In books and film, the James Bond series is one of the most popular and enduring franchises ever. Bond has appeared in dozens of novels and short stories, over twenty feature films, several television series, and countless spoofs. The franchise is a testament to two things: that escapism will always sell, and that moviegoers love things they’ve seen a million times before.
Bond was created by Ian Fleming, who first published the character in his 1953 novel Casino Royale. James Bond was essentially an idealized version of Fleming himself. He had similar interests, including a great love of Jamaica. He liked the same drinks, smoked constantly, and even held the same military rank, Commander, that Fleming had held in the military. Fleming borrowed the name James Bond from an American ornithologist of the same name; the real James Bond had written a definitive book that Fleming read at his Jamaican estate of Goldeneye: Birds of the West Indies. James Bond was a plain, almost boring name that perfectly suited the secret agent who often worked in anonymity for Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Thus, the ultimate spy archetype was born.
Fleming’s publisher didn’t like Casino Royale, but the novel got published thanks to a good word put in by Peter Fleming, Ian’s older brother and an established travel writer. The novel received mixed reviews, largely because of its somewhat disjointed plot and overly long ending. But something about the character of Bond struck a chord with the readers, and it sold well. It came to America, where the title was changed to Too Hot to Handle for fear that American audiences would be turned off by the use of the foreign word “Royale.” The book sold well enough to warrant a sequel, and soon became a franchise of twelve novel-length stories and a short story collection, Octopussy and the Living Daylights (a second short story collection appeared after Fleming’s death). The royalties gave Fleming enough money to retire to Jamaica. And, in time, Hollywood came knocking.
By the early 1960s, millions of readers had fallen in love with Bond. The novel version of James Bond still didn’t have all the features that most people identify with Agent 007 today. He was intensely work-driven, much more serious, and generally careful on the job. While he was something of a playboy, he rarely mixed women and work. The wry sense of humor and reckless behavior would only come about as a result of the films. In 1962, Bond made the jump to the big screen in Dr. No.
The search for the perfect actor to play James Bond was an exhaustive one. Few actors had all of the features that Fleming’s spy needed. The perfect James Bond needed to be handsome but not so handsome to stand out. He needed t be athletic and macho but still suave and debonaire. Actors ranging from Roger Moore to Clark Gable were considered for the role. Ultimately, the studio went with a relative unknown: Sean Connery.
At the beginning, Fleming was against the casting of Connery. The 6’2” Scotsman looked too common to be a super spy. He had light feet for a large man, but was also rough and unrefined. Luckily, producer Harry Salzman took Connery under his wing and showed him how to become the smooth talking and clever James Bond. Salzman showed Connery how to dress, how to walk, and how to talk. He refined his tastes in food, drink, and women. The result was a resounding success; Connery came to define Bond to many viewers. He managed to be suave and charming, but also ruthless at times. His physical presence gave Bond an extra edge of danger; behind the tuxedo and cigarettes was a man who seemed capable of anything, both physically and mentally. Even Fleming got won over by Connery’s portrayal, and incorporated some of the movie Bond into his books. Bond’s mother was written to be of Scottish descent to make his lineage resemble Connery’s, and the character grew closer to his cinematic counterpart.
Connery went on to play Bond for the first five movies of the series: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, and You Only Live Twice. During these movies, the character continued to change thanks to Hollywood’s marketing and the dabbling of numerous writers and directors. One noteworthy change is that Bond became much less ruthless than he was in the novels and in Dr. No. Two prime examples in Dr. No of Bond being a somewhat cold-hearted person are when he shoots an unarmed man and when he delays a villainess’s arrest just long enough to have sex with her. As Bond became more of an icon, the men behind his film persona tried to make him more likable, and thus eliminated the more callous side of the character.
The early Connery films also set the stage for the Bond formula, which speaks to my second point. Over the course of many movies, people have come to expect and even rely on this formula happening. Certain things must happen a certain way for a film with James Bond in it to be considered a “Bond movie:”
- The Gun Barrel Sequence: The start of every James Bond movie features Bond walking into view from the right side of the screen. He’s being watched through a small white hole, which is revealed to be a gun barrel. At the last moment, Bond turns and fires at the would-be assassin, and the screen goes red as blood oozes over the vision of 007’s latest victim. This sequence has been in place since Dr. No. It was changed up a bit for the 21st film, Casino Royale, where the gun barrel sequence was delayed until after the first scene.
- The Opening Gambit: Bond films feature a pre-credits scene that is often unrelated to the plot of the actual movie. This scene usually depicts Bond’s last mission and often involves some wry humor.
