Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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