I’ve had a month of spies. First I read Jeffery Deaver’s new James Bond book, Carte Blanche (published in this country by Hachette whose boss Thomas Abraham may well be India’s greatest James Bond fanatic) which does not take off from where Ian Fleming left but updates the character to the era of iPhone apps. Then I spent two evenings watching all three of the Bourne movies. (Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum – though I’m never sure if I can remember the names in the correct order), nominally based on the Jason Bourne novels written by Robert Ludlum several decades ago.
There is a connection between James Bond and Jason Bourne that goes beyond initials. Though the first Ludlum book (The Bourne Identity) was written as a stand-alone, the author quickly decided that he had a Bond-like franchise on his hands and made his hero return again and again. While the Bourne of the novels was a rather sophisticated, tame figure, portrayed unmemorably by Richard Chamberlain in a TV mini-series based on The Bourne Identity, the Bourne of 21st century movies is an angry and confused loner who has virtually nothing in common with Ludlum’s Bourne.
Even so, the Bourne movies created endless trouble for the Bond franchise. Such was the success of The Bourne Identity movie, starring a violent and agitated Matt Damon, that Hollywood re-thought the Bond formula. Out went Pierce Brosnan, a perfectly good Bond who nevertheless always played the character in a slightly male-modelish way as though he was advertising a premium vodka or an upmarket golf-course. And in came Daniel Craig who was made to bulk up so much that when he wore his Tom Ford tuxedo he looked like a bouncer outside a very expensive Monte Carlo nightclub.
The formula changed too. The Craig-era Bond movies have been more believable (well, as believable as anything to do with James Bond can be) and packed with action sequences: the first half-hour of Casino Royale could be a stunt film. The traditions of the genre have been downplayed or junked. In Casino Royale, when Bond is asked if he wants his martini shaken or stirred, he replies, "Do I look like I give a damn?" There is no Mao-suited villain with a secret underground lair, or a pussycat purring sinisterly on his lap. And Craig doesn’t even get to say "Bond – James Bond" till the last scene of Casino Royale.
But as hard as the Bond franchise has tried to rework the rules to compete with the Bourne movies, it is stuck with a basic problem. The point of the Bourne pictures is that Jason Bourne takes on an-all powerful establishment single-handed and still wins. On the other hand, James Bond is entirely a tool of the establishment.
Ian Fleming created Bond in the 1950s, using his experience in naval intelligence during the Second World War. In those days, there were clear heroes and villains. The Brits and Americans were the good guys. The Nazis were the bad guys. (The villains in Moonraker refer to the Fatherland, Auric Goldfinger is German, etc.) And later, the Russians were the bad guys.
In Fleming’s world, Bond was a soldier sent off to battle with the enemies of the Anglo-American alliance. He took orders from an Admiral (called M); was subservient to the Foreign Office; had a naval rank himself (Commander); relied on a network of British Secret Service operations all over the world; was given expensive weapons, cars and gadgets by the British government; and worked closely with the CIA’s Felix Leiter.
The movies kept these elements but also relied on Spectre, a secret organisation that wanted to rule the world, which was probably created not by Fleming but by Kevin McClory, who collaborated with Fleming on the screenplay that became Thunderball. (When Fleming denied him credit, McClory sued and won the movie rights to Thunderball which he re-made as Never Say Never Again, Sean Connery’s comeback as Bond). There is some dispute also over who created Ernest Stavro Blofeld, the head of Spectre who features in many Bond novels but who vanished from the later movies once McClory began suing.
It always struck me as curious that it was during the anti-establishment, counter-culture revolution of the Sixties that the Bond movies first found success. While the establishment was collapsing in the real world, Bond was fighting on its behalf on the screen. When young people were wearing jeans and smoking dope, Bond was making much of fancy clothes, expensive cars (an Aston Martin rather than the Bentley of the books) and vodka and nicotine. In contrast today, when brand-based snobbery is so much a part of the aspirational ethos, it is curious that Jason Bourne who cares about none of these things should be such an icon.
In Bourne’s world, the establishment is essentially malevolent. It brainwashes people to turn them into assassins. It murders innocents to cover up its own secrets. It has bugs, cameras and spies everywhere. The CIA is staffed by crooks (some of them in league with the Russian mafia) at its top levels. The drama in the movies (not in the Ludlum books, when Bourne is revealed to be a willing US government assassin tasked with fighting his country’s enemies) comes from Bourne’s struggle against these forces. He operates alone, lives simply, uses no gadgets and every ten minutes or so, he beats up or kills somebody.
The Bond movies have coped uneasily with this new world. They have re-booted James Bond (Casino Royale could have been Bond Begins) and turned him into more of an action man and less of an establishment tool (he goes rogue, he fights with M, he pursues private agendas, etc.). But I am not sure the transformation can be sustained.
Authors trying to revive Bond face the same problems. John Gardner, an otherwise competent thriller writer, wrote some really crappy Bond novels which are now largely forgotten. Sebastian Faulks, a serious author, tried his hand at reworking Bond and chose wisely to write a period novel set in the 1960s when Fleming’s Bond operated and Teheran was the fleshpot of the Middle East. But Faulks’ book was a one-off so he could attempt a pastiche.
Jeffery Deaver, on the other hand, hopes to take over the franchise so his book is his own Bond Begins, a re-booting in which our hero is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Deaver knows how to write this kind of book so Carte Blanche is better than say, John Gardner’s hack work, though the end is a bit of a wash-out. Even so, you have to ask yourself; if the hero was called John Smith and not James Bond, would you bother with the novel?
And that, I suspect, is the problem that the James Bond franchise will face in the years ahead. We have some affection for the movies because they have been around for so long, but the truth is that as franchises go, the Bond movies don’t make the kind of big bucks that other series do. Batman, Spiderman, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and even Mission Impossible are much more profitable franchises these days. And frankly, it is hard to think of a Bond movie that is as good as the Spielberg Indiana Jones pictures, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins or Brian De Palma’s first Mission Impossible. Even Doug Liman’s first Bourne movie is better than any Bond movie ever made. (I’m not so sure about the two Paul Greengrass Bournes).
The third Daniel Craig Bond was delayed because its production company had problems. It should be out next year. It will be interesting to see if it can maintain the momentum of the series and make Bond relevant to a new generation of viewers. Otherwise, I suspect that time might be running out for James Bond. On the other hand, there is a scene in nearly every movie where the villain says "Goodbye, Mr Bond."
And yet, somehow Bond survives. And he’s back in the next scene. So, who can tell?
From HT Brunch, July 10
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