David Bowie, sci-fi, & creative randomness

IT’S hard to believe, but it’s already been a year and a half since David Bowie unexpectedly passed away, leaving us with the highly acclaimed ★ album – and, of course, one of the best catalogues in pop. He’s a highly acclaimed songwriter, not least for his extraordinary way around a tune. You only have to hear numbers like “Life on Mars?”, “Space Oddity”, “Changes”, “Starman”, “The Jean Genie” or “Heroes” once and you’ll never forget them for the rest of your life. What makes it more impressive is that these songs aren’t generally based on classic riffs* or repetitive hooks or choruses like most of the catchiest songs, but rather on melodies that are constantly moving forward and developing. Think of “Sound and Vision”, aptly described by Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos as being like a rollercoaster where it isn’t the big drops that get you, but the little bumps.

That being said, for one of the most revered songwriters out there, Bowie’s lyrics weren’t always necessarily up to scratch. It’s frustrating that a lyricst capable of something like “Five Years” (“Think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour, drinking milkshakes cold and long/Smiling and waving and looking so fine, don’t think you knew you were in this song”) would so often turn out something half-cooked like “Keep your electric eye on me, babe/Put your ray gun to my head/Keep your space face close to me, babe/Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah”. That lyric makes me cringe which is unfortunate, because it’s set to one of Bowie’s best choruses.

I think it all comes from Bowie’s love of some of the more out-there sci-fi writers like William Burroughs. A favourite technique was cutting up magazines and arranging the words at random, which is easier than sitting down with a pencil to come up with lyrics I suppose. Less facetiously: techniques like that are brilliant ways of cutting through clichés, creating unexpected juxtapositions that can be an interesting point to work from when writing. But you do have to work. Bowie collaborator Brian Eno was famous for his “Oblique Strategies”, a set of cards with various ways of tackling problems printed on them, intended to be drawn at random in order to find new angles from which to attack creative or business obstacles. Eno made use of many other such techniques for harnessing the power of randomness. The Beatles were the same, especially John Lennon: think of the serendipity of the King Lear snatches heard during “I Am The Walrus”‘ epic fade-out. Lennon was tuning a radio dial at random (John Lennon/Yoko Ono’s Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions contains “Radio Play”, a less successful instance of the same technique) and got lucky with Lear. Slips of the tongue, improvisations, and other oddities (the resonating wine bottle that closes “Long, Long, Long”, for instance) make up a sizeable part of the Beatles catalogue. But these artists knew how to work creatively from random elements; randomness isn’t the goal. I imagine Bowie in life was rather like his appearance in Extras, songs constantly spilling out of him. In that state lyrics may well have been an afterthought or even an inconvenience, which is unfortunate because on the occasions where you can tell he’s really trying, he’s capable of some extraordinary lyrics (“Kooks”, “Five Years”, “Heroes”, “Young Americans”, “Ashes to Ashes”). Extra-extra-special credit goes to “We Are the Dead”, an evocation of the tender scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four just before Winston and Julia’s capture by the Thought Police which is, as U2 would sing on their Bowie-revering Achtung Baby album, “Even Better Than the Real Thing”: Orwell’s scene has nothing close to the passion or the horrendous tension Bowie’s lyrics evoke.

France David Bowie

*Except for “Fame”, admittedly

The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, & the impression of agelessness

Tolkein toking

HERE’S A NICE bit of character description from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: “The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars.” It works on a few levels: it surrounds the character of Elrond with the same aura of ageless beauty and mystery shared by so many of Middle-Earth’s legendary inhabitants (Gandalf, Galadriel, Treebeard, et cetera); it plays nicely with themes of dusk, night, gathering darkness, and the light of hope shining through, that crop up everywhere in the rest of the book; and, in a way, it works as a metaphor for Tolkien’s writing itself, “ageless” and “written [with] the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful”.

I always surprise myself by remembering just how young The Lord of the Rings really is, so successfully does it create the idea of itself as an ancient myth, an archetype. It also feels like the birth of the fantasy genre, probably just because its high-fantasy descendants have dominated the market in the 60-odd years since its publication from 1954-55.

Nevertheless, there was much fantasy before it, and it bears remembering. Three great pulpy strands predate it by half a century: the heroic fantasy of Robert E. Howard, the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft, and the planetary romance of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the last of which would, of course, inspire the later (but still earlier) Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, and older yet are the scientific romances of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Those are only the major subgenres of pulp fantasy writing, and there’s plenty more outside of pulp fiction that it still feels odd to remember came first.

