I’ve recently finished the original James Bond novels by Ian Fleming. The last of the official series, The Man With The Golden Gun, was published posthumously after Fleming’s death in 1964. It ends on the oft-forgotten, but rather wonderful, note of Bond being offered a knighthood and turning it down, preferring to remain a commoner.
The Bond who first appears in Casino Royale (1953) is a creature born of post-war Britain – he’s gluttonous, drinks too much and is full of bile and cynicism. The movie Bond is larger than life and never as fully formed as his book counterpart. After a half-century, this version is a symbolic testament to Britain’s refusal to go quietly into that good night. The character operates in a resoundingly parallel world in which Britain can still single- handedly save it.
With Daniel Craig’s last outing, No Time to Die, due out next year the inevitable speculation has started as to who should succeed him. The Bond books provide a 3D version that many might not be aware of, but that’s not what we need for the movies. Bond needs to be emblematic. Cinema Bond is the epitome of British pluck, and he refuses to accept the odds. He’s a dutifully stout pragmatist, the stalwart hero who stands in antithesis to the emotional haemophiliacs of today’s stage and screen.
Craig’s departure has renewed calls to diversify the role (met with the usual condemnation citing the original books). Sir Roger Moore was once criticised for suggesting that Bond be “English-English”. Fleming famously despised Sean Connery’s initial casting but on seeing him on screen was so impressed that he retconned his character as half Scottish and half Swiss. Then he was played by Australian, English, Welsh and Irish actors. Some of us even remember the furore when the blond Craig was cast as Bond – the world’s greatest Englishman had never been such.
The point is, Bond has an opportunity to lead. The right person for the role should be the deciding factor, naturally, but it’s clear that where one franchise pioneers, others will follow. After years of flirting with the idea, that other great institution, Doctor Who, finally has a woman, Jodie Whittaker, in the titular role.
Star Wars, in particular, stands out. There’s something heartwarming about going to see the latest films because it’s one of a handful of franchises that transcends age. Kids dressing as their heroes and thinking absolutely nothing of how special it is to have Daisy Ridley in the lead role (given that the scantily clad Carrie Fisher never really had her day as a Jedi). Critics may have missed the point with Star Wars. The gulf between fans and professional writers seems rooted in cinema being enjoyable entertainment. It isn’t Shakespeare, it’s about what can keep you glued to the screen and locked in your seat for two hours. It’s about what seeps into the very marrow of our culture to last the test of time.
Star Trek, which also has a half-century under its belt, is in a similar situation. The Enterprise bridge had Russian, Japanese-American and African- American characters at the height of 1960s tensions. The only real clichés are the womanising Captain Kirk, the drunk Scotsman and the mildly racist southern doctor. Both Bond and Kirk are deeply rooted in the traditions and duty of the British Navy and the Hornblower novels.
When Nichelle Nichols, Lt Uhura, wanted to leave the show to expand her acting career. It was Martin Luther King Jr who talked her into staying, praising the massive importance she had in portraying a future where race relations were equalised. Not only did she share the first on-screen interracial kiss but astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in space, cites her as a childhood inspiration.
It’s a tawdry cliche to create a linear line of “inspiration”. It would also be disingenuous to dismiss its importance in our lives, especially when we’re young. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s “rhizomatic” approach helps guide how we appreciate influence, inspiration and examples from screen heroes – many branches of the tree reach out, not just one, linear course.
Star Trek succeeded in making diversity the new norm. If Kirk and Bond are to transform themselves for this century, and push representation – rather than just implying they can do it – there’s a strong argument that their gender, ethnicity or sexuality should be guided by ambitious writing and an exciting vision.
Of course, detractors and critics would ask, why Bond? Why does that franchise need to be a pioneer? Well, along with Star Wars and Star Trek, Bond is a handful of genuinely blockbuster franchises. Since 1990 Barbara Broccoli has served as executive producer. Harry Potter, the other big beast on the list, clarified that Hermione Granger’s ethnicity was never actually mentioned in the books after black British actress Noma Dumezweni was cast in stage play The Cursed Child.
Bond is older than all of these franchises, and his purpose should be exciting and motivating. As with the return of Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard next year, there’s a feeling that the veterans coming back to sort the world out is like our grandfathers stepping up, like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino.
Attitudes to sex and race have evolved, but at the character’s core, Bond is the archetypal British hero. Sex and race are irrelevant in that point. To keep the role relevant to that accolade, he needs to change.
Nothing quite beats a crescendoing plot and sadness of endings. Immortal characters can be what we need them to be. This question should be pondered with excitement, not disdain or fear.
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. Read more at www.agjstewart.com and on Twitter @agjstewart