I don’t have any kind of RESPECTABLE degree, but I do have enough accumulated knowledge about junk culture that it’s probably equivalent to a Ph.D in certain areas. And what with me writing about it on a more-or-less weekly basis for about a decade and a half, occasionally people want to consult me about one thing or another.
Here is an email exchange between me and another writer pal of mine that is something of a tangent to the project she’s working on, and it occurred to me I might as well share it here, too. The question she sent is in bold, below, and my ridiculously long answer follows.
…James Bond is always cited as the ur-Action hero who doesn’t change and can be everlastingly reset and launched into a new adventure.
Would you say that he has any internal object of desire? (I’m not talking about the newer movies here, where they’ve given him some internal story.) He wants to get the bad guy, save the free world, get with the ladies, whatever, but can we impute any internal motives to him? Does he need acceptance? Redemption? Esteem?
Well, this is something Ian Fleming struggled with for his entire career, because he desperately wanted to be respected as a writer. So he kept trying to make James Bond a well-rounded character, but the truth is that James Bond really isn’t a character at all. He’s an avatar for the READER, a sort of fiction-suit you step into. The allure of the books is built into their structure as an adolescent wish-fantasy… the WORLD, full of supervillains and cool gadgets and willing women, that’s the engine. James Bond is like the player character in the videogame that lets you into that world.
Fleming himself was not quite self-aware enough as a writer or as a person to get hold of this, which is why it was such a struggle for him. (In later years he dismissed Bond as “that cardboard booby.”) The bottom line is that James Bond really doesn’t have much of an inner life. He almost never questions his choices or his mission or the way he goes about living his life. There are no gray areas for him. The honest truth is that if you shine a light on James Bond and scrape off the paint, what you are left with is a guy who’s really not very nice at all, a remorseless killer who happens to have a job where that’s okay.
His inner monologues are all very judgemental and bigoted. (Although– curiously, despite his reputation– in Fleming’s novels, Bond is not terribly misogynist. His girl of the moment is not just another notch on the bedpost, at least not in the books. He has genuine affection and respect for all of them.)
But he could never settle down. Bond loves adventure more than anything else, the way some guys like extreme sports– the rush is what does it for him.
Even at that, it’s worth noting that over the course of all of Fleming’s novels, James Bond never, not really, ever seems to experience genuine joy. He probably suffers from depression and beats it back with his incredibly dangerous lifestyle. At home he drinks and gambles too much, knows it and berates himself for it, and is wryly aware of the fact that he really is unfit for any kind of normal life.
If Bond has any real character at all, it is as the Mary Sue projection of Ian Fleming. And as such he has all Fleming’s vices– shallow, vaguely suspicious of everyone he meets, smokes seventy cigarettes a day, drinks at least half a bottle of vodka every night, and so on– but unlike his creator, James Bond never has to deal with any consequences like lung cancer or emphysema or anything like that.
(The smoking alone makes Bond’s physical prowess a ridiculous fantasy. Fleming was obviously aware of how impossible it all was and handwaves at it a few times by having Bond go into training…. most notably in THUNDERBALL, which opens with M ordering Bond to go to a health clinic and get into shape.)
The brick wall Fleming kept running into was — this is my personal opinion, I hasten to add– was that he himself was too shallow and superficial to give any thought to his own inner life. He was an arrested adolescent who wanted to be rich and famous. That was what drove him. Above all, Ian Fleming wanted to be COOL.
He longed to be one of the in-crowd and was a shameless starfucker. Fleming was deliberate in constructing his public image to make himself seem like a mysterious badass who was basing the Bond books on his own wartime service… which was, of course, too confidential to discuss.
This actually worked. To this day there are people that buy into this idea and there have even been movies and TV shows based on it.
So naturally, when he turned to writing novels, he invented the coolest guy in the world and wrote about how it felt being him. But in no way are any of the Bond novels character studies (at least, not of Bond himself, though THE SPY WHO LOVED ME is kind of an interesting novelty, told in the first person by the heroine, Vivienne Michel. There’s a lot about her, but as far as James Bond is concerned it’s mostly her swooning over how awesome he is.) The gifts Fleming had as a writer were much more about the vivid adrenaline rush he gave the narrative, the moment-to-moment headlong pace of the thing, all narrated in a hugely engaging third-person recounting of James Bond’s inner monologue. This is one of my favorite examples, from ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE.
It was one of those beautiful, naïve seaside panoramas for which the Brittany and Picardy beaches have provided the setting – and inspired their recorders, Boudin, Tissot, Monet – ever since the birth of plages and bains de mer more than a hundred years ago.
