What Makes a Bond Film Work?
I have generally enjoyed all of the James Bond films I have watched, and I have really loved many of them. However, they break many of the rules of story telling, and this makes me wonder why they work so well.
I’ve read a couple of the Ian Fleming stories. They are very different from the films, at minimum because the character of 007 is portrayed so differently, and often because the film has almost nothing in common with the story from which it takes its name. I quit reading his work because Fleming is so misogynistic and racist. You might think this should have been obvious from the films, but where film Bond is sexist, book Bond is angry, insecure, and barely able to contain his desire to do women violence, and where black Americans are a point of amusement in some films, in the books they are portrayed with downright white panic. If the films had been made like the books, they never would have succeeded.
To create Bond for film, he was made suave, confident overflowing into arrogance, and nearly infallible. He breaks from the standard formula of protagonists by having no flaws or weaknesses. The only set-backs he faces are the ones completely out of his control, and of course he soon overcomes them. How does that even work? Who identifies with Bond? How does a character who always wins make an interesting story?
I’ve read a number of stories and seen many films that included exceptional secondary characters. Gandalf in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bren’s bodyguards in C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series. These characters provide a certain emotional pay-off that is that is basically hero worship, and can provide another emotional pay-off when they pay earned respect to the protagonist. However, their infallibility makes them difficult to identify with as main protagonists, which is why they are usually relegated to supporting roles, or in a story told from the point of view of another character, as in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
The Stranger in “High Plains Drifter” comes close. However, as the story unfolds, we learn of the betrayal, suffering, and death he suffered as a federal marshal. There is a genre of con and heist films where the protagonist wins by always predicting and planning for the set-backs. These include films like “The Sting”, “Heist”, and “Payback”. And there are films like “John Wick” or “Taken” whose unbeatable skill and unrelenting stubbornness cause them to win every time.
Are audiences identifying with no character, but worshiping the protagonist as a hero? Do audiences identify with the desire to have that kind of control over one’s enemies?
The Daniel Craig films are different. In those, Bond contends with inner demons, as well as serious doubts from his peers and superiors. Some people would undoubtedly agree with me that this is one of the things that makes the Daniel Craig films better, yet there must also be many people who prefer the dauntless version of James Bond.