The Spy Whom We Loved: The Enduring Appeal of James Bond

The Spy Who We Loved: The Enduring Appeal of James Bond

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Wheeler Winston Dixon and Christoph Lindner discuss the legacy of James Bond.

The latest James Bond blockbuster, Spectre, opened last weekend, and while its flavor may be a little bit different from previous outings, it’s still firmly in the 007 oeuvre, filled with amazing stunts, twisty plots, improbable villainy and of course, its magnetically attractive yet coldly distant hero. Since the first film was made featuring Ian Fleming’s signature secret agent back in the 1960s — Dr. No, starring Sean Connery and filmed for a mere million bucks — the Bond movies have grown steadily more successful and deeply embedded in the culture, evolving with each sequel to fit the moment.

But in the modern era of film and society, do we even need 007 anymore? What’s next for the super spy, and what does his ever-growing popularity signify? The Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111, recently interviewed Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, and Christoph Lindner, a professor of media and culture at the University of Amsterdam who has edited a couple of books about the James Bond phenomenon, to discuss those ideas — and to answer that nagging question: Who is the best Bond?

You can listen to the interview using the player above. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

(Note: This interview does contain one spoiler regarding Spectre. Read on at your own risk.)

Knowledge@Wharton: Christoph, what is it that has people still going to these films 50 years later?

Christoph Lindner: Well, in the books I edited about the James Bond phenomenon, part of the idea was to bring together lots of different perspectives on Bond, and try to figure out why such a superficial, often unpleasant, generally sexist kind of character has fascinated us for so long. And I think we still don’t have a complete answer.

Knowledge@Wharton: Daniel Craig made some very interesting comments before the release of this movie, basically, saying if he did another Bond film, he’d be doing it just for the money. Are we at a transformational time in this brand right now?

Lindner: We are at a key moment, because we’re coming to the end of the Daniel Craig era, and so already the public, and also the filmmakers, are beginning to explore the possibility of who the next James Bond will be. I think that Craig is giving out quite a few different signals that he has reached the end of his energy level here with Bond. Then again, we also have to remember that every time he makes a statement like this, there is a spike in interest in Bond, and that also helps to sell the film. So it’s a little bit hard to tell how serious he is, and how much he’s playing with the public.

Knowledge@Wharton: Wheeler, from one perspective, when you think about the films, for the most part, people view Bond through a generational lens. I’m 49, so I know the Bond genre basically from Roger Moore on. Obviously, I’ve seen some of the Sean Connery films, but on TV. From a generational perspective, you almost get the feeling with Daniel Craig making these statements that maybe the next Bond will be somebody in his 20s, maybe early 30s, just to give some length to this series going forward.

Wheeler Winston Dixon: Well, yes, that’s true, but you also have to realize that Craig is still contracted to do one more picture with Eon Productions. And I just saw him on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert the other day, and [Craig] says, “Should I do another one?” And the audience said absolutely, yes. So I think he’s certainly a lock for one more picture. But ever since the Broccoli family and Eon Productions have been creating the Bond movies, all the way back to Dr. No, they’ve kept a very tight rein on the character’s persona. So I think, yes, it’s a good idea that probably they will pick somebody who is younger. But it’s interesting to see the evolution of Bond from this smooth, witty, urbane, sort of wisecracking figure to an almost thuggish, violent figure, which Daniel Craig projects.

The other thing I’d like to say about his comments is it seems to me that this is really a ploy for more salary. On Skyfall, he was reportedly paid $17 million to be in the film. And I guess the other thing I’d like to say is, it seems that if anything, people are saying “Bond is over, Bond is failing.” Well, Skyfall made more than $1 billion. It’s the most successful Bond film ever, both in relation to its cost and also in what it made. So I think that in fact, the same formula is going to go forward into the future as sort of a reassuring aspect of the past.

Knowledge@Wharton: That shift in the type of character that James Bond has become, as you said, a little bit more almost like a thug with Daniel Craig: Based on the box office numbers for Skyfall, can one say that it’s something that has resonated with the Bond fans out there?

