Note – this post contains minor spoilers for Skyfall. No major plot points are revealed, but if you prefer to go into the cinema entirely fresh, don’t read it until after you’ve seen the film.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw the new James Bond movie, Skyfall. It’s had a rapturous reception in many quarters, although I also know one person who hated it. I found it very mixed. To me it gave the impression of having been written by two warring screenwriters: one who loved Roger Moore-era cheese, and one who really wanted to be writing a John le Carre adaptation. Half of it was dark and gritty, exploring themes of loyalty and betrayal. And half of it featured jokes about exploding pens. It was an interesting if slightly weird experience, and it prompted me to think far too hard about the continuity of the franchise and the soul of James Bond.
The clashing elements of Skyfall reflect the disagreement between me and my husband on what constitutes the essence of Bond. I read Ian Fleming’s original books first, at an impressionable age. The novels feature, alongside the sex, violence and Martinis, a more serious undercurrent. Particularly in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, we see how a man, orphaned a young age, physically and emotionally scarred, has been recruited into an organisation which has taken over his life and is now both nurturing and destroying him. My husband, on the other hand, grew up on the films, which have always been significantly lighter on emotional depth and heavier on the explosions. He thinks Bond is all about the gadgets, cars, and one-liners.
The film franchise has been cyclical; starting off vaguely realistic, getting gradually sillier, resetting back to gritty. Then, after the dreadful later Brosnan movies (invisible car? Pur-lease), the whole thing was rebooted with Casino Royale, the Batman Begins of Bond. An adaptation of the first novel, it even faithfully reproduced the extended torture scene. Overall the film was close to Fleming’s vision, but fully up-to-date. It was very, very refreshing, and it catapulted itself straight to the top of my list of favourite Bond movies. And not just because of those blue trunks.
Best of all, so far as the geekier viewer was concerned, the reboot meant a clean slate, and a promise that at least the next couple of Bond movies would follow on from each other in a sensible fashion. Fans have long been speculating on how all those disparate films could possibly fit into a single continuity: basically, either MI6 has secretly discovered some kind of Dr Who-style regeneration process, or, the more plausible theory, ‘James Bond’ is actually a code name, given to a succession of different agents. It’s a neat theory, explaining away many inconsistencies. But then, with Casino Royale, we had a fresh start, an origin of Bond, a franchise which could be enjoyed at a deeper level than before, without any silly theories.
Then – passing over the disappointing Quantum of Solace – came Skyfall. On the one hand – a brilliant job of giving the film genuine depth and emotional resonance, an exploration of Bond’s relationship with M, a villain with believable motives who inspires some sympathy. On the other hand – a return of all those cheesy bits I hate. Miss Moneypenny and her tacky banter? Q and his gadgets? God no. And all those references to previous films, previous Bonds, who should have been forgotten. Then they rolled out that car from Goldfinger, and I found myself mentally shouting ‘Did you reboot this franchise or not!?’ They spent all that effort giving the James Bond movies actual thematic integrity, and then they threw it all out on on the ejector seat.
I guess the fan theory will now stretch to encompass the idea that each new agent is given not only the James Bond identity, but also a garage full of stuff from the 60s. To me, it seems a shame that it has to. For a brief time we had a Bond movie franchise which was true to the spirit of the novels, and more than just eye-candy. But then, as my husband pointed out, it was never going to last – there are just too many people out there who want the exploding pens.