After a year and change of silence, we now have a release date for Bond 25 (8th November, 2019, probably a week or two earlier in the UK) and a James Bond (Saint Blue Eyes himself, Daniel Craig). It will be a while before we start to get more details like a director or a cast. But as with all movies, before all those pieces can be in place, there must be a story – which is where the challenge begins.
After the less-than-stellar response to Spectre, the James Bond franchise is back in familiar territory: having its relevance questioned. A cursory look through critical notices and fan consensus picks out the return to formula, the lack of character development and the bungled attempt to jump on the ‘shared universe’ trend. The overall impression is that the series – at least under Daniel Craig’s stewardship – has had its day.
This is a recurring theme with the series: With one film the franchise is celebrated for its ability to adapt with the times (GoldenEye, Casino Royale), the next brushed off as a tired retread (Tomorrow Never Dies) or an un-inspired trend-follower (License To Kill, Quantum Of Solace).
With the last three Bonds (Dalton, Brosnan and Craig), their best movie is always their first one. When people think of Dalton, they generally turn to The Living Daylights as his highpoint, ditto Brosnan with GoldenEye and Craig with Casino Royale. Why these movies work and their successors don’t boils down to one thing: ‘Why is James Bond relevant?’
With a new Bond, the filmmakers cannot rest on their laurels. With no established Bond, they have to justify why this actor is James Bond. More specifically, their debut movie is generally based around making the case for a new Bond at the point in time when the movie is released.
With a character as long-lived as Bond, it is a question that will never stop getting asked. As with all long-lived fictional characters what Bond started out as and what he represents needs to be examined and revised in order to remain contemporary.
When Bond was created, the Cold War had only just begun, and Britain was slowly coming to the realisation that it was no longer a world power. Bond was Fleming’s answer to this national decline. The character was also a contemporary re-working of the literary tradition of English gentlemen-spies created by writers like John Buchan and Sapper. Characters like Buchan’s Richard Hannay (The 39 Steps) and Sappers’ ‘Bulldog’ Drummond took part in adventures in which they protected England from evil foreign agents that sought to destroy it.
Epitomized by Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, these villains reflected the air of xenophobia running through the Empire’s involvement with other powers and cultures: the Crimean war against the Russians, the interventions in China, and the rise of Germany as a threat to British power.
Fleming’s James Bond perpetuated this fear of the Other, creating a rogues gallery that exemplified a variety of horrific stereotypes about people of mixed race (Mr. Big, Dr No) and anyone who did not share Bond’s overt heterosexuality (the gay gunmen Wint and Kidd; the psychopathic lesbian Rosa Klebb; the pansexual Scaramanga). To further delineate his hero from his foes, Fleming gave his villains various physical impairments, injuries and disabilities (Mr. Big’s greyish skin; Hugo Drax’s overbite and scars; Oddjob’s cleft palate).
In the transition to the screen, and in the 55 years since the first movie’s release in 1962, the character of Bond and the context around him (basically the his relationship with women, and the nature of the threats that he faces) has changed to maintain the franchise’s popular appeal. The villains have lost most of their more overt racist and homophobic elements (effectively reduced to white Europeans since the ’80s), while the end of the Cold War has further separated the cinematic Bond from his origins.
The changes to Bond himself became more evident as the series moved further away from the books. Roger Moore’s iteration leaned into the comic aspects of the character, moving further away from the introspective misanthrope of the books. When Timothy Dalton became Bond, the character was updated to become (briefly) monogamous, to reflect changing sexual attitudes in the shadow of AIDS. Brosnan’s debut concerned itself with defining Bond’s purpose in relation to the end of the Cold War and modern feminism. When Daniel Craig became Bond, the emphasis was shifted to redefining Bond in relation to contemporary threats (the relationship between terrorism and capitalist excess through the organization Quantum) and, more significantly, questioning the motives behind Bond’s familiar behavior.
With these three examples, their debut movies were basically designed around answering the question of Bond’s relevance. One of the big reasons that most of their respective follow-ups failed to catch fire is because that question was dropped. Once the filmmakers have a success, they give up trying to come up with a good story and always end up going back to the old playbook. Making a movie is hard. Making a great movie is nigh-on impossible. The additional difficulty with making a Bond movie is the temptation to follow the established formula.
Skyfall, the one follow-up that has broken through, is the one time in recent history that the filmmakers have made a deliberate attempt to come up with a story that directly addressed the question of what Bond’s place is in the modern world. It suffers a bit from fidelity to outdated conventions (the subplot with Severine being the most egregious), but it at least tries to use its callbacks to the series’s history for a thematic purpose (affirming Bond’s place in the modern world). Spectre doubled-down on the homage, but unlike Skyfall, the return to formula was not greeted with the same adulation.
Because the filmmakers behind Spectre decided to take Bond’s relevance for granted and follow the traditional formula. Most of the critical reception for Spectre called the film ‘tired’ and formulaic’. Formula can only get you so far, particularly when you dealing with a character like Bond: Why should viewers care about this guy who is more concerned with the quality of his martini than other people?
The best Bond movies find a way to give this character enough shades of an interior life that he becomes more than just the cool guy with all the women, gadgets and the cars.
In his articles on BirthMoviesDeath about the Bond series, Film Crit Hulk notes that the appeal of the franchise is based on ‘indulgence’, a fantasy of gadgets, cars, violence and sex. The key to making a good Bond movie is finding a way to pepper these elements into a story, without these elements constituting the ‘story’. It’s the reason why a movie like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service continues to gain an audience while Octopussy does not. And one of the key elements to cracking a Bond story is figuring out how this guy fits into the modern world.
That question has clearly bedevilled the creatives. Before they signed on to crack the story for Bond 25, veteran Bond scribes Robert Wade and Neal Purvis were quoted expressing doubts about what a James Bond movie could be in a post-Trump/Brexit world. And that is good to hear.
The fact is that when you are dealing with a character with a history like Bond’s, you need to be aware of its original context, and how you should go adapting that character to a more contemporary one (it is the same problem that the makers of The Legend Of Tarzan faced). There is no set way to go about this, and there are plenty of ways the filmmakers can go about answering this question.
The most important thing that they base their entire process around trying to answer that question. Because if they can crack that, we all win.