Shaken Not Stirred: James Bond on the page and the screen

Decades later and Ian Fleming’s 007 is still making strides, but how does he fit in with today’s world?

“The name’s”… do we really need to continue? Those two words alone are enough to conjure up the most famous fictional character of the twentieth century. Born out of the mind of Ian Fleming in his espionage novels of the 1950s, James Bond remains a timeless, indestructible superhero who continues to thrill audiences on screen today. But which medium is better? The novels and the films ensure the survival of Bond as the modern equivalent to a Knight of Medieval Romance: endeavouring to take on adventure, serve his country, battle foes and save the damsel in distress, with the odd vodka Martini on the side.

Fleming’s fourteen books came to light during the post-austerity era of the Second World War; a time in which glamour and heroism were sparse. The valiant 007 changed the face of the spy fiction genre by becoming one of its most convincing heroes and acting as a stark contrast to previous anti-hero spies, stemming from the moral ambiguity of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Bond’s character appeals to the unconscious male psyche; he is bold, witty, reckless and has a testosterone-fuelled taste for fast cars and attractive women. Fleming himself claimed that Bond is “what you would expect from an adolescent mind, which I happen to possess”, and it is the combination of the novels’ identifiable realism and Bond’s ultra-masculine character which underlines much of the series’ widespread appeal.

The Bond novels have sold over 50 million copies, and their success is largely down to the fact that they are well written and contain emotional depth, literary skill and political subtlety – something which is absent from many of the films. One of Fleming’s most widely regarded Bond novels, From Russia With Love, reveals a layer of human fallibility to Bond’s character as he is shown to be vulnerable to the snares of the vile arch-villainess Rosa Clebb. By showing Bond suffering, Fleming conveys sympathy for the endeavours of actual spies during the Cold War and reveals the emotions that spies had to deal with in their line of work. This novel also concludes with a suspenseful cliff-hanger which gives the author the option of killing off Bond’s character entirely, which makes the book series more realistic and engaging.

Not only do Fleming’s novels present Bond as a romanticised spy, but also as a protagonist who represented individualistic ideals of the West against the “Red Menace”. The first novel, Casino Royale, depicts 007 playing for his life in a game of baccarat against the French Communist villain, Le Chiffre, and is intensified by Fleming’s fast-paced rhetoric. Bond displays perseverance throughout the game as well as the gruelling torture scene towards the novel’s end; by overcoming these trials, Bond acts as a Western hero associated with freedom and democracy, bringing hope to readers at a time when the Soviet Union seemed to be winning the Cold War.

In more recent years, the Bond film franchise has proven to be the longest, most successful and highest grossing movie salary in the history of cinema, beginning with Sean Connery’s first appearance as Bond in 1962’s Doctor No. The films’ genre itself allows for the emergence of iconography, stimulating visual aesthetics as well as music and extravagant title sequences. We all recognise the glorified Aston Martin DB5 as the machine gun-bearing, front seat-ejecting flagship of the James Bond franchise. Similarly, the accompanying songs such as Diamonds are Forever by Shirley Bassey and Live and Let Die by Paul McCartney and Wings have become prominent spectacles in their own right, which have helped to bring the success of Bond to an international scale.

The most recent films have helped to revolutionise the character of Bond from that of an imperialist spy to an internationally appealing hero. Fleming’s novels were engulfed by the theme of “World domination… the same old dream”, resembling the heightened socio-political awareness and tensions of the Cold War. Whilst megalomaniac, politically controversial villains may seem anachronistic in today’s society, Sam Mendez’ enticing instalments highlight the intense psychological development of Bond’s character, from his orphaned origins to revenge and love fuelled plots. These recent films bring an exciting new perspective to Bond by moving from international concerns of war, to the more personal and complex concerns of Bond’s internal conflict.

The 2012 film, Skyfall, manages to synthesize classic Bond motifs from Fleming’s novels within a modern setting, with complex characters and a vast visual appeal of iconography. The role of “Miss Moneypenny” was revitalised by actress Naomie Harris, whose presentation as an active field agent is far from the character’s original role as a passive receptionist, which reflects a modern feminist appeal. Bond’s male-dominated world might appear outdated to the modern reader. Daniel Craig has recently criticised the character of Bond for being too much of a lonely, misogynistic womaniser, and it is the lingering shadow of sexism which has allowed the films to distinguish and elevate the role of women as opposed to Fleming’s novels. New comedic insights are also exhibited by Ben Wishaw’s presentation as a youthful geeky Q, whose age subverts the traditional relationship between Bond and his Quartermaster, placing Bond in the more experienced role. The most recent instalment, Spectre, draws attention to the survival of espionage agents in the modern, technologically advanced age of drones and the ominous threat of the online world, which makes Fleming’s original 007 relevant and exciting to the modern audience.

James Bond continues to thrill both audiences and readers regardless of medium or context. Whether you prefer sitting down an enjoying Fleming’s gritty, authorial wit concerning the daring exploits of the fictional 007, or watching Daniel Craig demolish buildings, bring down helicopters and seduce women, the legendary figure of Bond continues to endure and survive in the unending, shadowy world of espionage. James Bond will Return.

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