As I await the arrival of SPECTRE, the fourth of Daniel Craig’s five contracted portrayals of James Bond, it seems many of the key elements of the franchise are working effectively, providing sufficient momentum to power through a writers’ strike and a studio bankruptcy, and delivering continued commercial success. But don’t be surprised if producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson make the tough call to recast after five films and bring on the next Bond era.
In this essay I’ll explore how a five film era for a Bond actor is the right number, the delicate balance the producers must strike between continuity and change and how a five-film over-arching journey might deliver benefits for the franchise and for audiences.
Not least of the current elements working well is Daniel Craig, who is contracted for five films. Five feels right to me, not too short and not too long. I’ve always felt we had one too many Connery films, perhaps two too many Moore, and not nearly enough Dalton.
Speaking at the British Business Embassy in 2012, Bond co-producer Michael G Wilson spoke about how we got to the Craig era, even though Pierce Brosnan seemed certain to appear in his fifth film.
“It made no sense on paper. Pierce Brosnan was well liked in the role. Grosses were going up. But even so we knew we had to change.”
This is the type of gut call they can’t teach in business schools. History has proven Broccoli and Wilson correct in recasting, and rebooting of the franchise, with Casino Royale becoming the most successful film in the franchise at that time.
The reboot also overcame ‘the veteran problem’ by showing Bond as a rookie. From Dr No to Die Another Day we only ever saw James Bond as a veteran, perpetually about 37 years of age. This has limitations for storytelling, particularly if audiences expect to see protagonists change as a result of the story action. Wilson, on changing with the times, says,
“After the fourth Brosnan film in 2002 Barbara and I felt stuck. The films were becoming more and more fantastical. We were uncomfortable with the direction the series was going. […] After 9/11 the world was a different place. We couldn’t be frivolous. Bond had to come back down to earth. We had to change direction.”
In storytelling terms, rebooting is like backing up a few steps before jumping off, allowing more room for the writers to manoeuvre. In Casino Royale we got to see Bond as a talented rookie, wrestling with the nature of his profession. In Skyfall we’ve looked further into Bond’s backstory and watched him overcome a mid-career crisis – all powerful story stuff. And I think modern audiences agree these were more engaging stories than “veteran spy confronts monorail villain in icy lair”. The current era makes a compelling case for rebooting the franchise each time the Bond role is recast.
The sustainability of the franchise requires it to attract a new generation of fans, every generation. Five films seem about right in this context as well, allowing a roughly 12 year era to start afresh and reflect the spirit of the times and audiences’ changing tastes. Producer Barbara Broccoli addressed changing with the times ahead of Brosnan’s first outing in Goldeneye, “[…] was Bond still relevant with the cold war ending and the wall coming down? Was there still a need for Bond anymore?”
A five film era gives the filmmakers another possibility we haven’t really seen yet – an over-arching journey that ties the era together. The most obvious journey is that of a career, the journey from rookie to veteran. In his early 30’s (I refer to screen age) Bond is believable as an ex-military man recruited to the SIS. He’s still young enough to pick up a new trade. And at 45 (Fleming’s mandatory retirement age for the OO-Section) Bond is still capable of delivering physically (hopefully without too much stunt double or girdle support). The Bond actor is going to age over five films so why not use this to the advantage of storytelling?
This over-arching journey is more about theme than plot and gives the writers of each film ‘waypoints’ to hit. Here’s a suggestion for the over-arching journey and its themes:
- The blunt instrument An impressive if messy debut, meeting the new fellow, rookie mistakes, overcoming ego, transitioning from a military environment to solo work. There are rookies and there are rookies, he is the latter.
- If you could avoid killing every possible lead Still messy, still knocking off the rough edges, but proving effective. He gets the result but is it worth the damage to the hotel rooms?
- The tricky part Jumping the mid-career shark, delivering on the promise of youth, earning the respect of peers, finally silencing the critics.
- Nobody does it better The veteran arrives, he’s your go-to man in a pinch, capable of handling complexity and demonstrating control and nuance.
- The man for all secrets Once more around the world James, the veteran cements his legacy by overcoming the most complex challenges so far, the old dog still has it in him, a farewell to arms, and time for reincarnation.
Of course a five film Bond era raises the stakes around choice of actor to mission-critical, but maybe not for the obvious reasons like good looks and acting ability. To my mind the most important question when selecting a Bond actor is, can they keep it together for 12 years? One imagines it’s not unlike recruiting a spy for the SIS.
In Daniel Craig we have not only a talented actor and ambassador for the franchise, but more importantly a steady employee. He is a man that an enormous filmmaking effort, and audiences, can follow for 12 years with confidence. But Daniel Craig’s success doesn’t mean the producers won’t be decisive after his five films and change things up for the next era. Wilson again:
“It’s important to get ahead of the curve and to change things before they start to taper off. […] Cubby Broccoli used to say, ‘Bond is the star’, and that means that Bond is bigger than any actor who portrays him.”
So what can we expect from the next Bond era? Just as the end of the cold war influenced Brosnan’s era and 9/11 influenced Craig’s, there will be aspects of the spirit of the times that influence the next. If we look around us we see the disintegration of sovereign states, the dominance of the internet and social media, record numbers of displaced people, drone wars and rising militant Islam.
And what about audience tastes? In 1979 Star Wars propelled Bond into Space in Moonraker, and Jason Bourne nudged us towards the “ruthless but vulnerable” Bond we have today. So what does the franchise make of the saturation of comic book super heroes on our cinema screens and the infantilisation of popular culture? Nothing, I hope. Now is the time for Bond to remain the man who can save the world without super powers.
In this essay I’ve examined how a five film Bond era offers the right balance of continuity and change, providing you get the recruitment right. And we’ve looked at the possibility for a reboot each time the role is recast, giving writers and audiences more satisfying stories and an over-arching journey for a Bond era.
In their rare spare time, producers Broccoli and Wilson no doubt contemplate the spirit of the times and the type of actor suited to the next Bond era. As Bond said to Professor Dent in Dr No, “you’ve had your six”, perhaps soon enough the producers will say to Daniel Craig, “you’ve had your five”, and that will be the right thing for the continuing revitalisation of the franchise.
 From Sean Connery’s announcement as James Bond in late 1961 to SPECTRE’s release date in late 2015 means 24 films will have been made in 54 years of Bond actors – or one every 2.25 years. Five films take on average 11.25 years to make.
Jeff Burns is a short story writer and lifelong Bond fan. He writes about manhood, mortality and modern problems. His website is Jeff at the kitchen table.