Dixon: Absolutely. I mean, everybody who is a Bond fan is partisan. For me, of course, Sean Connery will always be the ur-Bond so to speak. But Daniel Craig’s’ characterization of it has resonated with a more violent, more nihilistic moment. You have to look at it in relation to the cultural landscape around it. It’s become a much more violent society, much more interconnected. We know about disasters around the world much quicker. So I think that his persona of being kind of gruff, his way of plowing through the film just punching his way through the action is something that audiences obviously relate to, because ever since he took over, the numbers have done nothing but spike.

Knowledge@Wharton: Wheeler, I guess we know who your favorite Bond was — Sean Connery. Christoph, where do you fall in the realm?

“With Daniel Craig, we’re also going back to basics, back to the Bond of the Ian Fleming novels. In this sense, Craig is both a departure and a return.” –Christoph Lindner

Lindner: Well, I come in on the complete other end of the spectrum, but I always do. Whoever the latest Bond is, that’s always my favorite Bond. I’m kind of a sucker for the media hype of the moment. But one of the things I really like about Daniel Craig — and Professor Dixon has already touched on this a little bit — is that with Daniel Craig, we’re also going back to basics, back to the Bond of the Ian Fleming novels.  Twitter In this sense, Craig is both a departure and a return. He’s a departure from the film character that we know in the form of, say, Roger Moore. But he’s a return to a much earlier version of Bond, the original literary Bond. And I think that’s also one of the reasons why some of the hardcore fans of 007 have responded well to Daniel Craig, because he both works on screen but then also resonates with the literary history of the character.

Knowledge@Wharton: So then who is considered to be, from the other perspective, the Bond that just didn’t make it with the fans?

Lindner: Well, George Lazenby is often cited because he only made one film, but then again, there are quite a few fans who view that film as the best Bond film ever. I think Timothy Dalton was one of the more problematic Bonds. He did I think two, three films.

Dixon: Two.

Knowledge@Wharton: Yes, two.

Lindner: But he never really took off as 007. And it was in those kind of awkward years in the 1980s, when the series itself was struggling a bit to make itself relevant to cinema and popular culture at the time.

Dixon: I agree. I mean, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is an excellent film. Lazenby was apparently so difficult to work with on the set that that’s basically why he was never called back. It had a great director, Peter Hunt, and Diana Rigg was in that, too. But I agree with Christoph also that the Timothy Dalton films are very problematic. They were directed by John Glen, who was an action director and really a second-unit guy, and who really didn’t know how to get characterization. The Pierce Brosnan ones also seemed somewhat like marking time in a way, because he was coming off a TV series called Remington Steele, and he never really seemed to fit as a Bond with me. But I am again agreeing with Christoph. We’re returning to Ian Fleming’s original characterization of Bond, and they are moving into the future, but also making a return to the original source material.

Knowledge@Wharton: The other interesting part of when you think about the Bond films is, obviously, a lot of people talk about the Bond girls, and the careers some of them have been able to have afterward, but also some of the villains. Christoph Waltz, who plays the villain in this one, is a fairly well-known actor, but certainly this could be another stepping stone for him in terms of his career.

Dixon: Well, I don’t know, Christoph, if you want to weigh in on that, but to me, I heard someone characterize Christoph Waltz as being, once upon a time, Quentin Tarantino’s most interesting discovery, and now, the most boring actor in the business. I’m afraid that he’s become the go-to villain. So I don’t know if this is going to be a stepping stone for him. I mean, it certainly was for other people, but to me, that’s a problematic aspect of this particular film.

Lindner: Well, I think if we take out how we feel about Christoph Waltz as an actor and we look at the character he plays in Spectre — and I don’t want to give away too much for those who have not yet seen the film, but I don’t think I’m giving away too much to say that he plays Blofeld. And what I think lots of fans have really enjoyed is watching a character become Blofeld. In all the previous Bond films, when Blofeld has appeared, he’s appeared fully formed. He’s already stroking his white cat. He’s already got a scar on his face. He’s already bald and living in some kind of volcano secret base. In this film, Spectre, we actually get the history of what transforms this character into the super-villain known as Blofeld. And from that point of view, I found the character quite interesting.

Knowledge@Wharton: Well, it is interesting because of the fact that a lot of people will remember Waltz from Inglourious Basterds, and I think in some respects, that may even just typecast him a little bit, because when you’re doing a film with Quentin Tarantino, and that one specifically, you know that there’s a little bit of a different edge to that film.

