How Skyfall Saved Bond
Balancing character and plot is a trick I’ve only properly learned in recent times. For many years I hid my characterisation deficiencies beneath overly clever and carefully structured writing, but my Bryant & May mysteries forced me to reconsider my working methods. The reading journey must always remain true to the characters. The moment you have your leads acting because of plot demands, readers start to disbelieve what they see on the page – or on the screen.
Which leads us, inevitably, to James Bond. A series of stories about a secret agent that caught the imagination of males in the 1950s was turned into the world’s longest running film series. The books were readable but exposed the awful snobbery of Ian Fleming, who spent many, many pages wagging a finger at his proletarian readership and lecturing them on the correct hour to dine at private members’ clubs and what not to wear on golf courses, as if they would ever need to know. It’s easy to appear well-bred if you only ever address the social classes beneath you.
But it was impossible to overestimate the effect that the James Bond films had. Here was the first English hero not wearing a sensible jumper; he didn’t need one because he was in Jamaica, a place that could only be imagined by penniless postwar audiences. The series might have started with ‘Dr. No’, but it was with ‘Goldfinger’ that 007 truly became an aspirational symbol for the times. Everyone remembered the gilded Shirley Eaton, Pussy Galore, Oddjob and the Fort Knox countdown (destined to be the first of many urgent bomb deadlines), but audiences conveniently ignored the fact that 007 was first spotted with a stuffed seagull attached to his head, or that he talked flippantly about heroin-soaked bananas before the opening credits rolled.
In fact, after he had blown up a drugs empire filled with cartoonish barrels of nitro-glycerine, had a fag, snogged a pneumatic semi-naked lady and fried an attacker in his bath, it seemed highly appropriate that camp icon Shirley Bassey should start screaming out the title song.
Bond was never serious, only manpower pushed to the zillionth degree, which was why his women needed ludicrous identities and pumped-up sexuality to compete. It was a rule, of course, that no matter how old a legend became, he was still allowed the embrace of a hot young girl. This reached levels of horror in the later Roger Moore films.
But to a rationed postwar nation for whom a roulette wheel represented exoticism and a cigarette case sophistication, Sean Connery could hardly fail to become an hero. He wore cufflinks. He travelled to places few Westerners had ever seen, and ordered cocktails at a time when Babycham was the height of glamour.
There were several attempts to replicate the sheer butchness of Connery’s Bond, from George Lazenby’s doomed sleepwalk through The 007 Film Sean Should Have Made, to the steely stares of Timothy ‘Run Like A Girl’ Dalton, who failed to appear masculine even when he dropped his voice an octave. Pierce Brosnan was finally employed over a decade after he was first sought, by which time he was getting a little paunchy.
BREAKING OUT OF THE FORMULA
By this time, the Bonds were so locked into a rigid formula that unused locations and stars from one film were being dropped into the next – it didn’t matter as the stories all had the same structure. Despite Eon Productions being a British company Hollywood was calling the shots, and is to blame for removing all the things that made Bond enjoyable. John Barry walked after he was no longer allowed to write the title song in favour of the gig being offered to forgettable bands signed with the US studio. The series became set in concrete.
And Daniel Craig was hardly ideal. Looking rather like a granite statue of Norman Wisdom, with ears that made his face look like an old Greek jug, he hopped bandy-legged through the stunts like a homunculus and glared a lot. Appointing Sam Mendes, formerly the director of the Donmar Theatre, was a stroke of genius, for it’s clear he wrestled the film away from being just a franchise. In a world of remakes and reboots, where Spiderman must be bitten and lose his parents in every single film, we were being asked to reset the Bond story and treat each one as if seeing it for the first time. The episodes didn’t even bother to provide explanations as to why his face changed, or Moneypennys came and went.
Mendes allowed Bond to become real and let the writers actually tell a structured three-act story. Craig now appears genuinely damaged, and his relationship with M takes on the uncomfortable edge of an orphan discovering he has a cold-hearted matriarch.
The trouble with doing all this is that in order to move things on you often have to explore psychologies and kill characters off – but so be it. The resulting battle locations are chosen more from logic than whether they’ll look spectacular, although the appearance of Skyfall manor owes more to Harry Potter than Bond.
By letting Bond be a real adult, craggy, exhausted, creased, scarred and older, we finally have a believable hero. In fact the film is so involving that you overlook the silly bits – Silva using a tube train to try and flatten Bond, his Phantom Of The Opera facial collapse and the peculiarly camp flirting scene that seems to come out of nowhere. But now that ‘Skyfall’ has established the idea of the story and the character driving the film and not the franchise, where on earth does it go from here? How do you run on the spot when you’re moving forward once again?