Let Bond be Bond!

Sir Roger Moore as James Bond 007.

I recently read an article in People Magazine with Roger Moore. For those of you who are too young to remember, Moore was the actor who, after Sean Connery, was most famous for playing the fictional British secret agent James Bond. In the article, Moore addressed the latest buzz about recasting Bond due to Daniel Craig’s imminent departure from the role, particularly about the murmurs that say that 007 should be recast, not merely the actor, but the character itself, as either black, a woman, or gay, or some combination of the three. In response, Moore said, “I have heard people talk about how there should be a lady Bond or a gay Bond, but they wouldn’t be Bond for the simple reason that wasn’t what Ian Fleming wrote.” * I have to admit that this is pretty gutsy of Moore to come out and say in light of the current intolerant PC climate that we seem to live in that seems all too eager to pounce on any perceived heretics. Most venues I’ve seen discussing this issue won’t say anything but praise for any of these propositions, either because they agree with them or just don’t want to be forced out of their jobs by a cascade of angry e-mails and posts from internet trolls demanding that they go. So, while the offense industry explodes at Sir Roger in their usual pearl-clutching condemnation, perhaps we should take a few moments and just consider this before we all take to our keyboards and march into cyber-battle with the rest of the social-justice warriors. Let’s see if we can find an answer to the question, “Why or why not let Bond be Bond?”

First of all, I want to concede that in the world of art (and I suppose that movies qualify) you can pretty much do whatever you want. If a film-maker wants to make a (insert preferred people-group here)-James Bond, there’s little to stop them. For me, this is a matter of personal taste rather than morality. However, if it is permissible artistic license to recast 007 as a gay-black-differently-abled-trans-gendered-female, then that would also means that if you want James Bond to stay as he was created, or Spider-man to stay a cisgendered heterosexual, or even Little Orphan Annie to remain a pupil-less red head, that should also be fine. I see no compelling reason to attribute good motives to one and bad motives to the other, unless somebody has some compelling evidence. Yet, in cases such as these, evidence is rarely offered nor thought necessary. For the evidence needed by the perpetually offended to justify their demands or their condemnation of the secret motives of those that disagree is the evidence of their beliefs, e.g. it’s true because they believe in their hearts that it is. But even, for instance, if the director of a hypothetical Austin Powers reboot dislikes albino midgets and recasts Mini-Me with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then so what? It’s just a movie, right? However, for any film-maker preparing to make radical changes to an established popular fictional character, they would be wise to contemplate any possible ramifications that might interfere with their film being a success.

Worth consideration before one reinvents the wheel is respect for the original creator’s work. At the heart of Moore’s issue with re-molding James Bond was that it would be different than the creation of Ian Fleming. I myself am a very big fan of the Fleming novels, having read all of them once and some twice. If I had my way, TV would produce a miniseries remake of all the original novels, done in the period of the 1950’s and 1960’s, embracing James Bond for what he is, warts and all. Too bad that seems unlikely. What Fleming did with inventing his anti-hero James Bond was proverbially catching lightning in a bottle. Bond is a Scotch-English descendant of landed gentry, an unromantic and amoral assassin who does his country’s dirty deeds, not because he has some belief in the UK’s moral superiority over the Eastern block socialist nations or organization such as the Soviet SMERSH or Blofeld’s SPECTRE, but rather because that’s what he was trained to do. And when it comes to his occupational specialty, Bond is the best. James Bond is not pleasant, sensitive, or giving. Rather, he is a fatalistic and caddish snob that lives it up whenever possible, with assurance that he will most likely die young. Some would make the case that Bond is homophobic, racist, and misogynist, but those critics would be missing a very important point that explains why he may read that way… he simply doesn’t care. Bond is too focused on the task of espionage to make room in his life for philosophical musings or emotional entanglements. Bond is not Dudley Do-Right, he is, in the words of Ian Fleming, a “blunt instrument,” ** with a license to kill. Nonetheless, so evocative is this character to fans around the world that, to this day, Hollywood continues to draw from Fleming’s well. James Bond is still around because, in effect, he works. And if it’s not broke, one should wonder, “Why fix it?”

