What Makes James Bond so Popular?

Culture & Science
6 November 2012, 15:24

He is probably one of the most famous Englishmen who never lived. It is estimated that one in three of all those living on the planet today have seen him on film or television. Even the Queen of England was expecting him. "Good evening, Mr Bond," she said, as he arrived at Buckingham Palace in July, accompanying her to the plane from which, apparently, she parachuted out to open the 2012 London Olympics.

"Skyfall", the latest James Bond film, opens on October 26, marking 50 years since the release of "Dr No", the first of 23 Bond films that have earned the makers almost $5 billion worldwide (more than $12 billion when adjusted for inflation). Bond is truly a global phenomenon. In the past half century, the fictional British secret agent 007 has influenced countless other adventure and spy movies – with their famous car chases, stunts, gadgets and guns, pretty girls, megalomanic villains, far-fetched plots and spectacular explosions. Bond has set the standard for cool, classy, unruffled style: his crisp clothes, expensive tastes, sophistication and vodka martinis – "shaken but not stirred". Bond launched the career of Sean Connery and has since been played by five other actors, including Daniel Craig, the lastest and – to many people – the best since Connery. 007 bolstered the prestige of Western intelligence services during the deadly Cold War duels with the Soviet Union and its allies. And across the globe he has changed the image of the stuffy reserved Englishman, adding zest, style, class, romance and dering-do to the brutal pursuit of British interests and British prestige.

Why has this creation by Ian Fleming, a louche and high-living former journalist and naval intelligence officer, become so popular? What does Bond say about modern Britain, about the murky world of espionage and about popular attitudes to spying and violence? Does Bond represent pure escapism, or does he tell us something about life and attitudes in Britain and the West today? If so, is it surprising that many countries, especially in the Middle East, think that the British are always plotting and spying on other nations?

Ian Fleming, Bond's creator, had no intention of writing anything except lively adventures that would make him plenty of money. He based his fictional character on individuals he came across during his time in the Naval Intelligence Division during the Second World War. He admitted that Bond "was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war", including his brother Peter, who had been involved in operations behind the German lines in Norway and Greece. Fleming wanted Bond to be a dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened, and so deliberately chose a plain name for him, based, it appears, on an American ornithologist and expert on birds of the Caribbean. Fleming was a keen bird-watcher himself.

Each of the 14 books was written, one a year, in January and February at Goldeneye, Jamaica, where Fleming lived. Many of the characters were based on people he met on the island. The first was Casino Royale in 1953, the last was Octopussy, written in 1966, together with a collection of Bond short stories. By then the first few Bond films had already been seen by millions, so Fleming's last books were influenced by the character's film image. After he died, aged only 56, his estate invited other authors to write more Bond books. Six writers have tried their hand, including most recently Jeffery Deaver, an American crime writer. Deaver, a Bond fan since he was 11, admitted he had always modelled his own books on his hero. Before "Carte Blanche", the latest Bond book, was published in 2011, Deaver did an enormous amount of research in London and around the world to get the detail right. Bond's popularity relies on the details – which watch, which car, which food and which champagne – that appear to give the novels authenticity. Nowadays, these details are an advertiser's dream. Champagne houses that make the brands Bond used to drink have seen their sales shoot up whenever a new film comes out. Fleming never tried to produce an accurate portrait of MI6, Britain's overseas intelligence organisation – although the head of the service is commonly known as "C" ("Control) and in the Bond novels the head was called "M". For a start, Britain has never officially trained agents who were "licensed to kill". Real spying is a more routine, grinding and bureaucratic operation than Fleming suggested, and for almost 50 years after 1945 was largely concerned with thwarting the KGB and spying on the Soviet Union. But although Bond's first enemies were based on real Soviet organisations such as Smersh ("Death to spies"), Bond's later targets were characters with no ideological affiliation and who were intent on criminal power or global control. In the 1950s and 60s Moscow was naturally angered at being outwitted in fiction by the British (in real life it was often the KGB that outwitted British intelligence). But the later books and films, though not publicly shown in Russia, won a cult following behind the Iron Curtain, especially when they were no longer based on beating the Russians but featured gangsters from the Caribbean, the Far East or even megalomanic Western press barons.

Those who follow Bond closely – and there are millions who know the plot of every film by heart – can detect the hero's subtly changing attitudes, especially towards women. The early Bond was unashamedly sexist, using women as playthings, ruthlessly discarding those he had lured into bed and contemptuous of women as agents or rivals. Few of the films nowadays portray such chauvinist attitudes. Today's Bond is more serious than Sean Connery, seduces fewer women and is more respectful towards his female boss than Fleming's Bond. The changes reflect changing attitudes and the rise of feminism in Britain and the West. Indeed, Miss Moneypenny, one of the minor characters whom Bond used to tease mercilessly, is now a more formidable figure who will not tolerate sexist remarks. And a new genre has even been invented called the Moneypenny Diaries, a triology of books about M's personal secretary looking at the Bond myth from a woman's point of view. Bond also says much about Western consumerist culture. Fleming made Bond enjoy many of the things he liked – gambling, fast cars, fine wines and foreign travel. But over the years Bond's tastes have become more exotic, as many former luxuries are now enjoyed by far many more ordinary people.

The location of Bond adventures has also changed. The Far East used to be seen as disorderly, dangerous and mysterious. But China and South East Asia are nowadays visited by millions of Western tourists and no longer seem so mysterious. Bond has therefore had to venture to other still unknown places, such as Africa, or to find new cities such as Dubai to replace Singapore as a metaphor for mysterious cosmopolitan locations. Bond is now big business, ruthlessly marketed and promoted around the globe. In this, he resembles two other British fictional characters who have become more real than living people – Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes. It is no coincidence that Potter is the only film series to have made more money than Bond. And Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed in film and television more than any other fictional creation. Britain may be losing its industries and power to the Far East. But in making money from make-believe, it is still
clearly the global champion.


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