“I heard someone characterize Christoph Waltz as being, once upon a time, Quentin Tarantino’s most interesting discovery, and now, the most boring actor in the business.” –Wheeler Winston Dixon

Dixon: That was such a breakout role for him, and of course, he won the Academy Award. I think that did typecast him, somewhat like Christopher Lee got typecast as Dracula after his first Dracula film. But I don’t know — when it comes to Blofeld, I like Charles Gray and Donald Pleasance, although what Christoph says is an interesting point as well.

Knowledge@Wharton: The other part of this dynamic with the Bond films, especially the last couple of them, has been the money train that really follows them. It’s similar to Star Wars…. But the upshot is that advertisers want to jump on board the Bond films. A lot of people have probably seen the Heineken ad that is out right now with Daniel Craig playing the Bond character. Omega watches is obviously on board with this. It really is a money train for a lot of these companies right now.

Lindner: It’s been that way for quite some time in the James Bond franchise — for decades now, it’s been a multimedia phenomenon. We also have to remember that the world of 007 goes beyond just cinema, and the endorsement of particular products in other media industries like video gaming. This is a huge part of the 007 franchise. Of course, there is the music. And the Heineken issue is quite big here in the Netherlands where I live, because this is where Heineken is made. And the martini versus Heineken debate is something that has a lot of people going, “How can Bond drink beer? Is it OK for Bond to drink beer?” And of course, that’s quite an absurd question, but you see a lot of people talking about it. Lots of people actually care about that switch.

Knowledge@Wharton: I can’t ever imagine the James Bond character sitting down and sucking down a beer. There’s something just physically wrong about that, Wheeler.

Dixon: Well, I don’t know. I guess I could see him enjoying a beer at some point or another. But going back to what you were talking about, the money train, I’d just like to point out that back in 1962, the first Bond film, Dr. No, was made for just $1.1 million but grossed $59.5 million. And Sean Connery was only paid $100,000 for appearing in that film. Then if you look at the 1990s, the budgets are $110 million, $135 million, and then for Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, about $200 million. But the box office has been just going up every single time. So I think that Barbara Broccoli and the Eon people, and particularly with Skyfall, it jumped from $576 million to $1.108 billion and change. They really know what they’re doing.

Knowledge@Wharton: In Spectre, James Bond has a new boss that he has to deal with.

Lindner: I believe that voice is the voice of the character of Miss Moneypenny.

Knowledge@Wharton: Yes.

Lindner: This touches on something that was brought up just a little bit earlier, which is the role of Bond girls in the film. We’ve touched on the villains, we’ve touched on Bond. But I think one of the more complicated and difficult things to talk about in the franchise is this figure of the Bond girl, which has both become essential to the formula and yet is widely recognized as culturally problematic.

The new films have tried in each film to dance around this. They’ve tried to figure out ways to provide more gender equality, to be more feminist, to provide strong women characters, and yet still deliver women in bikinis and exotic sex scenes and so on. I think that’s one of the areas of the series where we can see the filmmakers continue to struggle to achieve the right balance.

Dixon: Yes, I would agree with Christoph. Yes, that was Moneypenny played by Naomie Harris, but you know, regarding casting Monica Bellucci as a Bond girl, Daniel Craig has gone on record as saying, isn’t it great that I have someone who’s my own age, so that the whole thing is much more equal than it usually is, where you have somebody in their 30s, 40s, whatever, and a young woman in their 20s. So I think that that is one of the ways that they’re trying to address this.

“They’ve tried to figure out ways to provide more gender equality, to be more feminist, to provide strong women characters, and yet still deliver women in bikinis and exotic sex scenes and so on.” –Christoph Lindner

Knowledge@Wharton: Wasn’t the Halle Berry character from a few films back with Pierce Brosnan considered to be kind of in that vein, Christoph, that you were talking about?

Lindner: Well, yes. And it kind of connects to one of the more interesting recurring scenes in the Bond films. We all know the iconic moment of Ursula Andress coming out of the sea in Dr. No back in the 1960s. And then when Halle Berry played a Bond girl, there was a scene in that film where she comes out of the sea wearing a bikini, and it was widely interpreted as a remaking of the original Andress moment. But the thing that I really liked was the way in Casino Royale, we had Daniel Craig coming out of the sea in a man bikini. This was another way of reworking it, and at the same time suggesting that the body of Bond itself could also be an object of desire, that Bond himself could be presented onscreen as a sexual object. I think in that sense, the series was quite self-consciously playing around with the gender roles and the gender expectations that we’ve come to associate with 007.

