic enemies in the title organization and its leader. But it was also filtered through the grittier tone and continuity of the previous three films starring Craig, with results that are still being debated by fans and critics.

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So where does Bond go from here? Let’s start with casting.

I Can See Daniel Waving Goodbye

Is Craig done? Comments made by him early in the press tour seemed to indicate that he would rather have his eyes gouged out than appear in another 007 adventure. But the question that was posed to him multiple times — do you want to make another one? — was frankly unfair. He literally just finished working on Spectre, which by all accounts was a long and grueling shoot, especially for its star. Being asked right after completing the job if you want to go back for more — well, how much do you enjoy talking about work when you get home at night?

Personally, I think Craig will be back for a fifth and final turn, if only so he can have bragging rights over Pierce Brosnan and his quartet of capers, and be third in line behind legends Connery (six films, plus one unofficial one) and Moore (seven outings). He stands to make a lot of money from a fifth film, and surely he’s noticed that his other starring vehicles like Cowboys and Aliens and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have not exactly busted the box office. Bond 25 will provide the final touches on a nice little nest egg for our tormented hero.

As for Bond after Craig leaves…it’s almost pointless to theorize about it. All the talk of Idris Elba and Damian Lewis means nothing if Eon Productions locks up Craig for another movie. Three years from now, we can talk again, and see what hot new British star becomes the favorite for the role. Either way, as several Bond historians have noted, the first film or two starring the next Bond will either carry over some of the tone, story elements and style of the pictures starring the last actor or veer in the complete opposite direction.

So what will Craig’s next and last Bond outing look like?

You Only Live Thrice

With a different director for sure (Sam Mendes is done) and all the classic Bond elements firmly settled in place (more or less), what story will Bond 25 tell?

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There’s one obvious way for it to begin: While Bond is off frolicking with Madeline, Blofeld will escape captivity, track down the happy couple and murder Madeline in cold blood. In other words, the great downbeat ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — where Bond’s wife Tracy was killed right after they were married — will be the template for the first act of Bond 25, with the rest of the film centered around Bond’s quest for revenge and MI6’s attempts to keep at least some sort of leash on him.

That, as diehard Bond aficionados know, is also loosely the plot of Ian Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice (1964), the author’s second to last 007 novel and the last published before his death. The 1967 movie, with its volcano lair, Bond’s autogyro and rocket-swallowing spacecraft, bears little resemblance to Fleming’s dour, melancholy tale: only the Japanese setting and a few characters made the transition to the screen. The plot of the book, with some enhancements and expansion, could form the spine of the next Bond film since so little of it was used in the original movie. And there’s a great new name ready-made for it as well: Shatterhand, which is the alias that Blofeld uses while hiding in Japan.

If you ask me, this is a decent and even elegant way to tie up the Craig series, in which our hero has been so ambivalent about his job and his role in the world. Have him lose his new love, plumb the depths of his soul, seek out revenge and come out of it a freshly renewed agent, ready to get back to work for MI6 — and this time for good. It might make a nice way for Craig to say goodbye, and provide a perfect hand-off point for Bond Number Seven. And then what?

License Renewed

There is one school of thought that says Eon Productions, the company behind the Bond films since 1962, will eventually begin remaking the older films in the series (they long ago exhausted all the Fleming tales except for a handful of short stories). It seems like an easy way to go: the marketing is built in, the stories are already there and they can be just different enough from the original movies — perhaps incorporating elements from the books that were left out the first time around — to avoid being carbon copies. Certainly our quasi-remake of You Only Live Twice described above fits that bill. Re-imaginings of Dr. No, Goldfinger, From Russia With Love and Live and Let Die are not beyond the realm of possibility, with a new Bond leading the fight.

The filmmakers can also keep coming up with wholly original stories, as they’ve done going back to The Spy Who Loved Me (Craig’s debut, Casino Royale, was the notable exception to this, being faithful to the novel in many ways), or they can go in another direction entirely: they can mine the 25 Bond novels written since Fleming’s death, starting with 1968’s Colonel Sun (written by Kingsley Amis) and featuring some 14 books written by John Gardner between 1981 and 1996, another six penned by Raymond Benson and four more published in the last few years by four different authors (all have been commissioned by Ian Fleming’s estate).

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Opinions on the post-Fleming books veer all over the map, but titles like 2008’s Devil May Care (by Sebastian Faulks) and a number of the Gardner books (like For Special Services) seem to have become fan favorites over the years. Is there any reason for Eon to not adapt them? It probably comes down to money: both the authors (or their estates) and the Fleming estate would clearly need to get paid for the film rights, which are separate from the literary rights, and they would undoubtedly ask for a nice sum. And while Eon could probably afford to pay it, the company most likely finds it easier to hire screenwriters who deliver original scripts rather than buy the rights to a book and then find someone to adapt it.

I confess I’ve only read the 12 original Fleming novels, so I can’t speak to the quality of the later books and whether they would make good movies. But it seems to me that the producers of the 007 film series are leaving a lot of potentially useful material unexplored by not revisiting those books. Never let it be said, however, that Eon wouldn’t balk at a good suggestion. On the other hand, Bond is the company’s sole asset, so even giving up a little of that control might not be interesting to them.

There will almost certainly be a Bond movie in 2019, and then more after that. Different actors, different directors, different tones…and even with the basic formula the same after all these years, there’s still a lot of room to take the character to a few new places. He’s James Bond; he remains kind of the same as he ever was, 53 years later, but just like he did at the end of Spectre, he always has a choice.