It might be an odd thing to say when talking about one of the most iconic figures in popular culture, but James Bond is an enigma. After more than half a century of existence, most of us have at least some sort of an opinion on who or what agent 007 should be. However, as the recent discussions regarding potential successors for Daniel Craig have highlighted, these opinions are massively varied and often contradictive.
So, who or what is James Bond? Let's try to clear the picture a bit by taking a quick look at Bond's origin, evolution and what it tells us about Bond's identity.
Fleming's Self Exploration - The Foundation
As most probably know, Ian Fleming was driven to write the Bond novels drawing inspiration from his own experience on working in the secret service. However, there is also a bit lesser known aspect that drove him. A man highly interested in alchemy, occult, philosophy and psychology, Fleming wrote these novels as an exercise to explore and battle his own inner demons.
To put it simply, Bond was, for Fleming, a perfect version of himself, villains his darker side and "Bond girls" his feminine side. That is why many of the novels follow a similar formula. Bond engages with a villain, gets captured and finally defeats the the villain with some help from a female ally. In other words, the perfect version of Fleming gets challenged by his darker side, whom he eventually defeats with some help from his feminine side. An aspect of Bond's origin that shouldn't be overlooked.
As a result, Fleming created a suave, charismatic womanizer... or a "sexist misogynist dinosaur ", whichever one you prefer. A somewhat cold 00 agent with an expensive taste and not the best relationship with authority in this exaggerated and fascinating take on the world of espionage. This is the foundation that all the subsequent entries have built upon, celebrated but also explored and challenged. Let's see how.
Connery Creates An Icon
Although Fleming was the one who started it all, it's Connery's portrayal that truly made Bond an icon. Now, personally, I treat Connery simply as one of the many versions of the character and not some superior entity. However, one can't overlook the long shadow, his tenure cast.
The driving force behind Connery's portrayal was taking this abovementioned foundation, Fleming had created, and use all the appeal it offered, to create these larger than life adventures. Thanks to the talent both on and off screen, coupled with Connery's sheer charisma, it worked and became a symbol of cool. A perfect fit at a moment in time when society was opening up on many levels.
What does it tell us about Bond's identity? It highlights the allure that the foundation of Bond offers. In other words, a big part of Bond's identity is to be an object of excitement and desire in a fairly unapologetic way - to provide an escapism in the best sense of the word.
Lazenby Brings Vunerability
Lazenby tried and, largely, failed to mimic Connery's charisma and cool. However, he did bring more vunerability to the character. It was the first time we could see glimces into the more emotional side of Bond.
What does it tell us about Bond's identity? Under that cold facade is still a person. We don't need to constantly explore that person, but it should not be ignored either.
Moore Embraces The Silliness
Connery's later attempts began to lose steam and the plots got sillier and sillier, which resulted in Connery's departure from the role. Now, instead of shying away from this seemingly negative trend, Moore's Bond banked on it. He embraced the potential for fun and sillines that the Bond's foundation offered. The key here was doing it with easygoing charm and ambition.
What does it tells us about Bond's identity? It is possbile and okay to simply have fun with the foundation, Fleming created, as long as it is done with style.
Dalton Goes Back To Basics
Dalton, being very much ahead of his time, went for a darker, grittier and a more realistic approach, while drawing inspiration from Fleming's original creation. Therefore, he is probably the closest onscreen version of the character, Fleming originally created. He is simply placed in a bit different political landscape. Dalton's tenure also brought back the anti authority element of Bond's identity and started a move towards more three dimensional female characters.
What does it tell about Bond's identity? The very basic foundation, Fleming created all these years ago, can still be a breath of fresh air in a completely different political landscape. In other words, it's timeless and adaptable.
Brosnan Creates A Compromise
After a six year hiatus and changes in both society and the world of cinema, Bond's relevance was in doubt. Therefore, Brosnan's Bond had to be many things at the same time - a compromise of all the abovementioned element's of Bond's identity. It did have a fair amount of charisma and sense of fun. However, it also had a bit of coldness, vunerability and seriousness. It challenged but, at the same time, glorified the Bond of old. Additionally, there were also a few little peeks into the character under that cold surface.
What does it tell us about Bond's identity? Bond, with all of his varied and classic characteristics, can still function, excite and be celebrated, even though the times change. However, only as long as the mythos is simultaneously challenged by itself and open for a change.
Craig Shakes The Foundation
Craig's Bond initially gave up many of the more classic elements, in order to deliver the most human, gritty and complex version of Bond yet. Audience wanted their adventures to be more realistic and serious, it's characters deeper and more complex. Therefore, Craig did not set out to play an icon but a character. His tenure also explored Bond's dislike of authority and struggle with relationships. Subsequently, it addressed the conflict between old and new, nostalgia and innovation. All the while, steadily moving back towards the more classic elements of Bond.
What does it tell us about Bond's identity? When Brosnan proved that Bond can still be, who he is, as long as the foundation is challenged, then Craig showed, just how far the foundation can be challenged. Therefore, Craig's tenure revealed the untapped potential of Bond's mythos. Furthermore, reinvention and the conflict between past and present are not obstacles for Bond's identity, but a part of it.
Bond's Identity - A Harmony In Contradictions
Taking all the above said into account, does it mean that the next Bond must be an exploration of it's own relevance no matter what? No, not necessarily. The key is simply to understand and embrace Bond's multilayered and contradictive identity. As mentioned previously, Fleming created this suave and charismatic spy in order to explore his own personality. This aim to explore one's different sides has transcended into Bond's identity. Only now, Bond's mythos is not about exploring Fleming, but Bond himself in the everchanging world.
Therefore, whether it's the character underneath the surface, or the fun and excitement, the surface provides, it is all a part of Bond. He can be a blunt instrument, who follows orders, but also an anti authority figure. A celebration of his foundation, but also a critique that challenges both, himself and the world around him. Bond is as much about embracing the current era, as it is a callback to a very different one. Thus, offering both, nostalgia and perspective. James Bond will return... because it is a part of his identity.