web stats

CSBG Archive

John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: James Bond

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: James Bond

(or “The Dreaded Reboot”)

Even its detractors would have to admit that the James Bond film series is a genuinely astonishing achievement. Even the most popular movies die off after five or six sequels (horror icons like Freddy and Jason managed eight to ten), but James Bond’s 22nd “official” film is in theaters now, and they’re already getting started on Number 23. The series really does seem to be an “evergreen” franchise, having outlasted five of the actors who played the part (not counting the Niven Bond, the Sellers Bond, the Woody Allen Bond…) and the author who wrote the series of books it was based on.

Of course, those same detractors might also argue that the Bond movies are more of a formula than a storytelling engine; after an exciting opening set-piece, Bond meets with M and learns of some threat to the free world, then goes and gets interesting gadgets from Q (an element played down in recent movies, as the real-world spy technology has essentially caught up with Bond’s MI6 boffins). He goes off and investigates, meeting beautiful women, getting into an exciting chase and evading at least one elaborate death-trap, before fighting the villain in an action-packed climax. That sums up the plot of most Bond movies and books (although it should be noted that Ian Fleming’s novels were far less gadget-heavy and more cerebral, playing to the strengths of the printed page instead of the big screen.)

But the Bond formula offers plenty of flexibility; as a jet-setting spy, he has his choice of world locations from Jamaica to Russia to New Orleans, and “chase scenes” and “death-traps” and “gadgets” can mean anything from le parkour foot-races to elaborate space battles, depending on the particular era of the series. Bond films don’t so much follow a formula as create one; our whole popular perception of the “spy movie” is moulded by the Bond films, whether imitating them, spoofing them (yes, hello, there, Austin, in the back) or reacting against them, as with John le Carre’s spy novels (which have themselves been adapted for the screen.)

The flexibility of the Bond formula for the writer, though, is different from the flexibility of the Bond formula in the eyes of the audience. Writers might insist that there’s always something new to be done with a glamorous super-spy who needs to save the world from a crazed madman’s evil scheme, but when the audience stops being able to tell one Bond film apart from another, it’s time to employ a strategy loved by some and hated by others: The “reboot”.

Reboots are generally employed very late in the life of a storytelling engine, usually after the engine has been partially or totally ruined by bad writing decisions that have crippled its ability to function. Either so many elements have been added that only fanatical followers of the series can understand all the layers of complications obscuring the original, entertaining core concept (the Superman Emergency Squad, the bottle city of Kandor, New Krypton, super-pets, and a dozen types of Kryptonite) or else too many important elements have been destroyed/permanently altered due to a lack of foresight on the part of the writers and editors (the deaths of the Joker, the Green Goblin, Harry Osborn, and the lead character and entire supporting cast of ‘Aquaman’.) Usually, the blame for this lies with the editors; writers tend to have their hands full thinking of story ideas (that is, after all, the point of a storytelling engine, to help the writers think of ideas) and it’s the editor’s job to evaluate their impact on the series.

The point is, when the series gets so completely written into a corner that you can’t tell any more stories, you “reboot”, starting over at the beginning, clearing the decks of all the baggage that’s accumulated over the years, and going back to the core concept. Long-term fans tend to dislike it, because the root word of “fan” is “fanatic”, and fanatical followers of a long-running series tend to enjoy all the baggage as much as they do the core concept, but a well-executed reboot can win over skeptical fans. It also tends to bring in new fans, who relish the chance to get in on the ground floor of the next generation of the series. (Of course, that next generation will usually have baggage of its own, not to mention the problem of new writers who try to bring back that old baggage because they’re fans themselves–Ultimate Stryfe and Ultimate Onslaught, anyone?–but a reboot at least offers a chance at some fresh stories.)