- The Opening Credits: Bond credits are a feature in and of themselves. The Bond films are among the only films that still feature full credits before and after the movie. The opening credits features a song performed by a popular band of the time, and usually features either naked or near-naked women dancing to some very stylized scenes. It just doesn’t seem like a Bond film without the requisite pornography, does it?
- The Characters: Certain characters have become standards in Bond films. There’s M, Bond’s employer, who, like Bond himself, has undergone many changes in actors. The only time this change was really mentioned was when Judy Dench came into the role during Goldeneye, where her role as a female M who disliked the chauvinistic Bond showed that times were changing. Even that bit of continuity has become fuzzy, though, as the franchise’s prequel/reboot, Casino Royale, featured Judy Dench as the first M. Other characters include Miss Moneypenny, M’s secretary, who Bond constantly flirts with. Although it is sometimes hinted otherwise, Moneypenny seems to have the distinction of being one of the only women in the world that Bond hasn’t slept with. There’s also Felix Leitner, a CIA agent who is essentially Bond’s American counterpart. Felix doesn’t appear in every Bond film, but has appeared enough to become an important character in the franchise. Perhaps the most beloved character in Bond’s supporting cast is Q. Usually played by the late Desmond Llewellyn, Q is MI-6’s gadget man who gives Bond all of his wonderful toys. He has appeared in every Bond film but two: Live and Let Die and Casino Royale. A common misconception is that Q doesn’t appear in Dr. No. He does, but is not played by Llewellyn. He is also not referred to as Q, but is instead called by his actual rank and name, Major Boothroy. Since Dr. No, Llewellyn played Q in virtually every Bond movie. Even as other actors changed, he continued to play the character. His last film was The World is Not Enough, where he mentioned his desire to retire and introduced his protégé, played by John Cleese. While Llewellyn was set to continue playing Q, he died in a car crash shortly after The World is Not Enough. As a result, Q’s last scene in that film becomes doubly poignant because it is essentially the actor’s swan song. Llewellyn stands as the only actor to receive a real send-off from the franchise, rather than simply being replaced by someone else playing the same character.
- Bond’s Wonderful Toys: In Dr. No, Bond’s only real gadget was his Walther PPK handgun, given to him by Major Boothroy. By From Russia With Love, Bond has such gadgets as a bulletproof briefcase, given to him by Q. From that point on, Bond’s gadgets have become more and more outlandish. Most films have a sequence early on where Q introduces the gadgets to Bond, including dental floss that doubles as piano wire, cufflinks that shoot poison darts, and a car that becomes invisible to the naked eye. Early on, these scenes were rather straightforward. In Goldeneye, though, the director suggested that Q was angry at Bond for constantly wrecking gadgets that he worked hard to create. Since then, Q has generally acted as the angry father to Bond, scolding him but also occasionally showing a side that does care about 007’s safety.
- The Bond Girls: Bond likes sex. A lot. In Dr. No, he delays the capture of a criminal so he can have sex with her first. There is at least one major “Bond girl” per movie to go with the many floozies Bond sleeps with. These Bond girls are generally strong and sexual women who initially hate 007 but eventually fall for him. Sometimes, they are also henchwomen for the evil mastermind. On several occasions, Bond’s sexual prowess has been enough to save him from some villain’s death trap. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond even gets the girl in the end after he’s confessed to killing her lover. Some notable Bond girls include Tracy Bond, who appeared in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. She has the significance of actually marrying James Bond – just before being killed by his arch-nemesis, Ernest Stavros Blofield (the cat-stroking, bald-headed psycho that Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers franchise spoofs). In Casino Royale, Bond falls in love with Vesper Lynd, and leaves MI-6 for her – shortly before she gets killed by the mysterious organization that she works for. Also, in The World is not Enough, Bond falls in love with Elektra King, who turns out to be the true villain of the film. Elektra gets the honor of being the only woman that Bond has ever killed directly. If you haven’t noticed, Bond films generally adhere to this rule: it’s okay to sleep with Bond, but if he falls in love with you, you’re going to die.
- The Bond Villain: Often taking a backseat to Bond’s sexy women, cool cars, and sci-fi gadgets is the big bad evil guy who threatens to destroy the world. Bond’s villains generally come in two varieties: the crazy communist or secret organization who wants to destroy the world, or the enterprising businessman who wants to make a tidy profit by killing millions of people. They almost always have some sort of disfigurement, be it a scar on their eye like Blofield, a corrupted tear duct that causes them to weep blood like Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, or a third nipple like Scaramunga from The Man With the Golden Gun. Bond villains often tend to borrow liberally from the Campy Villain’s Handbook, chaining Bond to a nuclear bomb instead of shooting him, giving long-winded speeches, and allowing last requests.
