Today is Global Bond Day, marking the release of Dr. No sixty years ago and the film series that went on to embed itself in the culture (by chance, my tube train home last Friday was coded 007). The climax of last year’s No Time To Die suggested that Ian Fleming’s MI6 agent would have no further adventures on screen, but with the familiar ‘James Bond will return’ still appearing in the final credits and the media still speculating about Danial Craig’s replacement, what might the future really hold?
If you think that ending was sufficiently unambiguous to prevent any such continuation, Conan Doyle's The Empty House shows that reports of a much-loved character’s death can prove an exaggeration. Watson assumed he knew Sherlock’s fate, and our supposedly objective view of Bond obliterated in a storm of explosions will surely turn out to be similarly misleading. The same was often the case in the Saturday morning serials whose mantle the Bond films’ action sequences surely inherited.
Such sleight-of-hand permits all that conjecture over casting a new Bond, then, along with associated debate over his/her age, sex and ethnicity. The successful actor might not even be playing a Bond who is still a double-oh agent. Most recently stripped of his status (before being immediately reinstated) in No Time To Die, Bond has actually suffered that indignity more than once. He has resigned or been suspended, considered dead or deemed rogue in You Only Live Twice, Licence to Kill, Die Another Day, Casino Royale and Skyfall, so will Bond #7 retire (‘at’ 60 he could collect his civil service pension, after all) to work outside the Secret Intelligence Service permanently? Probably not, as this would bring Bond too close to Robert McCall in The Equalizer or Bryan Mills in Taken. Might he have an assistant or professional partner who stays the course across consecutive productions? Some claim this should be the characters played by Lashana Lynch or Ana de Armas in the most recent film but I suspect this won’t be countenanced either, with the odd spin-off a more likely way forward if either is thought to warrant it.
Whoever is chosen will bring a change of emphasis, as has happened each time the role is recast, but Barbara Broccoli has made no secret of the fact that for her and fellow producer Michael G. Wilson something else is currently taking precedence over who might play the principal part – the right way forward for the concept as a whole.
The box office takings of the last few films demonstrate the continuing relevance of the movie experience, but that does not preclude changes. Indeed shifts in film-making techniques and wider box office drivers have always affected the Bonds – the darker tone of Licence to Kill, to date the only Bond film to receive a 15 rating in Britain, was informed by the success of Lethal Weapon, IMAX footage was included for the first time last year, whilst Craig has starred in both the shortest and the longest Bonds. The occasional production hiatus, usually brought about by legal problems, has tended to accelerate this trend.
Ignoring the particular circumstances that applied from Spectre onwards, a single plotline has bridged the gap between consecutive pairs of films several times and of course the same villains, henchmen and allies alike have been scattered throughout the entries. The years of Sean Connery and George Lazenby had the advantage of Fleming’s original novels. A few of those were left for Roger Moore’s era, with the plots or at least titles of the short stories available for the remainder. Even these had been exhausted by the time Pierce Brosnan arrived, however, and it was an open secret that his films began as ideas for stunts with a story only added to thread them together.
The reboot that was Casino Royale was a stroke of genius, helped by the film’s inherent quality, and so for me an obvious way forward now would be to continue where it left off, revisiting the rest of Fleming’s novels in the order of publication and remaking them all in the same stripped-back style of Martin Campbell’s film.
Fleming himself wrote an unproduced Bond screenplay that became his novel Moonraker, the only Bond story set entirely within Britain. Impressively cinematic despite the domesticity, with a midnight car chase through Kent, the eponymous nuclear rocket gleaming in its silo and some tight action scenes, it would lend itself well to this concept. Bond’s relationship with female Special Branch detective Gala Brand is especially well done, with her far from passive and becoming the only woman not to sleep with him – the ending, where they part in a London park, is surprisingly affecting. A more intimate treatment of Bond could work, and by chance long-term special effects supervisor for the series Chris Corbould noted at the BFI Southbank last weekend that the Matera car chase in No Time To Die was itself “reigned in” to focus on the emotional connection between Bond and Swann.
As a companion I would add a television series, entitled Ian Fleming’s James Bond, to take on the short stories – and for added interest, I’d cast a different actor as Bond in each of those. Or mix the formats up – James Cameron recently proposed, in an interview for Variety, "a movie that's six hours long and two and a half hours long at the same time. Same movie. You can stream it for six hours, or you can go and have a more condensed, roller coaster, immersive version of that experience in a movie theatre. Same movie." One reading of that is to have the Bond story as episodic TV but then have cinema-only films released at critical points that share footage but also introduce something more.
The franchise has earned billions over the last six decades but 007 is more than just a set of numbers, even his own. On His Majesty’s Secret Service or not, plus one or alone, there remains lots of potential. Let’s hope that becomes clear when he does return.