But how does that relate to James Bond? After all, there’s no complex continuity in the Bond films–they’ve changed lead actors five times, and nobody except George Lazenby noticed. There aren’t any damaging decisions to undo; every Bond film is pretty self-contained, sharing very few recurring characters…unless you argue that the introduction of John Cleese as “R”, or Felix Leiter losing a leg are “damaging decisions”, really, any Bond film can serve as an introduction to the series. Even the chronology is loose, vague and unimportant to the films; Bond has moved from Cold War politics to a post 9/11 world, and all that’s changed is what country the villain is working for.

A soft continuity demands a soft reboot, and that’s exactly what “Casino Royale” is; it doesn’t so much erase the previous movies as gently ignore them. It could be a flashback–after all, Bond movies seem to take place in a sort of ever-present “now”, so a flashback film that seems to post-date the movies it’s set before seems kind of appropos. It could be a reboot–sure, M is the same character as in ‘Goldeneye’, but Bond films have pretty short memories, so why not? It could just be another stylistic shift, the same as occurred from ‘Moonraker’ to ‘For Your Eyes Only’, or from ‘A View To A Kill’ to ‘The Living Daylights’. Since the Bond films are fairly chameleonic in tone (as all long-running series tend to be), it’s not too surprising to see shifts like that.

Ultimately, the much-debated Bond reboot is really just another way for the series to adapt in order to stay relevant, something all truly effective storytelling engines do. Times change, and a timeless series isn’t so much one that fits the changing times as one that changes with the times. Daniel Craig is the Bond that fits this era; he’s a rebooted Bond, yes, but in a sense, they all are.

21 Comments

very true. shame quantum of solace was balls though.

I’ve been impressed by the way the new films utilize the tropes of previous installments in more in-film ways. Gone are the unconnected action-openers and “Q explaining a new weapon Bond will surely use when he needs it most.”

In their place are openers with a narrative purpose (in Casino Royale it was to efficiently explain this Bond had just gotten his 007 license, and how; in Quantum, it was used as a bridge between the last scene in CS and Quantum’s first).

Technologically, they’ve slipped in state of the art equipment and assumed the audience would recognize what it is. For instance, apparently the computers in MI6 are alarmingly close to those used in “Minority Report,” and none of the staff needs to be brought up to speed on how to use any of it.

The old gags are still there, just used to serve other story/visual needs more effectively.

Since you mentioned The Living Daylights… that entire movie is practically a prototype for the Craig movies now (License to Kill even moreso, but they sort of didn’t do that one by choice). A change to a harsher version of Bond, one that’s less goofy, but still with a nice dose of respect for the series’ past. Mind you, in that case it was more a situation where they took some of the silliness and made it more realistic, rather than eliminating it altogether. It may suffer from the Rambo 3 effect, but it’s still probably the most underrated Bond movie ever produced.

(And I swear I never noticed the “Q only gives Bond the gadget that he needs for THAT PARTICULAR SITUATION” thing as a kid until, of all things, the abysmal James Bond Jr. animated series beat it into my head. Funny how you don’t notice bits of a formula / engine (here, the line is so blurry that you can argue either) until they’re presented five times a week.)

Of course, in that TLD the action scenes were easily comprehensible without a healthy dose of Gravol, which is something I couldn’t say for Quantum of Solace. ENOUGH WITH THE FREAKING SHAKY-CAM!

Hey John.

LTRFTW. I pretty much agree with everything you’ve just said about the Bond films. Albeit, I’d argue that each new actor has seen a reboot of sorts. After all, I’ve heard directors, actors, producers and even Bond-girls (nearly made a bad Freudian slip just there!) telling us that the “new” film with which they are involved is taking Bond in a completely new direction, since the early Roger Moore days.

Funnily enough, as a long time Bond fan I’ve been rather underwhelmed by the last two episodes. It’s nothing against Craig; he’s a damn fine actor, and I’m rather glad that Q department seems to have faded away somewhat with the demise of the late Desmond Llewelyn, it’s just that other films seem to be doing the job so much better at the moment. Jason Bourne, I’m looking at you!