- Bells and Whistles: In addition to the bizarre cast of characters, Bond movies generally have very specific clichés and plot points to adhere to. Most of the films have at least one car chase, and many of them feature Bond in a casino. There are numerous puns and subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, sex jokes. Bond usually uses a Walther PPK pistol, and often drives an Astor Martin, which made its first appearance in Goldeneye. He drinks “a vodka-martini – shaken, not stirred,” and introduces himself as, “Bond…James Bond.”
- Bond Will Be Back: Every Bond film ends with the words, “Bond will be back.” It used to be, “Bond will be back in…” followed by the name of the next movie. Naming the next film eventually stopped because the studio was prone to change their minds. One preview promised that the next film would be From A View to A Kill, the title of one of Fleming’s stories. The studio eventually changed that title to A View to a Kill. Another example was when the next film was scheduled to be For Your Eyes Only, but that movie was quickly placed on the backburner to film the more science fiction oriented movie Moonraker.
While not all of the films have every element, the most successful ones tend to stick to the formula. Fans have come to expect certain elements from a Bond film, and one thing that film audiences don’t generally like is a surprise.
As mentioned before, Connery’s films essentially formed the frame for what a Bond film was. However, Connery is only the first of six actors to play 007. Other actors have given the role their shot, and they too have built upon the character. For many, the true James Bond is not the character from the novels or the first movies, but rather an amalgamation of the many people who have lent their skills to creating the superspy.
When Connery departed the franchise after You Only Live Twice, several new actors were auditioned to play the character, including some people, such as Batman-star Adam West, who weren’t British. Ultimately, the job was given to George Lazenby, a model. Lazenby was offered a seven-movie deal, but his agent advised him to do only one Bond film: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The original script called for Bond to have plastic surgery, thus explaining the character’s new look. Instead, only one reference was made to the change in actors: a quick breaking of the fourth wall during the opening gambit where Lazenby looks at the camera and says, “This never happened to the last fellow.”
Lazenby faced two problems with the role. First, he had to follow in Connery’s footsteps, and that was a hard act to follow. Second, he was primarily a model, not an actor. His character was more serious and his performance was regarded as very wooden. His supporters, on the other hand, point out that Lazenby’s Bond is actually more similar to Fleming’s original creation than Connery – a sign that staying true to the source material isn’t always the best idea for a film franchise. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a critical and financial disappointment, which is a shame because it offers one of the more moving stories in the franchise. The Bond girl was a woman capable of standing up to 007, and Bond actually fell in love and got married, only to see his nemesis kill what could have been his one true love.
After Lazenby’s failure, Connery returned for one last film, Diamonds are Forever. Lazenby himself only portrayed Bond one more time: in the hilarious spoof “Diamonds Aren’t Forever,” which appeared on an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents years later. Connery soon left the franchise as well, saying that he would never do another Bond film after Diamonds are Forever. (That claim turned out not to be true; years later, Connery played an aging Bond in the out of continuity Never Say Never Again. More recently, he voiced Bond in the video game adaptation of From Russia With Love.) Once again, the studio needed a new Bond. So they went with someone they had originally rejected.
Roger Moore had been considered for the original role in Dr. No, and was rumored to be one of Fleming’s personal choices. But he was well-known for as another spy, Simon Templar in the television series The Saint. To avoid having audiences confusing Bond with Templar, Connery was chosen over Moore. Moore did get to play the role in a comedy sketch in 1964, and finally got another chance to play the character in 1973’s Live and Let Die. Moore would go on to be the James Bond of a new generation; he played Bond until 1985. Generally speaking, Moore was more suave than Connery’s Bond. He saved the world without getting his hair mussed. He also was more comedic, and several of his movies came off almost as spoofs. Critics of Moore’s Bond suggest that he became a parody of the character, highlighting examples such as Octopussy, which featured 007 disarming a bomb while dressed as a clown, and the space adventure Moonraker, which was a blatant attempt to cash in on the popularity of Star Wars. Some of this comedic aspect came from Moore himself, who played Bond as a more light-hearted character. He particularly objected to scenes which showed Bond using his license to kill in cold blood, stating at one point, “My Bond wouldn’t do that.”