The entire Golden Age of Science Fiction, for instance, had come and gone. So had many important works of the New Wave of Science Fiction, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon, and Isaac Asimov’s entire Empire and Foundation trilogies. Ayn Rand, the rum old bugger, had already published We the Living, Anthem, and The Fountainhead, and was probably hard at work on Atlas Shrugged.

James Bond had already had three literary adventures and his first film (albeit a telefilm) by the time LotR‘s publication had finished. Rock ‘n’ roll, if we date it from the appearance of Elvis’ “That’s All Right” single, was ten days old when the first volume appeared, and Godzilla would be born between the publications of the first and second volumes. Kong was already an old-timer from over twenty years ago, but American monster movies were getting hot again, with The Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Them! already released, and It Came from Beneath the Sea shortly to follow.

Superheroes had already dominated comic books for a decade, fallen out of favour, and would in a couple of years be making a comeback. Batman was old hat when The Lord of the Rings came out.

And Tolkien wasn’t the first popular scholar to revive interest in hero-myths, either. That would be Joseph Campbell with his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949. And Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis was on his fifth Narnia book.

So how does it manage to convince us all of its age? Well, it draws a lot on some legitmately ancient, pre-Christian literature and mythology which, even if it remains obscure to most to this day, surely triggers some reflex in our Jungian collective unconscious. Surely. Also, it consciously avoids reflecting the attitudes, concerns, or even language of its contemporary time, and could just as easily fit in amongst the novels of the 1920s or even 1860s. Perhaps more so: Tolkien doesn’t write like Graham Greene or Iris Murdoch, and he certainly doesn’t write like Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck.

He must have seen a lot of himself in his characters, an old-fashioned anchor in a sea of modernism. I bet he’d be pleased with the impression of timelessness his books created, not that he was the first to do so; it gives me pause to think that the King James Bible is younger than most Shakespeare, while most of the Scottish, Irish, and English folk ballads are no older than the 18th century (and sometimes significantly younger).

Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, & Walter White the super-villain

Breaking BadIF YOU HAVEN’T been watching Better Call Saul then, you know, you should really get on that. With Season 3 it seems Netflix have finally taken heed of what I’m always saying in idle conversation, which is that rather than release new seasons of their shows in giant, intimidating chunks, they ought to release them one episode per week: all the flexibility and convenience of streaming, without losing the water-cooler “What did you think of this week’s? What’ll happen next week?” that comes with traditionally broadcast television.

But if you haven’t already watched Breaking Bad then you might miss out a little bit with Better Call Saul; that said, who hasn’t watched Breaking Bad, right? Well, I hadn’t until last year, which I’m sure would shock many on the Internet but, look, there’s just too much good TV, OK? Rather edgily of me, I didn’t find Breaking Bad to be the very greatest TV show ever made; more of a very tight soap opera for people who would turn up their nose at soap opera. Far from the devastating, multilayered understanding of socioeconomic forces at every level demonstrated by The Wire, Breaking Bad rather lazily concludes that Albequerque’s drug problem is the result of a handful of bad eggs and a comic-book supervillain.

Of late plenty of shows have existed in the middle of the Venn diagram between the superhero-movie boom and the gritty drama boom: Heroes, Arrow, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham, Daredevil, Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage et cetera, all take the opposite approach to their larger-than-life big-screen counterparts and seemingly do their damnedest to convince us we’re not really watching a show about superheroes (or supervillains) at all. And Breaking Bad does it so successfully that you’re more likely to see it compared to The Sopranos and The Wire than any of those superhero shows.

But really, when you break it down, here’s what you have: a character named Walter White who is, by day, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher but, following a freak diagnosis of lung cancer likely caused by exposure to deadly lab chemicals he becomes a supervillain by night, using his exaggerated scientific supergenius to craft elaborately implausible plans that nevertheless almost always go off without a hitch. For this second life, he adopts a new persona, taking on the thematically-appropriate name “Heisenberg” and assuming a (rather lazy) supervillain costume for the purpose. He has a younger, comic-relief sidekick in Jesse who, lacking book-smarts, is forever being scolded and lectured by Walter like they’re Pinky and the Brain. All this while, by the way, “Heisenberg” is being tracked by the closest thing Breaking Bad has to a superhero: the DEA’s Hank Schrader who is, unbeknownst to him, Heisenberg’s brother-in-law.

Along the way, Walter/Heisenberg acquires a Lex Luthor-esque Bald of Evil and, later, a Beard of Evil to go with it.