I remember being treated to tickets to see Casino Royale by my then girlfriend, shortly after release, being blown away by the first twenty odd minutes, and spending much of the remaining film just wanting to get away! The Quantum of Solace doesn’t even have a twenty minute period I could recommend.

But then again, given both films runaway success at the box office, what do I know?

I’d agree with the premise that each of the last few new actors have “gently rebooted” the series: Living Dalights, Goldeneye, Casino Royale. CR more thoroughly than the others, but still. It’s a shame that Quantum falls so short of CR’s promise.

Surprised at Chris McAree: yes the first 20 mins were wonderful, but the rest was pretty good too. Very true to the book too, which is a bonus.

I wonder if this sort of “soft continuity” might be a valuable model for big-company superhero franchises to follow? Arguably, All-Star Superman (haven’t read the other AS books) does — it neither fully adopts nor fully ignores continuity, but just tells its story. But in general it seems a more flexible model for indefinite series than a more rigorous continuity does.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

November 26, 2008 at 4:48 pm

The only thing that caught me off guard with the reboot is it came at such an odd time – Die Another Day was easily the best of the Brosnan films, and was a hit at the box office, beating ‘XXX’ whose whole selling point was ‘Bond for a new generation’.
As such, I don’t think it was audience reactions that brought about the reboot, I think it was the producers wanting a change, or feeling they could be making more money by being more like Bourne.

Also, Le Carre novels are a reaction to Bond films?
Outrage!
There’s a bit more to his work than that…

they’ve changed lead actors five times, and nobody except George Lazenby noticed

Interestingly enough, it was Lazenby who didn’t want to do another film, as he had felt secondary to special effects whilst shooting, and ignored during publicity for the film.
As an aside, in a similar way, it was Dalton who decided not to come back for Goldeneye.

My problems with ‘Casino Royale’ were twofold; one, the card tournament felt strangely uninteresting. The change from baccarat to poker should, in theory, have made for a more exciting story, because poker is a more skill-based game than baccarat…but in the end, all the stuff about “tells” and Le Chiffre’s bleeding eye and all the set-up was wasted, and it came down to Bond having better cards than Le Chiffre during a big hand where Bond had no choice but to go all in. No skill, no excitement, just luck of the draw.

And second, once Le Chiffre dies, there’s a long stretch of the movie that just seems to sort of meander aimlessly. The audience knows that Vesper has to be a traitor, because the movie hasn’t ended and it’s the only possible remaining plot twist, but the film takes so long in getting to that point that it’s a recipe for frustration for anyone who’s good at anticipating the plot.

Oh, and I wanted a car chase scene. :)

FunkyGreenJerusalem

November 26, 2008 at 5:26 pm

And second, once Le Chiffre dies, there’s a long stretch of the movie that just seems to sort of meander aimlessly. The audience knows that Vesper has to be a traitor, because the movie hasn’t ended and it’s the only possible remaining plot twist, but the film takes so long in getting to that point that it’s a recipe for frustration for anyone who’s good at anticipating the plot.

Don’t know if you’ve read the book – and the second half of the film follows the book very closely, with the only changes being good changes – but the film actually feels as though it has direction after Le Chiffre dies compared to the book, where Vesper isn’t exposed until she kills herself and reveals it in a suicide note.

I think the film makers thought we’d either expect the government would come and force him back, or that there would be an attempt on their lives or something.
I think they totally misjudged how long we’d all been sitting in our seats by that point, and forgot a basic rule of making a film in that once things start moving, you’ve got to keep them moving.

Have you thought about doing any Story Telling Engines about series like: The Executioner, The Destroyer (of Remo Williams fame), Outlanders, Deathlands. Those series of books all have countless sequels. We are talking easy 30s and 40s. Destroyer and Executioner are well over 100 now. I think Outlanders might make a particularly good example for the series. These series are not high fiction, but they are definitely pulp fun.

Bond movies aren’t really all sequels–although there have been sequel elements every now & then–they are movies you can strictly treat as stand alone entities.