Whether Moore was too comedic or not, he epitomized the character of James Bond for many years. He played the role well into his 50s before walking away. Supposedly, one of the main reasons that he left was that he realized he was filming sex scenes with women who were young enough to be his children. When Moore left, the producers were not about to make the same mistake they had with Lazenby and draw direct comparisons between the next actor and Moore. So they went and got somebody completely different.
Timothy Dalton had been considered as Connery’s replacement years ago, but turned down the part because he felt that he was too young at the time. In the 1980s, that problem was no longer an issue, and he came aboard as the next 007 in two films: License to Kill and The Living Daylights. Rather than try to fill Moore’s shoes, the producers decided to go in a different direction with Bond, taking him back to his roots in Fleming’s novels. Dalton’s Bond was more driven and focused on the mission, and more ruthless. He was billed in trailers and posters as “The Most Dangerous Bond Ever.” However, as had been the case with Lazenby, the loyal adaptation of Fleming’s original Bond to the big screen didn’t take. While some fans had grown tired of Moore’s borderline comedic Bond, they didn’t want to see the humor evaporate entirely from the franchise. Dalton was signed on for three movies, but only did two. The franchise went on hiatus, and for a while it seemed like Bond’s days on film were over.
After Dalton’s final movie, a major shakeup occurred in the real world that could potentially have spelled the end of James Bond. The Cold War ended, meaning that Bond’s most frequent foes – the Soviet Union – was no more. There was no more big bad superpower to oppose capitalism and the free world, which made things nebulous as to how Bond was even relevant anymore. But as the end credits had promised, Bond did come back. Goldeneye, a film named in reference to Ian Fleming’s Jamaican estate, presented Bond in a post-Cold War era. It did so not by pretending that the war was still on or by ignoring the past entirely, but by referencing the problem the character faced. Bond was referred to as a relic from the Cold War, and had to find a new place in a new world. He had a new boss, and this M was a woman who wanted no part of Bond’s chauvinistic antics. Goldeneye managed to revitalize the franchise by tackling the issues of Bond’s relevancy head on.
As Dalton had opted out of his contract by the time Goldeneye was filmed, the producers needed yet another James Bond. As had become the practice, they looked at one of the ones who had gotten away. Pierce Brosnan had originally been tapped to follow Roger Moore, but at the time he couldn’t get out of his contract on the TV show Remington Steele, which led to Dalton’s hiring. With Dalton out of the way and Remington Steele over, Brosnan easily stepped into Bond’s tux. The combination was a major success, with each Brosnan film making more money than the last. Brosnan’s Bond was largely an amalgamation of the other takes on the character. He had the wit and demeanor of Moore’s suave 007, but could throw a punch and perform a stunt with the best of them. He could also show some of the ruthlessness of 007, particularly when he killed an assassin who had murdered his lover in Tomorrow Never Dies or when he shot an unarmed Elektra King in The World is Not Enough.
The problem that Brosnan’s Bond eventually ran into was the same problem facing many action movies in Hollywood. The Bond films fell into the “Bigger is always better” trap. Every film had to have bigger explosions, faster chases, and cooler gadgets than the last one. Additionally, by the 2000s, Brosnan began considering retiring from the character lest he repeat Moore’s mistake of being Bond for too long. Ultimately, Brosnan decided to come back for one more film following the series’ 20th installment, Die Another Day. But he never got a chance, because the studio effectively fired him from the role.
Between Die Another Day and the 21st film, Casino Royale, two things happened in other franchises to change the way producers approached a Bond movie. First, The Bourne Identity presented a secret agent named Jason Bourne. Matt Damon’s Bourne did well at the box office and proved that superspies don’t need fancy gadgets and a huge special effects budget. While the Bourne movies were definitely in the traditional Hollywood action movie mold, their budgets were much smaller than any of the recent Bond movies. Secondly, Batman Begins came out, effectively rebooting and reviving a movie franchise that many believe had been killed by Joel Schumacher’s nightmarishly bad films Batman Forever and Dear God, Please Gouge My Eyes and Ears Out Now…er, I mean, Batman and Robin. With the desire to do a more down-to-earth film and the hopes of rebooting the Bond franchise, EON Films chose to adapt Ian Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale to the screen.
Despite the success of the Bond franchise, Casino Royale was a very risky move at first. While Batman Begins was a resounding success as a reboot of a franchise, James Bond didn’t need that reboot. Brosnan’s films had been some of the most successful 007 movies to date, and Brosnan himself was generally hailed as one of the best Bonds, if not the best, by many fans. Casino Royale was essentially gutting a successful franchise, replacing its star, and building anew. The actor chosen to replace Brosnan was the largely unknown Daniel Craig. Moreover, he was blonde, which in and of itself turned many people off. But somehow, Casino Royale worked, and became the largest-grossing Bond movie in history.