Later on, Heisenberg will even get to have his own evil lair in the form of a super-sophisticated meth lab hidden under an industrial laundromat. It’s granted to him by another villain, one who is even higher up the Sorting Algorithm of Evil. However, just like the frequent Enemy Civil Wars among Batman’s Rogues Gallery, Heisenberg can’t take being No. 2 in town for long and hatches a plan to blow that other supervillain up, which coincidentally leaves him looking exactly like Two-Face, albeit only for moments before he dies.

And, after clearing a few initial moral hurdles, Heisenberg has a great time ruling Albequerque (another point about comic-book supervillains their ambitions rarely stretch outside of their home turf, be it Gotham City, Metropolis, Hell’s Kitchen or, in this case, ABQ) but, whether the bad guy gets to rule for five minutes, two weeks, or a thousand years, they’re always defeated in the end, and so it is with Heisenberg, defeated by that humblest of all God’s creations, the common cancer. Thus ended his reign of terror…until we find out he was using Lazarus Pits, or was a Doombot all along, or something.

Logan, the X-Men, & the beauty of data

THE LAST FILM I went to see at the cinema was Logan and, I implore you, definitely go see it if you can find a place still showing it. But don’t do like I did and get lost contemplating the various intricacies of the inconsistent X-Men film series. Instead, just make use of this handy series of charts I’ve created and compiled for you!

Look, it’s got everything you might possibly need to know, charting which of the X-Men films…

  1. Are actually about the X-Men

are about the X-Men

2. Take place in which timeline…which timeline

3. Take place in the future…

past or future

4. Posit a Bad Future

posited futures

5. Feature Wolverine…

featuring Wolverine

6. Feature Wolverine fighting his double…

Wolverine fights his double

7. Feature Storm…

featuring Storm

8. Have a plot centred on human-mutant relations…

human-mutant relations

9. Introduce mutants via an underground fighting ring…

mutants introduced via fight ring

10. And sorted by score on Rotten Tomatoes.

sorted by RT score

Licence Revoked, Licence to Kill, & bad Bond luck

Tim Dalton

IN MY LAST BLOG POST, I was chatting about how the 16th Bond film, Licence Revoked, suffered an undignified and expensive last-minute name change to Licence to Kill. That wasn’t the only thing going wrong behind the scenes on one of the least inspired, least successful entries in what is, for the most part, a reliable series.

To begin with Timothy Dalton, who had made his début in 1987’s The Living Daylights, was certainly the 007 with the rottenest luck. First approached by the producers in 1969 to replace Connery for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Dalton’s conscience or sense of purism wouldn’t allow him to accept the part, believing himself to be too young. In 1981, however, he was all set to take over in For Your Eyes Only; a condition of accepting the rôle was that the script take Bond in a darker, more gritty direction that took more cues from the Fleming novels and short stories. In the end, Dalton didn’t end up appearing in that film either, but the script intended for him supplied Moore with one of his best, and certainly his darkest, outings as Bond. By the time Dalton was finally ready, in 1987, the tables were turned, and The Living Daylights sees him awkwardly making his way through a script intended for Moore. The resultant high-camp doesn’t sit well with the character Dalton is playing, and the picture is largely confused and forgettable, with a few honourable bright spots. GoldenEye, an exceptionally sharp scipt written especially for Dalton, would eventually star Pierce Brosnan, and in the meantime Dalton was lumped with the only script written for him that he would ever actually appear in, something called Licence Revoked.

In many ways, it was to be the tentative first modern Bond, in the sense that many series mainstays were either gone or on their way out. The early entries are magnificent pictures due to their good fortune in having a wonderful production team behind them. It was time to prove that the formula could outlast its creators: it was the first film not to bear a title from Fleming, and the last for some time to use any Fleming elements in its script. It was the last to star Timothy Dalton. It was the last written by Richard Maibaum. It was the last directed by John Glen. It was the last with titles by Maurice Binder. It’s the last to depict Bond as a smoker, and the last in which the original version of Felix Leiter appears. It’s the last outing for second Moneypenny Caroline Bliss, and second M Robert Brown; it will be the last appearance of a Male M until 2012’s Skyfall. It was the last Bond production by Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, though he would be retained on GoldenEye as a consultant producer. Harry Saltzman and Peter R. Hunt had long since left the series, and it was the first film following John Barry’s departure. It was also the first to feature a photographic, rather than a painted, poster; would receive a novelisation, just like all of Brosnan’s entries, and unlike most of the previous pictures; and it was the first to subject Bond’s masculinity to scrutiny, something that has been retained in all eight subsequent films.

