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.