By Jay Stringer
I watched Skyfall for the first time over the weekend. I really didn't enjoy it. I had a pretty bad year last year for films, there were a number of movies I'd been looking forward to that ultimately let me down. I'm not looking to go into specifics of Skyfall. Seems most people dug it. I've seen reviews calling it the best Bond movie ever. If folks enjoyed it, good for them. I don't feel the need to scientifically prove that they're wrong. Different tastes and all.
But watching the film did set a part of my brain whirring away.
A question I asked of my wife during the film, and a few times to friends afterwards, is what is left to say about modern Bond after Casino Royale? And from that I thought, maybe these films just aren't for me anymore.
We change. It's possible.
Just like anybody who's grown up near a TV screen in the past few generations, my first exposure to James Bond will have been the films. The first actor I can remember seeing play the role was Roger Moore, and I also know that the pre-teen version of me really didn't like Sean Connery's version. That changed.
But Ian Fleming's novels were one of my many gateway drugs to adult novels. I read them at the ideal time. That is to say- I read them when I was about thirteen or fourteen. Somewhere in the years before Goldeneye, I went from knowing nothing about Bond to having read everything. Some of them passed on to me from my Grandfather, some hunted down in second hand bookshops, some of them the new shiny editions that (Coronet? Penguin?) were putting out.
And I loved that there were no more Fleming books. I liked that there was a period when there was James Bond, and that the books then stopped. I read the continuation novels. I loved Colonel Sun at first read (It was one of the first Bond books I read, my grandfather had a battered copy of that along with a couple Flemings and one of the Gardners) and found it sloppy and dull when I went back as an adult. I read the Gardner and Benson books, and they were fun, but I never re-read them in the way I did Fleming.
And something I can see, looking back over the last decade or so, is that I've drifted away from the cinematic Bond and really only tend to think about Flemings version. The damaged, ageing, alcoholic relic of the 50's and 60s. That is Bond to me. If I were ever to pitch a Bond novel, it would be that character in that era.
I realised I don't really engage very much now with the idea of the timeless, ageless character. Fleming's Bond aged. We can say he probably didn't age in exact real time, and he may have conveniently stopped ageing completely if Fleming had lived on and kept writing, but as it is we have a ten year period where an experienced agent of the British government gathered moss. Hurt, grief and wounds traveled from book to book.
I like story. And for me (this isn't saying it has to be for everyone) that means a beginning and an end, and consequences in between. And I don't mean death. I mean that a story has an end. Long before I stopped reading DC and Marvel comics, I had started to feel at odds with the culture of these large franchise characters who don't age. A story without end. It feels to me like a first draft in which nobody ever takes the brave step of typing The End.
And I think Bond suffers more than most from this timelessness. He's trapped by it.
Reinvention is fun. Just as we write novels about distant worlds or future times with the aim of examining something about our current world, it can be fun to take a character from an older time and tell a new story, to see what that character tells us about ourselves. But with franchise characters, this can be more about money, more a case of just because. I enjoy Sherlock on the whole -with a few dodgy episodes thrown in. And I think a show like Doctor Who has an inbuilt device that makes it be able to constantly renew and refresh. And the worlds and time periods the Doctor visits can address something relevant about the world of the people watching the show. Sherlock has been a fun reinvention, taking an old character and seeing how he could fit into the modern day. The secret joke of the show is that he doesn't. We have to overlook a lot of logic and a lot of police procedure, and to buy into the fictional world they created, in order to buy into him having a place in the modern world. But it's fun, and they usually get away with it.
But for many of these timeless characters it begins to feel for me more like we use them to tell us who we were rather than who we are. And in the case of James Bond, who we wished we had been at some point. There is a moment in Skyfall when the villain has Bond captive and gives him a long speech about how Bond is fighting for a fading empire. And I realised that scene has been in many Bond films. And each time it seems to have been done as if it was honestly meant to be relevant, as if it revealed some hidden truth about the modern world.
James Bond was a fantasy character. Something running through the subtext of those original books was that he was a relic of a world that didn't exist. The whole "defending the realm" thing. He was Fleming's schoolboy fantasy of a figure fighting for a world that had ceased to exist in the decades before. So the big villainous speech about Bond fighting for a fading empire had relevance in the 1950's, as an echo, as the fact that the empire had already faded. In the 60's and 70's it was a mix of nostalgia and delusion. But to still be making this point in 2012, and to devote a monologue to it?
The failure for me of many of these timeless characters now is that we don't honestly use them to tell us something about who we are, or who we can be. We use them because it's easy, and we already know there is an audience for them, and because we can reverse engineer the modern day to fit the story. We can pretend that the Met would have a "consulting detective," who is allowed to access all of their information. We can also pretend that he is world famous, because the real world obviously cares so much about the people who solve crimes. We can pretend that there is a vital ongoing debate about the role in modern society of a secret agent who never existed, and that Britain is some glorious fading empire just on the cusp of the sunset. Cinematic Bond has become a time bubble, where the colours and clothes change every few years, but the basic story remains the same and the modern world is really only there as set dressing. We've seen three films now, costing hundreds of millions of dollars to make, that have essentially been an exercise in throwing Bond into a fantasy version of the modern day, and then slowly pulling everything back until he is in the same office, with the same secretary, and the same boss, and is going to be sent out on the same missions to defend the same long dead empire.
Phillip Marlowe drank and drank and had an occasional hangover.
Matt Scudder drank and drank and became an alcoholic.
Batman saw his parents murdered and put aside all of the 20th century's advances in psychology to don a Bat costume and wage a financially unsustainable war on crime that has been ongoing since 1939.
Rorschach used childhood trauma as a spur to don a trench coat and become a psychotic loner, who's pursuit of an unsustainable war on crime led him to a fast and lonely death after years of living alone.
Beginning. Middle. End.
You know what's so great about- for example- Greek mythology? It has those four things. We remember the characters because they burned fast and bright, then they burned out. The story of Robin Hood has an ending. The story of King Arthur has an ending. Even Gods used to die. One of the reasons all of the major religions have tales about the end of days is not because anyone really thought that is how things were going to go down, but because they'd learned from millennia of storytelling that all good stories have an ending.
But Bond doesn't get to have one.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that lack of ending is his relevance. Maybe there is an ultimate joke in the weary civil servant who can't afford to retire because there isn't a pension waiting? He's forced to go on, forever.