James Bond: A transmedia character
“This was going to be bad news, dirty news, and he didn’t want to hear it from one of the Section officers, or even from the Chief of Staff. This was to be murder. All right. Let M. bloody well say so.”
For viewers accustomed to the James Bond of cinema, reading The Living Daylights by Ian Fleming may come as something of a surprise. In contrast to the flashy, urbane, womanizing Bond of film, Fleming’s secret agent seems much more subdued. Bond is first shown at a firing range — although Bond is a crack shot, his prowess with a pistol seems very tame compared with the fantastic gadgets he has been saddled with in various films. When he meets with M, there is no flirtatious banter with Miss Moneypenny. It is clear that this Bond is a Cold War spy, with a serious mission, not a frivolous cartoon character with fancy toys and ladies. The ugly, unglamorous side of being a spy is evident in the above-cited quotation in which even the hardened spy’s stomach turns at the idea of committing murder as part of his duties.
In the films, Bond almost seems happy-go-lucky as he goes about his work in exotic locations, ordering martinis shaken and not stirred and eluding death at every turn. What makes Bond so well-loved as a cinematic hero is the cool and careless way he acts when facing the very real threats posed by spying. Fleming, in contrast, takes the threats posed by the Soviets very seriously. M puts on what is described as cold aura of command when informing Bond of his mission. He does not like telling Bond that the agent must kill a Russian agent, although kill Bond must, to protect the fate of 272. (Note also that rather than the cute names of the films, all of the other secret agents have numbers to parallel that of 007’s). Because Bond is one of the best agents in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he must bear the weighty responsibility of doing something that no one else wants to do. The atmosphere is almost funeral in M’s office, in contrast to the visual jokes which populate the film and the crackling atmosphere of sexuality and humor. As Bond contemplates killing a man in the Fleming novel, he is filled with a sense of dread about his work that seems contrary to the confident Bond of film who enjoys what he does and thinks everything will work out. Bond acts with compassion at the end — maiming the female sniper he has fallen in love with, rather than killing her, and he is clearly capable of emotional soul-searching in a way the Bond of cinema would disdain.
The different atmosphere between the Fleming books and the Bond films likely reflects the eras during which they were produced. When Fleming wrote his novels, the Cold War was still in full force and people were genuinely terrified of the implications of spying. In contrast, the Bond films began being produced during the swinging 60s. Even after the 60s ended and the films franchise continued, the Bond films retained their early sense of fun, playfulness, and brightness. Also, the films were targeted at an international audience. Action films, at least when the Bond films were first made, tended to lack a great deal of subtlety, darkness and nuance. These elements of the book were toned down and eventually eliminated.
Adapting a character to a different medium is always tricky. In some instances, a faithful transposition is warranted. Harry Potter of film is the same geeky hero that he is in his literary incarnation. Fans would have revolted if the core of the character had been changed, given how swiftly the books were adapted to films. The fanatical nature of the fan base demanded a faithful adaptation. Although the Bond novels were popular when first made into films, the films became far more popular than the books, while the Harry Potter saga was a wildly popular book series before it was ever adapted. This need for faithfulness to the scripts provided by very popular books with loyal adolescent viewers was also seen in The Hunger Games, which tends to have a relatively consistent tone with the books and keeps faithfully to its plotline.
James Bond: From Russia With Love
The central concern of From Russia With Love is very similar to that of the chapter quoted from Ian Fleming’s novel The Living Daylights: what happens when Bond the womanizer meets a beautiful woman through his spying duties. In the film, Bond crosses paths with a lovely Russian ‘defector’ named Tatiana who is actually being used as a decoy by the crime syndicate SPECTER. The film pits the two sides of Bond’s identity against one another — Bond the spy and Bond the ladies’ man. The blending of sensuality and spying is immediately apparent in the opening credits, which are projected onto an undulating female form.
The film, the second in the Bond franchise, contains many of the elements that were eventually to become characteristic of the Bond formula, including exotic locations, explosions, fights on moving vehicles, and lovely, deadly women. Tatiana’s defection obvious trap — by forcing Bond to deal with Tatiana’s claim that she has a valuable Russian decoding device, SPECTER hopes to assassinate him, retrieve the device, and sell it back to the Russians.
However, while the plot is somewhat convoluted, in Bond films plot is less important than style. The most memorable character in the film is SPECTER’s leader Blofeld, whose face is never seen. Blofeld has many of the characteristics of film villains of subsequent action films who would try to imitate From Russia with Love, including a fondness for stroking a white, fluffy cat while he plots world domination. His face is not seen throughout the film, presumably to add to the sense of power and mystery which revolves around him. Blofeld occupies the position of ‘arch-nemesis’ in the film, someone who controls much of the villainy without having to get his hands dirty.
Despite the title, a considerable portion of the film is set in Istanbul. There are many scenes of exotic gypsies, and at one point Bond is attacked in a gypsy camp during an erotic belly dance, as the lead dancer tries to seduce him. Almost every scene of sexuality is followed by a scene of violence. Bond’s prowess in the bedroom and his sensual dominance over women is clearly linked with this ability to be a great spy. He can kiss the defector Tatiana and he can also unravel the plot that has resulted in her becoming a decoy.
Interestingly enough, despite the fact that the film was released in 1963, the themes of the film are not particularly political. Blofeld is head of a criminal syndicate and is using the Cold War circumstances to pit Russian and English spy agencies against one another. There is little explicitly ‘Russian’ about the film in terms of its villainy, other than Tatiana’s beauty — the conflict could just as easily take place between any two nations spying against one another. The major Russian character in the film Tatiana is actually duped, and the Russians, although fearsome, are no match for Blofeld, who is clever at using them for his own devices.
The film is made up of a string of thrilling action scenes which give Bond a chance to shine, but in terms of its actual plot it tends to revolve around ‘mysterious things in boxes,’ including the decoder itself to the gadget-packed suitcase Q. designs for Bond, which contains a hidden knife, gun, and a tear gas trap lying within and enables Bond to orchestrate his final escape. The film is not meant to be realistic, and its gadgetry adds to this lack of realism. Downplaying the actual ‘Russian’ elements of the plot and emphasizing the made-up organization SPECTER creates a fantasy world in which nothing is meant to be taken seriously.
The lack of politicization of To Russia With Love is particularly noteworthy in the degree to which the villains are portrayed in a heightened, cartoonish manner. There is none of the soul-searching intensity of films such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or a true sense of a Cold War parallel to actual events. That would only disturb the fantasy. For example in the scene in which Kronsteen is berated by Blofeld for coming up with an unworkable plan, Kronsteen is summarily dispatched with a mysterious poisoned spike from a shoe of a nearby butler. None of the other members of SPECTER react to this murder: the scene is clearly meant to show that there is no honor amongst thieves. Even though Kronsteen is a Russian, his nationality merely gives him a sense of exoticism and evil, much like that of Rosa Klebb. There is no political motivation to the Russians’ actions: the Russians seem just as bent…