Oh, wow, I just realized: the New Gods/Fourth World series has never been talked about in this column. Seems like that’s an obvious one to do, particularly with Morrison’s interest in it re: Seven Soldiers and Final Crisis.

I’ve never exactly been a fan, but on an academic level Jack Kirby in the DC Universe, and its subsequent results, has always been a curiosity to me. Any chance “Fourth World” might be on the docket?

FGJ: “Die Another Day was easily the best of the Brosnan films,”

Seriously?

It hit such ridiculous points, with the ice castle and the invisible car that it just became way too silly.

Casino Royal was a good restart, taking us from Proto-Bond to Bond. The problem with QoS was that it droppe us right back with Proto Bond.
He had no charm, no inner smile….the film was embarrassed of it’s own heritage (note that “Agent “Fields” ‘ name is never said, though the credit reveals it to indeed be “Strawberry”). She sleeps with Bond for no real reason, yet later M tells us it’s becuase he charms women to thier death., ignoring that they forgot to film that.

Bernard the Poet

November 27, 2008 at 6:39 am

John, I totally agree with your central premise that the key to James Bond’s longevity is that by regularly changing the lead actor you get to subtlely reboot the whole franchise at the same time. So George Lazenby’s film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is much closer to Ian Fleming’s novel than Sean Connery’s previous effort – the fantastical ‘You Only Live Twice’. Roger Moore pushes the comedy, while latching on to each passing fad – Blaxploitation, kung fu, outer space etc. This is followed by Dalton, who is grimmer, because he is competing with the much bloodier action movies of the late ‘Eighties. Brosnan’s Bond has a nostalgic quality – the world has totally changed, but he’s remained the same – even his Aston Martin is thirty years out of date. Finally we have Daniel Craig’s metrosexual Bond, often fimed in teeny-weeny bathing trunks and without a hair on his chest (In my opinion, he owes far too much to Jason Bourne and not enough to Sean Connery).

My question is, why haven’t other Hollywood studios aped the Bond franchise? Why did Paramount allow Indianna Jones to get old with Harrison Ford, when Josh Brolin (among others) could have filled his boots just as ably (and probably for a smaller salary).

On television, ‘Friends’ is probably the most financially successful sitcom of all time, but the network allowed it to deteriorate from a bright, breezy show about twenty-somethings into a creepy incestuous story about nearly-forty-somethings who couldn’t maintain a normal relationships. It would have been easy as pie to write out Ross, Phebe, et al over a period of time and introduce new younger characters, so that after say ten years, you had an entirely new cast.

And the great thing is, if your replacement isn’t deemed to be a success (such as George Lazenby’s Bond or George Clooney’s Batman), then you can just drop them and try again.

I think it’d be a lot harder to replace Ford as Indy than people think; they’ve tried, with a variety of “Young Indiana Jones” surrogates, and they’ve all seemed distinctly lacking. Ford has always had charisma and style (when he’s trying–unfortunately, I think it’s also painfully obvious when he’s not emotionally invested in a role), and also he took a hand in rewriting the character’s dialogue that’s been overlooked by a lot of people. Spielberg said about him, “Ford is a closet writer. He doesn’t do it often, but when he’s on set, he’ll come up with a line or a moment that will absolutely blow you away.” Jones is more Ford than Bond is Connery.

And no, I don’t think that Le Carre’s novels are “just” a reaction to Bond, but there’s no question that the genesis of the idea was rooted in Le Carre’s disdain for glamorous, flashy spy novels and a desire to show something less romantic and more realistic.

And last but not least, novel series like the Executioner and the Destroyer, and comics series like the Fourth World are all kind of hampered by a lack of access to the materials. If someone wants to start buying me Jack Kirby omnibuses, I’d be happy to read them, but I do feel I need to become familiar with a lot of the source material (either by amount or percentage for the shorter-lived series) before I do a column about it, and I feel like I stick my foot in my mouth often enough even when I do read/watch/listen to the stuff I’m writing about. :)

“Jones is more Ford than Bond is Connery.”