You have to admire Dalton, for his devotion to the Bond literature, his willingness to put artistic integrity before commerciality, and the fact that he’s a damned fine actor, not to mention that his overlooked status in the franchise makes him automatically sympathetic. But I’ve always found that Sean Connery’s ability to play high charm with a threat of violence that may explode from under the surface at any moment to more authentically capture the character of Bond than does Dalton’s portrayal, which is a perpetually ticked-off but ultimately not very dangerous type of rogue. The Licence Revoked script picks up on the worst aspects of that characterisation, stripping out even the tenderness that makes up for the many flaws of The Living Daylights.  Here, Bond is as totally cold as he ever got, going up against a bunch of drug-dealing lowlives responsible for various acts of rape, torture and murder, including putting his friend Felix Leiter in a coma. Naturally, Bond goes into a full-on white rage, murdering his way through a script full of such horrors as shark feeding frenzies, maggot tanks, viscerally exploding heads, bad guys burnt alive, crooked televangelists and huge clouds of cocaine dust. He even attacks his old friend M, going rogue without a Licence to Kill (it’s never explained why he escapes prosecution for going on a murder-spree, nor what strings could possibly have been pulled to see him reinstated by the time of GoldenEye).

A Bond script is a plastic thing, though, and surely a series of rewrites could have salvaged Licence Revoked, were it not for the unfortunate timing of the 1989 Writers’ Strike. Director John Glen was on his fifth Bond outing by this point; a former second-unit director, he made efficient, satisfying and cheap Bond pictures with none of the grandiosity of Guy Hamilton, the cool of Terence Young, or the humour of Lewis Gilbert. One of those directors might have found some hidden inner charm or flair that would give Licence to Kill an identity. Glen’s approach is workmanlike and drab, doing nothing to compensate for the lack of an engaging script.

Another sorely felt loss to the Bond formula was sex, vetoed due to AIDs. The Living Daylights reformed Bond; he’s a chaste, yet deeply romantic and tender figure. It’s one of only a handful containing a convincing romance, along with From Russia with Love, The World is Not Enough and Casino Royale. Licence to Kill doesn’t lack sex; depicted or implied sexual violence is commonplace, but its already unlikeable protagonist is made more inhuman yet by his seeming sexlessness. There are women for him in the picture, two of them in fact, but the bizarre culmination of their flirtation is that he pushes both of them into a pool, like some kind of sensually asexual psychopath able only to get his jollies through humiliation. It should be noted that he blows off Felix Leiter, the friend that all this revenge was supposedly in aid of, to do this. Not to fuck either girl, or even both at once, but to push them into a pool while a fish winks at the audience. Even the cringing nature of Moore’s romance with young-enough-to-be-his-daughter Tanya Roberts in A View to a Kill is preferable.

Something else A View to a Kill had that Licence lacks is a great theme song. “Licence to Kill” is probably the worst of the lot, histrionic, synthetic and ultimately forgettable.

Floundering to find a market and making do without classic elements and without writers able to write around that absence, the producers looked to American audiences to secure a future for Licence Revoked. The change of title was made to court American audiences, who apparently found the existing one comical, it being a phrase commonly used by the DMV, a favourite fallback target of American humour. Changing the title at this point, however, with much promotional material already printed, cost the producers not just in cash but also in marketing momentum.

The issue may not necessarily have been in changing the title partway through production, but in gearing up the marketing machine before a sensible title was settled on. There’s something dark and enticing to my ears about the Licence Revoked title, but at least Licence to Kill more clearly connects with the Bond brand. That brand was less in evidence given other tweaks to the established formula also presumably tailored to please American audiences; Licence to Kill plays out as an American action film of the 80s, an influence underlined by the hiring of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard composer Michael Kamen. There’s an anonymity to Licence to Kill‘s violent revenge fantasy, as if it could just as well be Dirty Harry, or Death Wish, or any number of similarly mean-spirited, hard-boiled flicks. It’s that approach which earned Licence to Kill a 15 certificate, further hurting its commercial potential though adequately warning kids away from the amped-up violence* of a series already more adult-oriented than its legions of kid fans would lead you to believe. The Sunday Times‘ Ian Johnstone was put off, finding that the film had eradicated “any traces of the gentleman spy” envisaged by Fleming; Bond here is “remarkably close both in deed and action to the eponymous hero of the Batman film”.

He makes an apt comparison. Either Jaws or Star Wars is usually cited as the birth of the Summer blockbuster, but in truth it’s not a phenomenon that arrived fully-formed, as evidenced by the conflicting citations of two different pictures from different Summers. Batman was huge in an unprecedented way, not a word-of-mouth success like Jaws or Star Wars but a marketing juggernaut, impossible to avoid even months in advance of the release date. You can see why Licence to Kill chose to borrow elements of its approach. But going up against it in the box-office is a decision that smacks of hubris. In fact 1989’s whole Summer season was a brutal gauntlet, with action audiences pulled in different directions not just by Batman, but also Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade**, Lethal Weapon 2 and Ghostbusters II, all of them not just better films than Licence to Kill but also healthier representatives of their respective franchise.

