As Opposed to Fleming: James Bond Films

An explosion; someone gets shot: they fall down a cliff. Action, chaos, shooting, a man whose face we cannot see; voices, shouting. A chase is in progress, a “thing” has been captured by the man with no face. He races away, avoids being shot, and does something impossible, like bungee jumping off a cloud. The people – men – who had been chasing him pull to a stop, aghast. A Union Jack appears; the man suddenly has both a face, and sex with a passing woman. The man is James Bond, 007.

Cut to randomly spicy credits sequence, featuring very many nudie ladies. Once the ladies have been seen enough, and have stopped cavorting, we return to the real world. Actually, a version of London no one has ever experienced. Bond receives a mission, some conveniently useful technology, not enough information to do his job, and is sent off to a series of glamorous locations around the world.

In the course of his adventure, Bond will have sex with many women, often against their will, and he will kill a number of men, in order to access the final confrontation with the madman of the week. He will also evade every single bullet fired in his direction, and drink his own bodyweight in raw grain alcohol. He will complete his mission, at great personal cost, and have sex with another woman.

When I think of watching a Bond film, this is the scenario which comes to inhabit my mind. And I am a Bond aficionado: I know who the women are and why they are important; I know who the villains are and what their plans amount to; I understand the difference between M and Frederick Grey. Yet.

Yet the films follow a standard plot, established in the 1960s: fine dining, glamorous locations, sex and violence. Every film claims to be darker than ever before, but they all have the same storyline. Ian Fleming would not recognise this one iota, and he contributed to making a number of the films.

It’s not that Fleming would not recognise formula; his books were written to a precision the like of which a metronome would be rightly proud. Umberto Eco’s analysis of Flemings plot structure lays the methodology bare, with pinpoint accuracy, but that is far beyond the purpose of this post.

That is our notions of who James Bond is. His physical description bears as little resemblance on screen to on paper as to receive no comment. However, his behaviour and his motivation are of some concern to me: James Bond was never a womaniser, and he never killed just because someone sat between him and his mission objectives: he cared for the women, loved them, and hated to kill.

Sex and violence sells, we all know that. Hence, the Bond character of cinema had to succumb to the pleasures of the flesh as frequently as often, whether carousing with or killing his opposite numbers. So far so business-minded: it is always a good idea to give audiences what they seem to want to see.

However, that has resulted in a fundamental distortion of the Bond we find in our collective mind’s eye; a warping of the character so great that when he does actually behave in character, we do not understand why. He opts not to sleep with a woman he meets; he refuses to kill a henchman. This does not compute, but largely because we view Bond through this filter of a murderous womanizer.

This is felt to have created an expectation amongst viewers which has to be fulfilled in order for the franchise to remain profitable. If Daniel Craig doesn’t kill, screw and take his top off, it is thought we will turn our back on Bond forever. I doubt this. If the Bond films were well-written, well-made, well-thought-out films, following a spy uncovering grand schemes of international impropriety, I still think they would continue to make myriad fortunes, on name recognition alone. However, the artificial has set in, and the stereotype holds. No risks can be taken with such a well-worn / worn out formula.

Simplicity sells, we all know that. Hence, the Bond stories of the cinema have had to conform to the easy narratives of the times in which they are set: we are the good guys; there is an enemy which we are bound to confront. In the cold war era that led to an easy formula: there was a real enemy, with an unnecessarily complicated and convoluted bureaucratic structure: this allowed numerous mad men free reign to concoct mad plans; mad plans which were a catastrophic risk to lives in the West.

It was never true, but it shaped our view of the Soviet military industrial complex in a way that felt so very comfortable. Fleming had the bad guys using the existing world power structures from time to time, but his villains were largely private individuals: from former British servicemen, to a variety of organised criminals. Even SPECTRE had absolutely no real connection with any state apparatus.

Our world is a complex place, where there is no monolithic enemy, only cadres of murderers, a web of infinitely repeating death. We no longer feel quite so comfortable. This has led to the Bond films implementing a series of complicated plots, so convoluted that even the most die-hard fan finds hard to accurately convey with any self-respect. Usually, however, business wants to kill you. Badly.

Bond in the novels was a well-travelled sleuth, with tastes based never on snobbery, but on a deep understanding of how food and drink works: He felt that a poor drink could be improved no end by a good seltzer; he didn’t just pour vodka down his neck. He was weather-beaten and time-served. He had simple tastes, but required that they were catered to perfectly. He worked hard to be the best.

Bond in the films is a gun attached to a penis. He favours the ostentatious opulence of the people for whom “more expensive” is the defining parameter of “better”. He is pilloried for any diversion from the tropes with which he is inextricably attached. He is of sufficient youth to indicate glamour over experience. He is seen to achieve all of his goals, including his physical prowess, by happenstance.

I have no issue with people writing James Bond off as an historical anachronism: he is precisely that. The novels are historical documents, written in and documenting a short period in British history. The films are throwbacks to a time of male white dominance over all, where a film was assumed to need a catchy song to maximise on its exposure. The films are a catalogue of brutality and betrayal, all shot through with a nostalgia which I feel that Ian Fleming would have found very distasteful.