My Complicated History With James Bond
Part 1: Why I Didn’t Like The Films For Twenty-Five Years -And Not Just Because of Pierce Brosnan
Author’s Note: I am about to begin what will become a recurring series about movies from 2012, a year that, for many reasons, I consider one of the last great years when it comes to cinema. But sometimes in order to explain why you consider certain films great, you have to give a more detailed description than the plot summary, the acting and all the technical aspects. Sometimes to do it justice, you have to give a more detailed explanation as to why a film meets standards that you personally consider high.
In order to do so, I have to go into my own personal history. Some of you will figure out from the title of the article and the above paragraph what the first film in this series is going to be. Some of you may not need persuasion as to why its one of the greatest films of all time. But because I am going to be taking the point of view that quite a sizable number of people will have a problem with, I feel obliged to give an explanation. So here we go.
As the title says, I spent the first twenty five years of my life loathing James Bond movies. Some might understand this, considering that I grew up when Pierce Brosnan was the face of the franchise, and that the movies he played the lead in are considered the bottom of the barrel. This is true, but my dislike of Bond came long before that.
For much of my childhood ABC would devote Sunday nights to Bond movies. I watched many of them on television and cable throughout my childhood. I found them all horrible movies. None of the Bonds — not Dalton, not Moore, not even the sacred Connery — could do anything to make them interesting or even good in my opinion. I thought there was something wrong with me because I disliked them so much, and millions loved them.
I have only recently begun to put together why I disliked them, and I’m encouraged by the fact that my opinion of them was one that many people have shared from the start — including someone who you’d think would count the most.
In 1962, Dr. No, the first James Bond film premiered. An instant box office smash, it was critically regarded by many. However, when someone tracked down the writer of original novels they were based on, a striking minority opinion was registered. Ian Fleming intensely disliked the film and was appalled what they had done to his work. Considering how little critics appreciated his novels and how badly they had sold before the films debuted, this is a striking opinion from him. One wonders if he might have wanted some more editorial control over the scripts for future films, but he died prematurely two years later, not long before Goldfinger premiered. Considering that the James Bond movies have been the influence for practically every novel, movie and TV series about spies ever since, it’s kind of remarkable that Fleming intensely disliked them so much.
Perhaps there is a decent reason for that. I have never read any of Fleming’s novels, but I have read many of the works of John Le Carre, who like Fleming had been in British intelligence (Fleming served during World War II; Le Carre during the early stages of the Cold War) Both men wrote their novels in reaction to their lives in espionage; indeed in many introductions to his own work, Le Carre would openly state that much of his writing was influence by his working alongside Kim Philby and being utterly unable to detect that he and the Cambridge Five were working for the Soviets.
When one looks at any adaptation of a Le Carre work — and there have been many, if not more than those of Fleming’s during the last half-century — it is true to the source material in that it is remarkable dense. Most of his characters, such as George Smiley, labor in the darkness, their personal lives suffering as a result of the secrets they must keep, have no ability to trust anything or anyone they meet, and they are always aware of their defeats and unsure of their victories. I have no way of knowing with any certainty, but I’m relatively sure that this is very close to what working in espionage must really be like. I have a feeling most American audiences would like their spies to be Jack Bauers or Sydney Bristows, in that they are always in disguise and have a clear perception of what good and evil are when we see them shouting at a suspect or wearing fancy wigs. Both series, however, were also clear on the moral ambiguity that made up so much of their careers and the costs that it took — something that Le Carre movies and TV adaptations are very good at relaying, but the Bond films for forty years, really didn’t.
There is also, of course, the critical reaction to both author’s films and shows. A Le Carre film is far more likely to be nominated for major acting awards by the Oscars or get high prestige television treatment. Indeed, a limited series is by far the best way to treat a Le Carre work because of how dense his stories are. (This isn’t necessarily always the case: I found virtues in both the 1970s adaptation and the 2011 film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). And with the course of time, Le Carre was capable of writing novels that could deal with the modern world far better than the Bond films did for decades without sacrificing integrity. (Le Carre, I should add, was always impressed by the work some of the writers did: after AMC adapted The Night Manager in 2016, he was so impressed by Olivia Colman’s work that he said he couldn’t see anyone else doing it — even though the character had been a man in his book.)
Put at it’s simplest: Le Carre’s work is as close to what actually being a spy is really like. A James Bond film is the cartoon version. There’s always a clear evil doer to kill with a ridiculous plan for world domination, there’s a woman to seduce with a ridiculous name, and he gets to sleep with her when the job is done with no apparent trauma for the body count he’s laid out over the course of two and a half hours.