All told, you can’t fault audiences in 1989 for not connecting with Licence to Kill. It failed both at bringing Bond convincingly up to date and at paying tribute to the series’ well-loved roots, both tasks managed seemingly effortlessly in GoldenEye . Of course, that film would have its own painful birth, after six years of legal and financial stresses and the loss of Tim Dalton, who would even express an interest in Kevin McClory’s Warhead 2000 A.D.. Still, Bond was saved, and would never find himself in any trouble again…until Quantum of Solace appeared, an underwhelming Bond which fails to connect with the classic formula due to a rushed production schedule, a name that audiences hated, a writers’ strike, and a sad desperation to piggyback on popular action tropes. It even lacked a proper romance for Bond, and its failure meant we wouldn’t see another outing for four whole years, leaving its successor the difficult task of reinvigorating the franchise all over again. If only the producers had had an example to learn from, there…

*Milton Krest’s horrible death scene certainly lingered with me as a child, as did Benicio del Toro’s jeering rapist: “We gave her a niiiiice honeymoon!”

**Complete with meta-Bonding Sir Sean Connery

Quantum of Solace, Licence to Kill, & what’s in a name

WHO’S GOING TO BE the next actor to play James Bond? Well, fingers crossed Daniel Craig will sign on to do one final picture: it would mean that his run matches the original five of Sir Sean Connery, and would allow the producers to finish the arc that has run through his pictures since 2006’s Casino Royale, resolving the cliffhanger ending of Spectre and leaving things open for a relatively fresh start with 007 Number Seven. Sadly, Craig’s unlikely to sign up for another, having claimed he’d rather “slit [his] wrists”. So if not him, then who? The big four names being tossed around are Aidan Turner, Damian Lewis, Tom Hiddleston, and Idris Elba, presented there in descending order of how good a choice I think they are. Incidentally, here’s that popular shot from Poldark of Turner sans shirt, getting some scything in and unknowingly auditioning for the Bond part:aidan-turner

Well, that’s all well and good. But what are they going to call Bond 25, I wonder-? Most likely, they’ll come up with an original title, probably something one-word and mysterious, like Skyfall or Spectre. Hey, how about naming the movie Risico, in that case?

“Risico” was one of the short stories featured in Sir Ian Fleming’s collection For Your Eyes Only. But how can that be? When the 16th Bond film was still in production, the producers made an announcement: they had exhausted the pool of Fleming titles, and the new picture would have an original name, Licence Revoked. The title was a probable reference to John Gardner’s continuation Bond novel Licence Renewed, but it later became Licence to Kill, following its original title’s poor testing with US audiences (the title change came at great cost to the producers, just one of the many factors in the disaster of Licence to Kill‘s production). But the producers were telling blatant fibs! Fleming wrote twelve Bond novels; eleven of those twelve formed the first eleven Eon Productions pictures, though filmed out of order compared with their source material. Even referring to the novels as source material is slightly misleading; as the series continues, the films diverge more and more from the novels whose titles they borrow. Dr. No, From Russia with Love*, Goldfinger, Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service provide basically straightforward adaptations of their source novels, while You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun take the basic plots of the novels simply as templates, playing out in a grander, more comedic style with a number of original story additions. The film supposedly based on The Spy Who Loved Me, the one novel Fleming was embarrassed by, instead uses an original story, albeit one that borrows elements of You Only Live Twice, and was sufficiently different from the novel whose title it uses that Christopher Wood was also hired to pen a novelisation entitled James Bond, the Spy Who Loved Me. Its follow-up, Moonraker, used the villain name, but little else, from its novel; millionaire British philanthropist and secret Nazi Sir Hugo Drax became American entrepeneur and secret eugenicist Hugo Drax; once again, the original plot was novelised by Christopher Wood, and once again, past Bond films were a partial inspiration, Drax’s scheme and motivation being a space version of the underwater vision of The Spy Who Loved Me‘s Karl Stromberg.