Dixon: I would say one of the comments that Daniel Craig made about the character he plays is, let’s face it, he’s a misogynist. He’s not very reliable. He doesn’t stick around for very long. So there’s that. But I think the character of Bond has always been eye candy, and has always been sexualized in a way. The way in which this has manifested itself has changed over the decades. Connery was somewhat remote and mysterious, but Craig is very accessible and visceral and physical in a way that some of the earlier and more effete Bonds — like say Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan — were not. But there’s a physicality about Daniel Craig that I think appeals to both men and women, and I think that that’s one of the major things that’s driving the franchise at this point.

Knowledge@Wharton: Christoph, how many more Bond books are there that haven’t been turned into movies at this point?

Lindner: There’s quite a few, because we have both some short stories by Ian Fleming that haven’t been touched, and we also have the Bond “continuation” novels, and that material really hasn’t been sampled and adapted yet for the screen. But there might be good reason for that, because in the two, three authors — I think we’re up to four authors now who have done Bond continuation novels, and there are now more Bond continuation novels than there are original Bond novels. But there, the series goes in all kinds of strange directions, and by strange, I mean, Bond driving a Saab, Bond taking on all sorts of jobs that we don’t associate with him. So I think that material is not really very adaptable for the screen. What I like about the current direction of the series is that they’re taking key components and figuring out ways to narrative-ize it, bring it into the film. So something like SPECTRE, the secret organization that’s haunted Bond in the series for a long, long time — it’s not a direct adaptation of any particular story or novel, but it takes a key component and then it develops it. I think that sort of approach is probably productive for the future.

Knowledge@Wharton: I’m guessing that the people surrounding the Bond productions are hoping that the tie in with Saab was not the reason why Saab went in the tank the way it did a couple years ago.

Dixon: I just would agree with Christoph. One of the things that the Eon Productions and the Broccoli interest have done is strive for consistency. So the novels that are not Ian Fleming novels but are rather the knockoff novels, or whatever you would say, the “continuation” novels — they deviate from the characters in ways that Eon never will. This is why they’re resisting calls for a black James Bond or a woman as James Bond, for example.

Lots of people have posed this possibility as a way to potentially freshen up the franchise. Personally I would be perfectly happy with that. I can think of a lot of people who would be good in that role. But then of course, Roger Moore has famously said that he just could not see it happening. And even though I don’t agree with that, I can agree on a commercial level, or at least understand on a commercial level, why they’re’ going to keep the Bond formula very much the same, but give the illusion of difference.

“I think the character of Bond has always been eye candy, and has always been sexualized in a way. The way in which this has manifested itself has changed over the decades.” –Wheeler Winston Dixon

Knowledge@Wharton: The other thing interesting about it is that with all the Bond films that have been made over the 50 years or so of the franchise, partly because as you said there’s still been content out there, we haven’t even seen, I think, the thought of any of the early Bond films being remade, correct?

Dixon: Well, there is of course Thunderball. That’s a whole other thing, with Kevin McClory having the rights. Christoph, you can talk to that. You know what I’m talking about.

Lindner: Well, of course. And that’s sort of the unofficial Bond film, where they brought back Sean Connery after he had retired and come back again. But it’s not the only one. Casino Royale has been made a number of times.

Knowledge@Wharton: Oh, OK.

Lindner: Casino Royale was first televised in the U.S., and Bond was an American character — Jimmy Bond, who worked for the CIA. This was a live television production of the novel. Then, a spoof version of Casino Royale was made in the 1960s — again, an unofficial Bond film.

Dixon: Which was terrible.

Lindner: So some of these texts have appeared more than once, and I think there’s plenty of scope as the Bond universe reinvents itself with each new actor to go back to some of the early material. I’d be curious, Wheeler, what you’d think, but I can imagine a film like Moonraker being updated for the contemporary moment. It’s a film about technology and space and surveillance.

Dixon: I could definitely see them coming as remakes, but I’ll tell you this much. I know that many people consider Goldfinger to be the absolute best Bond film of all time, even my students. So I think remaking them is a dicey proposition, because the originals are so available and people will always compare them to them.

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