This, to be sure, is the biggest flaw of the James Bond movies: for forty years, the actor playing him would change but the character never did. I have a feeling that may be the reason why so many people think Sean Connery is the best Bond: it has less to do with the quality of his performance or the films, but rather because he was the closest one to the era that took place in. The world kept getting more and more complicated, and James Bond essentially was stuck in place.
To be fair, most of this is the fault of the people behind the films and not any of the actors who played him. There have been countless franchises based on a single character before, but all of their creators had the logic to keep them to the period in which they lived. Sherlock Holmes might come out in a B-Movie to fight Nazis during World War II, but for a hundred years, almost every film maker or TV writer kept him in 19th Century London. (And in the past decade, when Sherlock and Elementary came along, they made it crystal that both Sherlock Holmes bore no relation to the nineteenth century version, which led to immense success for both series.) Comic book movies and TV series are so ubiquitous that its well worth remembering that until about twenty years ago, they were considered box office poison because no one could figure out how to put characters created fifty or sixty years previously in to a modern setting and not look like a hack doing so. And for all the adaptations of TV series as films over the decades, only a handful have been capable of taking these versions of the past and putting them in the present with fewer still being successful film franchises.
It didn’t help matters that so many other action film franchises around the 1980s and nineties were basically superior when it came to giving its leads a character and backstory to work with. One might have trouble with the later sequels to Lethal Weapon and Die Hard — how many films was Murtagh away from retirement? How did John McLain go from being a cop who needed aspirin to nurse injuries to having a car crash into a helicopter? — but there was enough of a backstory from the originals and at least the minimum of character development in each of the films that they could carry it off. James Bond, by contrast, might very well have been a stick figure for so many of the films he made in the seventies and into the nineties. The writers concentrated so much on what made a Bond film (the gadgets; the women; the hummable theme song; the scenery chewing villain) that there was nothing for Bond. It did not help matters one bit that for each different Bond, everything around him was essentially the same. And let’s be honest, the fact that the creators were fine with different Bonds every decade but had no problem keeping Desmond Llewellyn on for forty years really shows how little effort they were putting in to what Bond should have been. You’d think Q of all people would notice that he was giving an exploding pen to a different Bond every so often.
Which actually brings to me to the main problems of the Pierce Brosnan era. To be clear, none of the problems with the films of that era lay with Brosnan. Indeed, none of the problems I have had with the Bond films for the first forty years have to do with any of the actors that ever played Bond. All of them (with the exception of George Lazenby, whose career never gelled with mass audiences) were superb actors all capable of great range and emotion, before and after their stints as Bond. I don’t even have much of a problem with their work as Bond; all of them were basically doing the best they could with what the writers gave them to work with, and as I’ve pointed out before, the writers gave them very little.
No the problem is that with each subsequent Bond movie in the Pierce Brosnan era, the plots became more and more ludicrous, even by the loose standards of Bond movies. By the time we got to Die Another Day, a movie that I think not even the most devoted Bond fan will defend, you get the feeling these films were just being greenlit with no script supervision, drafts, or even a story pitch. I think the filmmakers were just saying “the next Bond movie” and the studio heads were greenlighting it. Because the story of Die Another Day is so badly written, so utterly laughable in its plot, with the main villain’s reveal being so blatantly racist you don’t understand how it got greenlit in 2002, with stunts so ridiculous they were mocked from the moment the film was released, that if it had been written for any other character at the time, somebody, somewhere in the process would have said: “You can’t be serious about putting in this in the movie? The audiences will never believe it.”
And indeed, when the movie came out, audiences didn’t believe it. The Bond movies of Brosnan’s era, when compared with the amount of money for their production, were breaking even at best. Bond movies had never done well critically, but critics were holding these movies with contempt. There was talk before Die Another Day was released about doing a spin-off series based on Halle Berry’s character. After the film, it died on the vine — and I have a feeling Halle Berry was not the only reason they did.
For all the people who never liked what James Bond became in the Daniel Craig era, let’s not kid ourselves. After the last group of films, there was no way that Bond could continue in the current form. You could put James Bond against media moguls or stick him in a North Korean prison camp, he was still the same James Bond — and that was the problem. Something radical had to be done to make James Bond relevant to 21st century audiences — and even if he’d gone to fight the War on Terror, as some suggested he might have, does anyone really think a man in a tux would have fit in the desert?
No in order to make James Bond work, they had to start from scratch. And that maybe why my opinion of Bond did a 180 during the Daniel Craig era. To give credit to that, in the conclusion of this article, I’ll explain just why everything about Daniel Craig and the Bond he and his creator brought forth was exactly what Bond — and so many action films — truly needed.