At that point, with no more novel titles to use (Casino Royale was legally unavailable to the producers, thanks to the 1954 television film and 1967 spoof versions), the producers turned to short stories, first fancying “For Your Eyes Only”, then “Octopussy”, “From a View to a Kill”**, and “The Living Daylights”. In fact, the end credits of The Spy Who Loved Me announce the next film as For Your Eyes Only, showing the producers intended to turn to short story titles before even exhausting the novel titles available to them (the success of Star Wars caused them to embrace the science-fiction-sounding Moonraker title, though the novel itself contains no space-travel elements, unlike You Only Live Twice). These short stories predictably proved difficult to stretch to feature length, and the films at this point became cannibalistic hybrids: For Your Eyes Only draws part of its plot from “For Your Eyes Only”, but also looks to “Risico”, From Russia with Love, and one unused sequence from the Live and Let Die novel. “Octopussy” forms the backstory of Octopussy, the story itself being told in brief by the title character, and takes an auction scene from “The Property of a Lady” and its broad plot from Goldfinger. A View to a Kill takes from its short story only the setting of Paris, before moving on to a plot that once again draws on Goldfinger, with some original elements. The Living Daylights similarly adapts its short story for one scene in a mostly original plot.

But the producers still had literary content left to mine, in spite of their public fibbing. Licence to Kill re-uses elements from the Live and Let Die film and novel as well as The Man with the Golden Gun novel alongside elements from the short story “The Hildebrand Rarity”. Licence to Kill thus bears the same degree of similarity to that short story as FYEO, Octopussy, AVtaK and TLD do to their respective short story titles, so why isn’t it entitled The Hildebrand Rarity? The likely answer is that what was meant was that they had run out of story titles that sounded good. “Risico”‘s title comes from a phonetically-rendered pronunciation of “risk”; “The Property of a Lady” would have worked for Sir Roger Moore but not for Timothy Dalton’s harder-edged interpretation of the character; “The Hildebrand Rarity” sounds more like Sherlock Holmes than James Bond; “007 in New York” is deeply underwhelming; and “Quantum of Solace” is basically word salad.

About that. GoldenEye takes its name from Fleming’s Jamaica house and uses an original plot (with some elements of the villain drawing on the Moonraker novel); Tomorrow Never Dies was a garbled version of the in-story newspaper slogan, “Tomorrow never lies”, and used a wholly original plot; The World is Not Enough is Bond’s family motto from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and uses yet another original plot (though aspects of the finale draw on Kingsley Amis’ continuation novel Colonel Sun). Finally, Die Another Day‘s title is a fragment from a Housman poem, and draws mostly from the previously unused plot of the novel Moonraker, plus re-used elements of the Diamonds Are Forever film, and brief references to the novels The Man with the Golden Gun and Colonel Sun.

Then in 2006 came Casino Royale, the first Bond to bear a novel’s title since 1979’s Moonraker (and the first mostly straightforward adaptation of a novel since 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Having recovered the rights to adapt the famous first Bond novel, the producers opted to reboot the franchise entirely, discovering in the process a reverence for the Fleming source material that had been missing from the series for some time. In trying to craft a followup, the producers opted to continue with the Fleming loyalty, picking as a title Quantum of Solace, taken from an atypical short story which homaged Somserset Maugham and in which Bond was barely a character. Of course, the Quantum of Solace movie opted not to adapt that story, and instead went for something mostly original, though one scene did adapt “007 in New York”, and the remainder of the story grew out of the last act of the Casino Royale movie (and also bore an unfortunate resemblance to Licence to Kill). Daniel Craig, for his part, claimed that the film reflected the same themes as the short story, but to date “Quantum of Solace” remains the only one of Fleming’s novels or stories not to have any part of its story worked into a film.

The use of Quantum of Solace as a title was well-meant, but as soon as it was announced there came an enormous backlash from casual fans who were unaware that blame for the (admittedly horrendous) title lay with Fleming, not Eon. I believe that, had it not been for that backlash, Bond 23, which became Skyfall, would likely have been entitled Property of a Lady. I also believe, given the increasing concessions to the style of Roger Moore’s era evidenced in Skyfall and Spectre, that it would have been a wholly appropriate title. It’s certainly the most Bond-y feeling title of the remaining unused ones, but my hopes are high for a Bond film entitled Risico, after which, we’ll see about Property of a Lady and The Hildebrand Rarity. We’re unlikely to ever see a Bond picture entitled 007 in New York, and with “Quantum of Solace”, it is also one of only two Fleming novels or stories never to have any of their story elements used in a film. But how about a fun little short entitled “007 in New York”? It could be released on YouTube to build hype for the next movie, shown in cinemas before an appropriate feature, released as a DVD extra, or made to tie into a major television event, like the 2012 Olympics’ “Happy and Glorious” Bond short.

