Menus Subscribe Search
Bond

(ILLUSTRATION: SEAN MCCABE)

The Least Interesting Man in the World

• October 26, 2012 • 4:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: SEAN MCCABE)

Created as a figure with no personality, James Bond has survived half a century because of what we keep throwing at him—and projecting onto him.

IN THE EARLY 1950s, Ian Fleming, an Englishman living in Jamaica, was working on a spy novel and, as he told The New Yorker a decade later, he conceived the central figure as “an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened.” Searching for a suitably boring name, Fleming found it on his bookshelf, in the name of the ornithologist who authored the field guide Birds of the West Indies: James Bond.

The inherent anonymity of those two syllables, and the blank slate they imply, hint at why the fictional British secret agent is at the center of the longest-running film franchise of all time. Skyfall, which opens this fall, will be the 25th Bond film (all but two made by the same production company), and it arrives 50 years after the release of the first, Dr. No. Bond may not have the thousand faces of Joseph Campbell’s mythic hero, but he has comfortably fit the features of six quite different actors, from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig.

In July, 007 escorted the Queen to the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics, simultaneously embodying the two constants of his character: coolness under pressure and allegiance to his country. Bond—who was orphaned at age 11 and has something of a stern-parent/naughty-son relationship with his boss, M—is a grudgingly loyal government employee.

“Even at those moments when Bond attempts to go rogue,” notes film historian Tom McNeely, “he is still seeking justice while under some kind of watchful, older eyes.”

That sets him apart from such lone-wolf heroes as Batman and Jason Bourne, who embody the spirit of American individualism.

“There’s no question that the Bond films make one proud to be British,” says pop-culture historian James Chapman of the University of Leicester, often described as the world’s foremost Bond scholar. “They represent a sort of national fantasy in which the decline of the British Empire never took place.” Not to mention a universal fantasy in which a man can simultaneously be strong and stylish. “There is a moment in the trailer [for Skyfall] when Craig pulls off an impossible stunt, and then adjusts his shirt cuff,” says McNeely. “That is James Bond. That’s what makes him such a great fantasy hero.”

Beyond that, he’s something of a void. “Fleming intended him to be kind of a sketch—to have his persona as tough to pin down as if he were a [real-life] spy,” notes Emerson College cultural anthropologist Cynthia Miller. By happy accident or brilliant design, this fuzziness gives filmmakers the freedom to reinvent him as needed, adapting his personality to suit the tastes of an evolving audience, just as his amazing gadgets (he could talk to headquarters on the telephone—from his car!) have foreshadowed our evolving technology.

This ability to shape-shift while retaining an elusive essence—as Chapman notes, “About the only thing that Craig has in common with Connery is the character’s name”—allows us to view the Bond films as a sort of cultural history. The evolution of 007 reflects our changing view of what we have to fear, and our image of the sort of hero we believe will save us.

Tom McNeely notes that the character is a product not only of the Cold War, but also of the hipster era; he points out that the first Bond novel and the inaugural issue of Playboy magazine were published within months of one another. Given that cultural context, Miller finds it quite natural that Connery, the original celluloid Bond, brought a “self-reflexive humor” to the part. Like an adjunct member of the Rat Pack, “Connery had a twinkle in his eye,” she says. But with the coming of the counterculture, “we didn’t want to take our heroes too seriously,” McNeely notes. So the next Bond, Roger Moore, became something of a self-parody—a savior of the world for a time (post-JFK) when the world didn’t really believe in saviors.

More incarnations followed (some serious, some lighthearted), the latest and most striking coming in 2006 with Casino Royale, which introduced an unusually intense Bond, embodied by Craig. Dark and brooding, more working-class than upper-crust, Craig is light-years from Connery’s suave effortlessness. While the 1960s Bond is a textbook misogynist, this latest incarnation “is so distracted by his own angst that there isn’t room for women,” notes Miller.

Then again, it’s hard to feel amorous when you’re tired and sore. If Connery made Bond’s job look effortless, Craig makes it seem supremely effortful; when he gets punched, or runs full-out for too long, the audience feels his pain. Chapman notes that this stoic suffering of physical punishment (only occasionally implied in the earlier films) is truer to the Bond of Fleming’s novels. Miller adds that it also reflects the expectations of the 21st-century audience, which craves fantasy but expects it to be grounded in some degree of reality. “Whether or not we are,” she says, “we think of ourselves as less naïve.”

But are we more sophisticated, or simply more bloodthirsty? Perhaps both. In a post-9/11 era marked by terrorist attacks, a global financial meltdown, fears of climate change, and many other disquieting uncertainties, it’s hard to picture civilization being saved by the dashing, dapper Bond of the early films.

“In the 1950s, we had Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers … They were almost corporate types—brave and clean,” Miller notes. “I don’t think we want that any more. I think we want somebody who speaks to anger, frustration, vengeance.”

Fleming may not have consciously realized it, but the word bond connotes security—a concept that today feels foreign. A hurt, angry, confused culture has, inevitably, produced hurt, angry, confused hero figures, including the 007 of 2012.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.