Also worth considering is the attachment that many have to such a popular character as James Bond is. In the current and successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, the character of Nick Fury is played by black veteran actor Samuel L. Jackson. However, it may come as a surprise to some of you that the original comic book version of Nick Fury was that of cigar chomping, silver-streak haired, white man. I was aware of this modification when the movies started to come out, but didn’t particularly care, because I, and probably most of the MCU’s audience, hadn’t really followed the Nick Fury comics and had no special affection for the character. There’s only one example that I am aware of where this was not accepted: my African-American mother-in-law was a little miffed that Marvel changed her Nick Fury. However, this change was largely successful, probably because most theater goers had a bigger attachment to Sam Jackson than to the Nick Fury of the comics. However, if filmmakers took an iconic and well-seasoned character such as Superman and had given him green skin (let alone black), do you think audiences would accept it and still come out in droves to see his movie? Taking such liberties with such a well know property is inherently dangerous because it might seem like a gimmicky distraction from the story and the characters that audiences already like. For example, consider Superman from his latest film incarnation, Man of Steel. With this version, we had a dark and moody remake that audiences were somewhat disappointed in. Being used to the optimistic and incorruptible hero of their youth, many were somewhat shocked at the 911-esque destruction on display, with very little of the traditional heroics associated with Superman. There’s even a point were Superman, a character that is renowned for not killing his adversaries, brutally snaps the neck of the villain General Zod in an attempt to save the lives of some innocents that Zod was trying to murder. There is certainly justification for this change within the established story for Superman to make what was clearly a hard choice, but many were put-off by this departure from the canon, expecting Superman to take this diseased maniac to prison rather than the morgue. Because of this, Man of Steel was arguably less successful at the box office than it could have been.

As far as the current James Bond movies go, I can say this for them: they’ve stayed mostly faithful to the character of Bond, if not to the actual page and chapter of the novels. This is probably why they’ve been around for so long. James Bond is undeniably one of those characters that remain an icon, having been beloved since the 1950’s. If, like the afore-mentioned Superman, you are going to make a significant change to that character in your film adaptation, you’d better be able to justify those changes, perhaps even drawing from Fleming’s works, if you don’t want them to come off as trendy and pretentious and (most of all) if you want your film to be a success. I know that reboots, remakes, and sequelae have been all the rage for the reason that name recognition is the only tool that the old studios have left with which to compete against the plethora of entertainment choices that are available today. However, if Hollywood want’s to bank on Bond’s popularity while discarding key elements of that property, the audience (you know, the people you want to lay their money down to see this thing) may very well say, “This isn’t James Bond.” If that happens, then you’ve got a flop on your hands, making the current and probably next iteration of Bond less of a sure money-maker. And once done, I think you’ll find undoing it as next to impossible. If you thought reactions might be bad with a major re-imagining of Bond, wait and see what shrill outrage you’ll get from the few but loud voices that thrive on such emoting if you to try to go back to the old money-making formula after having created, for instance, a black Bond.

Lastly, Hollywood should consider that the likely audience of a James Bond film is there to enjoy a little thrilling escapism and probably not to learn moral lessons that Hollywood thinks will make them better people. If James Bond is to be rechristened as a trans-minority of some manner, then it’s likely that they either think that such a change will be profitable for them or that making money is not the important factor in such a decision. If the latter is true, then the only explanation left is that the Film-makers are trying to sermonize their audience. I don’t know about you, but as for me, when I go to a movie, I want to be entertained and not be ontologically or ethically challenged by a film-maker who thinks they’re the Billy Graham of celluloid. I’ll go to church if I need a good message, not the movies. And what would be the lesson of such a cinematic sermon? Would it be that there’s something wrong with being white, heterosexual, Scotch-English, or liking a character that is all those things? Would the lesson be that if you don’t like the racial or other changes made to Bond, then you are a bad person? Call me crazy, but it seems to me certain that you aren’t going to convince many people to fill those theater seats while promising them a healthy serving of shame with a side of condemnation. No. If the focus of the film shifts from adventure to the pulpit, people will just not come, the movie will bomb, and the film-makers will have to comfort themselves in their failure with how good they believe they are for what they did while blaming their audience for not being as evolved as they. That seems to me to be inadequate consolation.

From Hercules to Luke Skywalker, many of the characters and stories that we have most enjoyed have stayed with us because they, their struggles, and the rich heritage that birthed them spoke to our shared humanity and experience. Every culture has their heroes and stories to cherish, and it is a testament to their power when they are appreciated cross-culturally. Nevertheless, when you start mucking about with those same characters to make them more to your liking, you will likely end up with something completely different, merely bearing the same name. And in the rush to make these often politically motivated changes, you might not even notice that you jettisoned part of the cocktail (shaken, not stirred) of what made them so powerful to so many in the first place. James Bond is white and heterosexual. And as strange as it is that I should even have to say it, there’s nothing wrong with that. Furthermore, there is really no credible motivation for why Bond shouldn’t remain as he ever has been, that English gentlemen spy who fights in her majesty’s secret service against over-the-top villains in volcano lairs. In responding to a similar controversy about the MCU’s decision to continue with their newest cinematic Spider-Man as the character he was created to be (white, straight, etc.), Stan Lee made comments that really summed up the heart of this debate, and I think they are appropriate to end on in a discussion of a new Bond. Lee said, “Latino characters should stay Latino. The Black Panther should certainly not be Swiss. I just see no reason to change that which has already been established when it’s so easy to add new characters. I say create new characters the way you want to. Hell, I’ll do it myself.”**** ‘Nuff said.

Ryan Thorson

* http://www.people.com/article/roger-moore-james-bond-woman-gay

** http://www.universalexports.net/00FlemVision.shtml

*** http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jun/23/stan-lee-spider-man-should-stay-white-and-straight