So, what’s in a name? Well, nothing really. I understand the producers’ eagerness to use a cool-sounding Bond title, and that that desire trumps a sort of historical completionism. In the meantime, little bits of innuendo towards the stories are creeping in, meaningless throwaway references such as Casino Royale‘s character of Solange, named for one in “007 in New York”, or the presence, in Spectre, of a “Hildebrand Antiques and Rarities” as well as a repurposed Hans Oberhauser (“Octopussy”), all of which are all well and good, but add up to very little.

Still, I’ll be going to see Bond 25 no matter what title it gets saddled with, and I note at this point that I disliked the generic Skyfall title even more than the outlandish Quantum of Solace one. Anyway, nothing will stop me from hoping.

*This was the first Bond to slightly adapt a title, losing the comma from the novel’s title of From Russia, with Love.

**The short story is entitled “From a View to a Kill”; the film simply A View to a Kill. This decision was obviously made after the film was in the planning stage, as the end credits of Octopussy announce the next film’s title as From a View to a Kill, becoming the second instance of the end credits making a mistake regarding the next film’s title. After A View to a Kill announced The Living Daylights, this practice was dropped entirely; otherwise, The Living Daylights would have mistakenly announced Licence Renewed, GoldenEye would have mistakenly announced Tomorrow Never Lies, The World is Not Enough might have mistakenly announced Beyond the Ice and, if I’m correct, Quantum of Solace would have mistakenly announced Property of a Lady.

Skyfall, 007 Legends, & rehabilitating the Bond canon

007 Legends.jpgASIDE FROM THEIR RATHER UNFORTUNATE resemblance to Austin Powers in Goldmember, one thing that’s puzzling about the two most recent Daniel Craig-starring Bonds – Skyfall and Spectre – is the inconsistent way in which they attempt to revive the canon of the old Bonds.

From 1962’s Dr. No to 2002’s Die Another Day, the twenty James Bond films existed in the same loose, yet mostly consistent, continuity; the understanding was that GoldenEye‘s opening scene took place during Timothy Dalton’s tenure in 1986, and this didn’t cause any conflict since both actors were still portraying the same character. Similarly, each of George Lazenby’s successors had scenes alluding, explicitly or implicitly, to Tracy Bond, the wife he loses at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever, Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only, Timothy Dalton in Licence to Kill, and Pierce Brosnan in The World is Not Enough (potentially in GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies also). However, in 2006, someone at Eon decided to take a cue from Batman Begins and give the series a gritty reboot, modernising certain elements and retelling the character’s origin to keep him in line with the times*; thus, the four-film arc that Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall & Spectre together constitute is to be understood as a standalone timeline, that has no direct story connection with the 1962-2002 series of films.

Or not. While Casino Royale & Quantum have a hard-boiled, mostly humourless approach informed by the Bourne series, Skyfall and especially Spectre evidence a yearning for the grandiosity of the 60s Bond, even suggesting confusingly that the old continuity isn’t completely uncanonical, referencing Goldfinger‘s DB5 and GoldenEye‘s exploding pen. Possibly the world depicted in the old films is canonical to the new ones, i.e. spycraft really was sillier back in the day, but their specific stories clearly are not, since we know that neither Bond, nor Moneypenny, nor Felix Leiter nor Blofeld were around back then. A main thematic strand of Skyfall/Spectre, similarly to GoldenEye, has to do with whether Bond, an old agent with old ideals, is still relevant in the modern world. This is hard to take when Casino & Quantum‘s main thematic strand is that Bond is a hotheaded rookie, not yet made cynical by years of experience. Following The Dark Knight Trilogy (&, coincidentally, the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, in which all but the first & final battles of the Clone Wars take place offscreen between the 2nd & 3rd entries), we seem to have missed out on seeing our hero in his Golden Age of heroism, when he was hampered by neither inexperience nor age.

Those who are dissatisfied with The Dark Knight or Star Wars can rectify the problem with some quite excellent animations (For The Dark Knight, Batman: Gotham Knight; for Star Wars, Star Wars: Clone Wars and the similarly-named Star Wars: The Clone Wars), and Bond fans, if they please, can treat the videogames as canon. Four games have been made during the Daniel Craig era: 007: Quantum of Solace is a mostly straightforward adaptation of that film which also includes flashback levels covering the plot of Casino Royale; James Bond 007: Blood Stone has an original story by Bruce Feirstein, who wrote Tomorrow Never Dies and co-wrote GoldenEye and The World is Not Enough; GoldenEye 007: Reloaded is a remake of the Nintendo 64 classic GoldenEye 007, with its story updated to Craig’s reboot era; finally, 007 Legends presents one adventure each from Craig’s five predecessors, remade to star Daniel Craig and told in the style of his films: Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Licence to Kill, Die Another Day, and Moonraker**.

