It says something about the respective self-images of our cultures that the American superhero archetype is a cross between a high school football jock and Francis of Assisi (in tights), while here in Britain we favour a near-psychopath and compulsive womaniser (in a tux, as our American cousins would have it).
The myth of James Bond easily brings out the nerd in me. Thanks to a useful secondhand bookshop and a shared enterprise with my friend Nigel I had read all the Fleming books before I left primary school. At a push I could probably still name them in chronological order.
Perhaps that’s the best age to read them (I haven’t looked at them since), when the “dirty bits” could still seem exciting, when you’re not too critical. Perhaps they are better written than I remember (you’d have to hope so if the likes of Kingsley Amis and Sebastian Faulks could be persuaded to continue the canon), and to be fair there are the strange books, You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me, which seem to have sprung from some inner trouble in Fleming.
Then there were the films. Connery was (and remains) the perfect Bond, cold, a little cruel, athletic, twinkly enough to be charming, and shallow. Back in the 1960s, being too young I didn’t have easy access to the films: they were certificate A, which meant that if you were under 16 you had to be taken by an adult. I’m still not quite sure what this supposed to achieve. Was the adult supposed to put his or her hands over your eyes at the sight of a bottom? (While we’re on the subject, isn’t it strange that the bottom has long been considered somehow less risqué than frontal nudity? I suppose it’s because we all have bottoms, though this only highlights the strangeness of our inhibitions.) Anyway an adult did take me to see You Only Live Twice, before I read the book, so when I got round to the novel I realised quickly what liberties the films were taking: just about the only thing that survives from the original in Roald Dahl’s screenplay is the Japanese setting.
By that time the films were beginning to be overtaken by their own mythology, the gadgets, the epic scale. The earlier films (above all From Russia with Love, still the best of them) had managed a compelling balance of fantasy and grittiness. By the time Roger Moore came along they had collapsed into comic book absurdity. I daresay Moore was right for the producers’ concept of what a Bond film should be like. I couldn’t stand those films, but as I say, when it comes to Bond, the 10 year old nerd in me wakes up. I wanted to see my Bond.
Dalton and Brosnan were both much better, though both of them a little too soft, a little too sympathetic, and I wasn’t really interested. Then came what we’re supposed to call the franchise reboot with Casino Royale and Daniel Craig. Craig so obviously looked wrong for the part that I was intrigued, and happily so. Casino Royale was probably the best Bond film since From Russia with Love. Craig’s acting skills overcame any doubts about the way he looked. The script gave him a chance to reinvent Bond for the 21st Century, edgy and ruthless, but with enough vulnerability to make his attachment to Eva Green’s Vesper credible. They had the wit to ditch the overt fantasy silliness, leaving us with a pumped up version of a spy thriller to match the Bourne franchise.
Quantum of Solace was a high octane mess, but you could just about forgive that (Bond after all was supposed to be a tad messed up by the death of his girlfriend). Having finally caught up with Skyfall it seems it wasn’t a blip after all, but part of a downward slide.
Skyfall has the same scriptwriters as Casino Royale, and I don’t know what they’ve been smoking, because the script is an absolute stinker. Not least there’s the pretty obvious problem that it makes no sense whatsoever.
In his published conversations with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock popularised the idea of the McGuffin, a notional objective that drove the plot. Hitchcock’s point about McGuffins is that they don’t have to be that serious, don’t have to have the weight of Aristotle’s notion of action, because they would quickly become swamped by everything else going on in the film. Skyfall suggests that there are limits to how trivial the McGuffin can be.
To start with, it’s not even a credible McGuffin. Apparently a hard drive has been stolen containing the identities of all the undercover spies working for MI6. I know the security services can be lax about security, but it beggars belief that such a list could exist in a single location. The worst of it is that it’s completely unnecessary to the plot, which turns out to be a fairly simple revenge tale, made to look complex by the ridiculous machinations of the villain.
(I appreciate that the Javier Bardem character wanted to show how far he was in control, how easily he could humiliate MI6, but he could have done that without the stupid plot devices that drive this film, which of course are so flaky that the villain is bound to fail.)
All of this speaks to a cynicism in the writers and producers, or at least a mistaken belief that we will become so wrapped up in the fantasy of the film that we won’t bother to question its premises, which isn’t quite what Hitchcock meant. It seems apparent that if you push the limits of credibility too far, the real world intrudes and exposes the fantasy for what it is. Strangely the mainstream critics seemed to have loved the film, perhaps dazzled by its impressive cast and great photography, but the chatterati on the Internet complained loudly about the silliness of the plot, quite rightly, some dismissing the film as the worst ever in the series. Not least Craig’s version of Bond seemed marooned by the tonal uncertainty: Bond still gets to go to bed with three beautiful women, and moves on from two of them without a blink of regret, but this is is the old male wish fulfilment nonsense, which the new generation was supposed to have rebalanced with a grittier realism.
It doesn’t help either that the script labours tediously around some kind of notion that Bond specifically and MI6 generally are anachronisms in an age of cyber crime. We’ve had this dinosaur notion since Judi Dench first joined the cast but the films don’t seem to have much idea about what to do with it (except somehow to vindicate Bond as an effective killing machine – “these computer thingummies are all very well but they can’t strangle people with their bare hands can they?”).
Then there’s a peculiar period in the first part of the film where everyone seems to be saying “bloody” (as in the swear word). It’s as though the writers suddenly decided that we needed to have some reassurance that these characters really were British, but it rings quite false. It’s as though this particular feast is being stalked by the ghost, not of Sean Connery, but that other great 60s icon Alf Garnett.
It’s just a Bond film, but the carelessness around achieving even a semblance of credibility in the plot has become a widespread disease, in film and TV, infecting the end even of the generally meticulous Breaking Bad. Enjoying any fiction requires the willing suspension of disbelief, but that suspension itself demands the maintenance of some kind of internal logic. Writers, directors and producers who ignore this truth apparently believe that their audiences are too dull or stupid to notice their laziness in plot construction. But we are not that stupid, and stories can only be compelling if at some level they ring true.