Is 007 really fit for purpose in the #MeToo age?
No Time to Die’s director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, reckons the original James Bond would be cancelled in a post-#MeToo world. “Is it Thunderball or Goldfinger where, like, basically Sean Connery’s character rapes a woman?” he asks. “She’s like ‘No, no, no’ and he’s like ‘Yes, yes, yes’. That wouldn’t fly today.”
Is it true?
In Thunderball, Bond tries it on with a health-spa nurse who rejects his advances, pushing him away when he grabs and kisses her. But after a mishap involving a spine-stretching contraption nicknamed “the rack”, he threatens to complain to her boss. “Well,” he says, “I suppose my silence could have a price.” She backs away, saying: “You don’t mean… oh, no!” “Oh, yes,” says Bond, who follows her into a steam room and immediately takes off her clothes. Then there’s that scene in Goldfinger where Bond wrestles Pussy Galore into a haystack and pins her down until she succumbs to his masculine charms.
Wasn’t he just a man of his time?
Yes, though not everyone was captivated, even in the 1950s. In a famous New Statesman review in 1958, Paul Johnson described Dr No as “the nastiest book I have ever read”. In his view the novel had three basic ingredients, “all unhealthy, all thoroughly English: the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical, two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult”. Novelist Kingsley Amis, however, defended Ian Fleming’s treatment of women, arguing that “Bond’s habitual attitude to a girl is protective, not dominating or combative”.
What’s special about Fleming’s Bond?
He’s much more complicated than the celluloid version. A nervous flyer who cries easily, he is sometimes sick at the sight of gore and makes basic mistakes – such as missing a perfect chance to kill Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun because a song he likes is playing on the radio. He’s a chain smoker and, in effect, a functioning alcoholic who on one occasion drinks, in rapid succession, four double bourbons, two double vodka martinis and a pint of pink champagne. He’s a foodie, too, taking his own mustardy vinaigrette to the office canteen in Moonraker, and hating puddings, though partial to half an avocado to round off his dinner. Fleming gave his hero some of his own idiosyncrasies – Bond, for example, didn’t like women painting their nails. Nor did the author.
What about culture?
He’s a very well-read spy: there is a “book-lined room” in his Chelsea flat and he cites, among other writers, John Milton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, Lafcadio Hearn (us neither) and Rupert Brooke. It was glancing at a bookshelf, incidentally, that gave Fleming his protagonist’s name. Birds of the West Indies, by an ornithologist called James Bond, was in the library at Goldeneye, the house Fleming built in Jamaica.
Why were the Bond books so appealing?
Glamour. Bond was a “glamorous antidote to a glum time”, says Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian. Britain in the 1950s was shuffling out of post-war austerity and its empire was crumbling. For a nation still suffering the effects of rationing and too many powdered eggs, 007’s dedication to the finer things in life – “meticulously prepared martinis, a supercharged Bentley, intercontinental leg-overs” – suggested Britain could still “rule the waves and waive the rules”, says Jeffries. “I think you will find that the sun is usually shining in my books,” Fleming once said.
And the gadgets?
As Kingsley Amis pointed out, it is the detail of the Bond books that gives them the credibility they would otherwise lack. While John Buchan’s spies were armed with unspecified pistols, Fleming was much more precise: Bond would fire a Walther PPK, and in Casino Royale he invents a new drink, the “Vesper” martini. “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?” Arguably, the profusion of gadgets, fast cars, exotic drinks and other consumer luxuries in the Bond books laid the foundations for the men’s magazines that became so popular in the 1970s and 1980s.
What’s the problem?
“A woke watch on the Bond books wouldn’t survive 10 pages,” says the novelist William Boyd, who has written one of the Bond sequels – Solo, set in 1969. “He finds foreigners funny, doesn’t think women should be allowed to drive cars and believes lesbians can be converted back to heterosexuality.” The Bond books are a form of “instant time travel”, says Boyd – when you read a comment such as “What startled Bond was that there was a negress at the wheel, a fine-looking negress in a black chauffeur’s uniform”, you are back in the era when the book was written and published.
So how on earth can Bond be relevant today?
He can’t – not unless he’s adjusted to fit modern sensibilities. Some think it’s time Bond was played by a woman, although Daniel Craig is against the idea, and it’s hard to disagree. The clue, as they say, is in the name. But is it right to change his character? When thriller writer Lee Child was offered the chance to write a Bond book he declined, saying he “couldn’t figure out how to make the story relevant to the modern day. It is effectively a period piece.” Perhaps Child has a point. Why not let 007 sink into retirement like those other JBs, Jason Bourne and 24’s Jack Bauer?
Is that a good idea?
Fleming himself certainly had it in mind. In the penultimate 007 book, The Man with the Golden Gun, M offers Bond a knighthood at the end of his mission. Bond declines, saying he’s “just a Scottish peasant”, which is essentially true. Sent down from Eton after two “halfs”, Bond spend the rest of his school time at Fettes College, Edinburgh. He had a Scottish father (an engineer) and a Swiss mother – not a drop of English blood. His London housekeeper, May, is Scottish. (In this respect, as in others, Connery was closer to the Bond of the books than any of his successors in the role.)
But the franchise is too valuable to lose?
Of course. The movies have so far raked in more than £5bn worldwide, making 007 the fourth highest-grossing franchise of all time (behind Marvel, Star Wars and Harry Potter). The Bond franchise rights heiress and all-powerful producer Barbara Broccoli takes a 10% cut of the total box-office receipts. In the past that’s been up to $80m for a single film. It’s hard to imagine anyone walking away from a money-printing machine on that scale. And in some respects Bond has dated less than John le Carré’s spymaster hero, George Smiley: the Cold War, after all, is long over, but the world still abounds, like Fleming’s novels, with oddball bilionaires and power-mad dictators such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
The two sides of 007
William Boyd re-read all the Bond novels and short stories in preparation for writing his own Bond novel, Solo. He found the books could be neatly divided into two categories: “Realistic” and “Fantastical”. The “Realistic” novels include Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Diamonds Are Forever and From Russia with Love. The “Fantastical” ones include Moonraker, Dr No, Goldfinger, Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. By realistic, Boyd says: “I mean that these novels can be viewed as bona fide spy novels that would fit squarely and comfortably into the genre alongside similar works by, say, John Buchan, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. There’s nothing manifestly absurd, Grand Guignol, outlandish or simply unbelievable about them.” The fantastical novels, however, “abandon the basic realistic tenets of the spy novel and become, to put it crudely, somewhat cartoonish and implausible – however entertaining and diverting they may be along the way”.