IN 1962, IAN FLEMING, the creator of the James Bond character, wrote an unusual Bond novel. Titled The Spy Who Loved Me, it was written in the first person and entirely from the perspective of a woman, with Bond appearing only two-thirds into the book. Fleming had been criticised for the portrayal of women in his books ever since he published Casino Royale in 1953. And many view this book as an attempt to correct those misgivings.
The book, however, was a failure. Not only did it not see the kind of sales most of his other Bond books did, but it also did not win over his critics, with some dodgy passages concerning sexual consent. Fleming never tried to write another book like this.
Apart from this attempted aberration, the template for a Bond character is set. The Fleming books and the hugely popular subsequent films have created a character who is suave, masculine, and irresistible to women, someone whose, to borrow the novelist Jay McInerney’s description of Bond, “first impulse, after killing a man, was to straighten his tie.”
Within this broad template, every Bond era in the movies however has brought slight updates. One can arguably watch the character of Bond throughout the years to witness the changing ideas of masculinity in society—from the casual misogyny in the Sean Connery era, the sense of fun in the Roger Moore period, to the wounded and conflicted quality of Daniel Craig’s Bond.
The books that Fleming wrote—the 12 novels and eight short stories that are the so-called foundational texts of the character—are now seeing an update of its own kind. The estate that owns the literary rights to the books has announced that they will be republished with racially offensive language removed. Curiously enough, the other big charge against Fleming’s books—that of sexism—is being left unchanged.
The character of Bond was born at a particular moment in British history. When Fleming first introduced him in Casino Royale, England was still reeling from a post-war slump, austerity measures were still on, and its status as a world power was now visibly in decline. Socially, too, much was changing, with more women joining the workforce. The appeal of Casino Royale and the subsequent books was a reaction to that. Britain’s status internationally might have been on the decline, but in the pages of the Bond books, the fictional secret agent under Her Majesty’s Service was taking down international crime syndicates, the ease with which he disposed of his enemies only commensurate to his ability to charm his way into a woman’s bed.
As many analysts have pointed out, the Bond books were a grand exercise in wish fulfilment. The movies further expanded the geographic footprint of this appeal but have long departed from the universe in which Fleming founded the original character. You can see that wide chasm developing by just comparing the first Bond, played by Connery, to the last one played by Craig. Connery’s Bond drank without apology and thought little of striking a woman, but in the Craig era, Bond is seen as someone who drinks too much and whose womanising is viewed as an inability to form attachments. He is also portrayed as emotionally damaged, as though he were suffering, to borrow a contemporary phrase, from toxic masculinity. In Skyfall, when the character of Raoul Silva, played by Javier Bardem, strokes Craig’s thighs and tells him there’s a first time for everything, Bond’s suggestion that this wouldn’t be his first is a radical departure from the Bond of the Fleming universe. There are also characters in the movies, who are constantly reminding Bond of his flaws and the changing times, from Judy Dench’s M who calls Pierce Brosnan’s Bond in Golden Eye, “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur”, to the recent character of Nomi, a Black female MI6 agent played by Lashana Lynch in No Time To Die, who keeps telling him, “The world has moved on.”
Rewriting the Bond source material is an attempt for him to keep pace with the world, this time, on the page.