The gameplay of these four, unlike past classics such as GoldenEye 007 or 007: Everything or Nothing ranges from average (007: Quantum of Solace) to terrible (007 Legends), but they are recommended to truly hardcore fans on the sole basis that they fix the apparent gap between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. James Bond 007: Blood Stone, the best-written one, features a James Bond who is transitioning from the angry young man of Craig’s first two films to a character with more of the smoothness associated with the classical Connery/Moore/Brosnan depictions. After that, with GoldenEye 007: Reloaded, we get to see the modern James Bond living out a properly classic adventure and then, in 007 Legends, five more!

If James Bond lived out seven full-scale adventures between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, then it easily accounts for him being presented as a haggard old warhorse in the latter. Remember, other action heroes have been presented as past-it old men when they’ve had only three on-screen adventures to their name (John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard; John Rambo in Rambo; Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), or in poor old Batman’s case, only two in The Dark Knight Rises. Aside from patching plot holes, treating these games as canon also makes Skyfall ring much truer in a thematic sense. If GoldenEye, Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, especially, “happened” to Craig’s Bond then the bombastic feel that Skyfall tries to recapture already has some historical presence in this new universe; it contains, or used to contain, more than just the drab cynicism of Casino/Quantum.

However, while James Bond 007: Blood Stone & GoldenEye 007: Reloaded present no conflict with what’s shown in the actual films, 007 Legends is a little trickier. While it correctly uses the likeness of Daniel Craig’s Bond, Judi Dench’s M, Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny and Rory Kinnear’s Tanner in those rôles, someone seems to have forgotten that Jeffrey Wright appeared in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace as Felix Leiter, as the Goldfinger missions use a character model based on Cec Linder – this is typical of the laziness with which 007 Legends is put together. Even taking into account that videogame models don’t always capture perfectly the features of the people they’re based on – try to work out who’s meant to be Connery, Moore, Dalton or Brosnan in this screenshot from GoldenEye 007! – and that the Bond series is renowned for changing the actors of almost all its recurring rôles, it’s still hard to square Linder’s whiteness with Wright’s blackness, and clearly the films take precedence here in determining what Felix truly looks like.

There are also other problems: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service features an encounter with Ernst Stavro Blofeld, which was absolutely fine and actually quite cool until Spectre came out, confirming that such a meeting was impossible. Until the Blofeld rights mess was disentangled in 2013, this would have been the only way such a meeting could have been possible. In any case the character model used here, a rather pleasing compromise between the Donald Pleasance and Telly Savalas portrayals, nicely closes the plot hole of his missing facial scar from You Only Live Twice, while opening a plot hole regarding whether he looks like Telly Pleasance, or Christoph Waltz, and whether or not he’s bald). Also, if Bond lost his wife in the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, you’d think that tragedy would be greater than, or at least equal to, his losing Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, yet it is never mentioned in Spectre. One suspects, in any case, that Madeleine Swann is being set up as a new version of Tracy Bond; her only decent chance of surviving Bond 25 will be if the producers completely ignore the previous story.

Well, it’d be nice to think that 007 Legends added something decent to the Bond canon. Its version of Licence to Kill skips the part where Bond punches M and continues his adventure as a rogue agent; in real life this behaviour would likely have seen Bond spend the rest of his life in Guantanamo Bay, and he certainly wouldn’t have been reinstated as a 00. So in some ways it actually improves on the films on which it’s based. Perhaps there is a place for it in canon; its set-up, borrowed from Hitman: Contracts, sees Bond flashing back to previous adventures while he lingers in the grey area between life and death, at the start of Skyfall when he’s shot and in the water. So maybe his delirious mind for some reason misremembered the real face of Felix, but Blofeld still presents a probably intractable problem. This is a shame as, before the release of Spectre, it really did enrich Skyfall as a viewing experience.

I’m sure many would say that we oughtn’t to be taking something as ephemeral as continuity in Bond, of all places, so seriously. But where’s the fun in that?

*Uncoincidentally, both Batman Begins and Casino Royale follow a film so hideously camp that a complete reboot of the franchise was deemed to be necessary damage control: Batman & Robin and Die Another Day, respectively.

**Skyfall was made available as DLC after its release; Spectre still lacks a videogame adaptation. Unless this situation is rectified ten years down the line, as 007 Legends did for Die Another Day, it will be the first Bond film since 1983’s Octopussy to lack a videogame adaptation.