I wasn’t alive at the time, but from what I’ve read, Sean Connery’s Bond was about as big as it is possible to be. There had never been anything like it before. I vaguely remember a quote along the lines of”there were three Bs in the ‘Sixties, Bond, Beatles and Batman.”

Of course, Harrison Ford was very good in Raiders, but no-one is irreplaceable.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

November 27, 2008 at 5:56 pm

It hit such ridiculous points, with the ice castle and the invisible car that it just became way too silly.

None of which was more ridiculous than anything else in any other Bond movie… and no one had a problem with them.

I think much like with Superheroes and Star Wars etc, people forget that it was never as realistic or mature as they remember it being when they watched it as a kid.

I mean I had more problems accepting Brosnan catching up to the plane mid-air in Goldeneye than I did anything in Die Another Day.

And, of course, as Lazenby’s Bond seemed to hint, and perversely, the comedic Casino Royale had at its warped premise, that “James Bond” the persona went hand in hand with being “007”.

if you became holder of license 007, you became “James Bond”, creating the illusion of the immortal, ageless guardian of the UK.

In such a scenario, only if a 00 died a permanent death that could not be dispensed by vaguary, would the new holder of the license number have a new name.

Of course, we do see some continuity between movies, mostly tying into the person that impacted Bond’s personal life the most severely – Blofeld. Encountered originally by Connery, widows Lazenby, and the wife’s death avenged by Moore in For Your Eyes Only. One could even make the case that the female villain from The World is not Enough affected Bond in strange ways, because she appeared to be a dark mirror of his martyred wife.

* On CR: I didn’t feel at all that the “second half of the film follows the book very closely, with the only changes being good changes”–Vesper’s end got lost in all the sinking-house ridiculousness, and the book contained far more pathos–Vesper and Bond only found reconciliation on the night Vesper decided to kill herself. The movie was quite good, but it had a habit of missing the point of the best parts of the book: baccarat is far easier to film than poker, and the torture scene was needlessly diluted with wisecracks.

* The Bond films have sometimes even rebooted without changing actors: witness the shift from Moonraker to For Your Eyes Only during Roger Moore’s tenure. In general, each significant reboot has been made possible by returning to Ian Fleming’s original works: OHMSS, FYEO, TLD and CR are all truer to Fleming’s vision than the films that preceded each of them. (OHMSS “gently ignores” YOLT by pretending that Bond and Blofeld have never met before.)

* Lazenby’s Bond might have hinted at multiple Bonds, but the movie itself insists on his being the same man: the credits sequence has flashbacks from the previous films, and Lazenby even pulls souvenirs from From Russia With Love and Thunderball out of his desk. It would make little sense for him to store another man’s mementos or look on them with such recognition. I’ve always chosen to believe that all the Bonds were indeed one man, even if that means keeping the concepts of time and space relatively loose.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

December 2, 2008 at 9:03 pm

Of course, we do see some continuity between movies, mostly tying into the person that impacted Bond’s personal life the most severely – Blofeld. Encountered originally by Connery, widows Lazenby, and the wife’s death avenged by Moore in For Your Eyes Only.

There’s also Dalton reacting sadly to a mention of him ever getting married in License To Kill.
The relationship with Felix Leighter also has some continuity between the films.

IA – you are correct. The director for CR wanted to push the idea that 007 and the name Bond were tied together, and that in “Reality” there were many different people who assumed the “James Bond” identity. However – and this is a IIRC moment – Ian’s estate said “No, they’re all the same guy.” as confirmed by notions and mentions in the books and in not only the instances you gave, but in one of the Brosnon films, when discussing his Q-suitcase, he is asked “and the suicide pills?” (or something along those lines) and he says “I got rid of those a long time ago” referring to “From Russia with Love” when he was initially issued the case.

Leave a Comment

 

Categories

Review Copies

Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.

Browse the Archives