While I’m sure that many people know more about why Casino Royale succeeded than I possibly can, I’ll throw out my best guesses here. The main thing that helped the movie out was that is was a very high quality movie. It follows Fleming’s novel somewhat closely, adapting and expanding it for modern audiences. It presents a story about Bond’s beginnings, and showed more about his character than virtually any previous movie. And while it is a rebuilding point for the franchise, it did not completely tear down what was already there.
Casino Royale features many deviations from the Bond formula. There is no Moneypenny. There is no Q, although we get a look at what might be the Q branch of the novels. Bond is just beginning his career as a secret agent here – the opening gambit features the mission that gave him the code name 007. Craig himself has looks that run closer to Connery’s machismo, but doesn’t have the sophistication of Moore or Brosnan. It’s not until close to the middle of the film that he puts on a tux and walks into a casino. He doesn’t present himself as, “Bond – James Bond” until the end of the movie. He drinks vodka-martinis, but in his own words, doesn’t give a damn if they’re shaken or stirred. However, none of these changes is necessarily out of place for the rookie Bond. The filmmakers aren’t creating a new character, but rather presenting a character who will most likely become more of a Connery-, Moore-, or Brosnan-style Bond. What Casino Royale did was take a character who was recognizably an early form of James Bond and give him room to grow into the spy that the world knows and loves. So while the character was different, it’s not too much of a stretch to see the movie as a prequel to other great Bond films. In many ways, it’s a very shrewd move, considering that most moviegoers these days don’t remember the days of Sean Connery or Roger Moore – or, for that matter, Timothy Dalton.
Casino Royale also gave Bond a topical villain again. The Brosnan films proved that Bond didn’t need the Cold War, but each of those four films essentially boiled down to Bond fighting a supervillain. The problem with supervillains is that the bad guy is only one person. Kill the madman with the nuke, and the threat is gone. A character as prolific as Bond, however, thrives on organizations and threats that cannot truly be beaten. The world always needs to be in danger. Britain always needs 007. Even in older films that didn’t feature Bond fighting communism, there were organizations like the villainous SPECTRE that could never truly be toppled. And Casino Royale found that organization, or rather, that concept, that Bond could fight against. The villain of the movie, Le Chiffre, who worked for the Russians in the original novel, was now a man who funded terrorism. M suggested that he might have been the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Suddenly, Bond had joined the war on terror. Such a move also highlighted the appeal of James Bond. Sure, he’s someone who saves the day and always gets the girl, but he’s even more of a fantasy than that. He’s the man who takes on society’s greatest fears. Be it communism, terrorism, or nuclear war, Bond is the person who will save us. When people have fears that keep them up at night, someone like 007 is who we dream up to combat those fears. During dozens of novels, short stories, and movies, that’s what James Bond has done for millions of people. Not only has he faced society’s fears, but he’s laughed while doing it.
Following in the footsteps of the unprecedented moves in Casino Royale, Craig’s second Bond movie marked another first for the franchise: a true sequel. Quantum of Solace picked up immediately after Casino Royale left off and featured Bond going after the agency that had funded Le Chiffre and killed Vesper Lynd. We got more development of Bond in this film as Craig provided a Bond bent on revenge, but retained more humor than Dalton had when he took on the same task in the 1980s. Bond became a bit more refined here, learning by the end of the film that there is value in not outright killing his enemies. The film also featured another major first, in that Bond doesn’t wind up sleeping with the “Bond girl” introduced. While there is sexual tension and they do share a kiss, she walks away without having had sex with the superspy – and, in the process, possibly saves her life, since every woman that Craig’s Bond has slept with has wound up dead shortly afterward.
Quantum of Solace wasn’t quite as well-received as Casino Royale, probably due to the fact that it wasn’t as groundbreaking in its overhaul of Bond. Unfortunately, it looks like it might be the last of the Daniel Craig films we see, as MGM Studios has run into bankruptcy and been unable to fund the 23rd installment of the series. Hopefully, Bond will be back on his feet soon with Daniel Craig in the tux, as it would be very nice to see him continue his development of Bond from a rough around the edges killer to a suave superspy.
Whether Daniel Craig plays Bond again or a new actor takes on the role, one thing is certain: Bond will be back eventually. As the world changes, there will always be fear on a global level, and James Bond will always step in as the idealized male, challenging those fears in a fantasy world where the bad guys can be taken out with wit and precision, providing some pyrotechnics, pretty ladies, and a few laughs along the way.