To James Bond, sitting in one of the concrete shelters with his face to the setting sun, there was something poignant, ephemeral about it all. It reminded him almost too vividly of childhood – of the velvet feel of the hot powder sand, and the painful grit of wet sand between young toes when the time came for him to put his shoes and socks on, of the precious little pile of sea-shells and interesting wrack on the sill of his bedroom window (‘No, we’ll have to leave that behind, darling. It’ll dirty up your trunk!’), of the small crabs scuttling away from the nervous fingers groping beneath the seaweed in the rock-pools, of the swimming and swimming and swimming through the dancing waves – always in those days it seemed, lit with sunshine – and then the infuriating, inevitable ‘time to come out’. What a long time ago they were, those spade-and-bucket days! How far he had come since the freckles and the Cadbury milk-chocolate Flakes and the fizzy lemonade! Impatiently Bond lit a cigarette, pulled his shoulders out of their slouch and slammed the mawkish memories back into their long-closed file. Today he was a grown-up, a man with years of dirty dangerous memories – a spy. He was not sitting in this concrete hideout to sentimentalize about a pack of scrubby, smelly children on a beach scattered with bottle-tops and lolly-sticks and fringed by a sea thick with sun-oil and putrid with the main drains of Royale. He was here, he had chosen to be here, to spy. To spy on a woman.
I don’t know if I’m explaining it very well. But Kingsley Amis put it like this– “We don’t want to meet Bond or befriend him or spend time in his company. We want to BE Bond.”
You know, he’s not like Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Spock or Bertie Wooster, he’s not SEPARATE from the reader, someone we get to know. “James Bond” is literally a suit we put on for the length of the book.
This is why the movies are such cartoons. Daniel Craig is trying hard, and I thought CASINO ROYALE was kind of a masterpiece, but that was also the only one of the books where Bond actually changed at all. The death of Vesper hardened him and burned away the last of his humanity.
But in the second book, LIVE AND LET DIE, there’s no further development of Bond’s personality or history to speak of, nor will you find any in any of the rest of the books that follow. That’s the problem with series characters.
Craig and all the other actors have run into the same brick wall Fleming did. There’s no ‘there’ there. Bond’s the good guy because he’s the good guy. (Although, again, he really is NOT a nice man, not if you slow down to look at the body counts and collateral damage and utter disregard for due process. But the almost gleeful transgressiveness is part of the appeal.)
Parenthetical aside– it’s entirely possible to go WAY too far in the other direction when it comes to character and motivation, which is a big problem for most action movies these days. It’s getting kind of amazing how often Batman’s dead-parents origin trauma has been grafted on to so many other characters. When they do it to Superman or the Flash it looks as pointlessly out of place as a red clown nose on Michaelangelo’s David.
I struggle with this in my own hero-pulp stories, honestly. Doing series stuff the temptation is to really fuck shit up and go somewhere unheard of, but that’s essentially breaking the toys. Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason or James T. Kirk….those guys aren’t meant to change. So you create the illusion of change, the character arc resolves when the problem/conflict of the plot is resolved…. the outer drives the inner, not vice versa.
Does that help? I do go on, but this is kind of my thing.
So there you go. A snapshot of my correspondence. After a while you just get to be the go-to guy. I guess I should be pleased I manage to at least generate a little income out of it.
I daresay many of you will have Thoughts to contribute as well. Have at it down below. I know I’m not the only Double-O expert around here.
To be honest my main exposure to Bond is probably like most people’s, through the movies.
I’ve tried numerous times to read Fleming’s books, but I just can’t bring myself to like them. ‘Live and Let Die’ was an uncomfortable read to say the least and I gave up before I reached the halfway point.
Early Roger Moore will always be my Bond, ‘For Your Eyes Only’ and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ were pretty great.
I think you are pretty spot on with your assessment, though I would add a statement you once made on the Radio vs The Martians Podcast, that Bond is a knight errant, sent to slay dragons and battle evil wizards. That pretty well sums up the character.
Fleming worked as a journalist and much of the appeal of his books came from the journalistic flair for describing the exotic locales, the food, the clothing and such (what Raymond Benson called the “Fleming Sweep”), along with the thundering action. For Bond himself it is pretty much the same thing, again and again. It is more about what he eats and drinks, his card games,and the pain he endures.
Fleming was a hedonist, from a privileged background, with a taste for the kinky (with a married lover) and a failure at adult life, before the war. The war gave him purpose, as an aid to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, head of Naval Intelligence. As such, he was often a liaison with other intelligence and military commands, like the SOE and the American OSS. It also led him to oversee the operations of 30 Assault Unit, an intelligence commando team, tasked with seizing enemy intelligence in daring raids. Fleming was noted as a good administrator, with an imaginative knack for concocting wild plans, most of which were too far fetched to be carried out, but, some of which were employed. He was not a field agent. There you see how his talent was shaped, and his desire to be in the action. The war brought him closest to that desire and he sought that the rest of his life. Spymaker is beyond fantasy; Christopher Lee was far closer to being Bond than Fleming ever dreamed of being.
The books are a problem for modern readers with any cultural sensitivities, as they are filled with colonialism, racism, ridiculous stereotypes and similar negative aspects. They also feature a lot of sadism and death. Every noble character had an English mother, which makes him better than his fellow countrymen. Many of the villains are more thinly sketched than the movie versions. Personally, I thought the quality of the writing suffered badly through several of the books, with the best being Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, From Russia With Love, Dr No, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Goldfinger and Thunderball are fine, though I prefer the film versions far more.