Anyone who’s been following Cult Britannia’s excellent re-appraisals of the James Bond movies in the run-up to Skyfall’s release may have noticed a continued criticism of one element of the recent films, one I’ve never noticed before. Regular screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade “don’t have the writing chops to deliver anything unique, original or interesting” and “have proved time and time again that they need better writers to polish their scripts”.
I feel for James Bond screenwriters. They’re rather like gay Republicans: people either think they don’t exist, or know and unfairly deride them. The biggest impediment for the next Tom Mankiewicz is that there’s a prominently credited writer atop every movie who’s unlikely to be replaced despite being dead for 48 years: Ian Fleming. According to Alan Barnes, Michael Apted asked, when signing on to The World is Not Enough (1999), “Which book is this based on?” My dad asked a similar question about Skyfall. This despite the fact that nearly every screenwriter since Jack Whittingham in 1959 has insisted that the man couldn’t write a screenplay if he tried.
While Fleming’s inexperience as a screenwriter has been overstated (the novels of Dr. No and Moonraker, to name but two, are far more cinematic than the films), it is true he had a slightly different conception of how his hero would work on screen than what we’ve subsequently grown to love. His version of the Thunderball screenplay (extracts are available in Robert Sellers’ fabulous unofficial book The Battle for Bond) has a grim, noir-ish tone, giving Bond no one-liners but instead voice-over narrations in the Philip Marlowe style. Had this Bond reached the screen (possibly played by Richard Burton), would the world-famous catchphrase be “Mondays are hell”, rather than “Bond, James Bond”?
It’s a powerful film, principally due to Christopher Eccleston’s moving central performance, but there’s not much ‘Bond’-ian one can tease out of it.
The two previous Brosnan Bond films had been scripted by moderately-known writers—Goldeneye’s duo of Michael France and Jeffrey Caine had some acclaim for his Sylvester Stallone potboiler Cliffhanger (1993) and Dempsey and Makepeace (1986) respectively, while Bruce Feirstein coined that late-80s catchphrase with his book Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche (1982). In the kind of link that makes my brain ripe for future scientific study, I can’t help but note that James Bond makes a quiche in 1985’s A View to a Kill—this was, criminally, not addressed in Goldeneye or Tomorrow Never Dies, his other Bond credit.
But anyway, in 1999 the main focus seemed to be on reverting to Fleming. In an interview (quoted in James Chapman’s Licence to Thrill), Purvis and Wade opined that “some of the core Fleming elements … had been lost … We decided to delve deeper into Bond’s character and to make the new film a little bit Hitchcockian. After all, the screen Bond of the 1960s owed a lot to Hitchcock pictures like Foreign Correspondent and North by Northwest.” They specifically wanted to avoid “blasting at people with a machine gun as 007 did in Tomorrow Never Dies” (in the script, that is, though hopefully they don’t do that kind of thing in reality either). The result pays dividends, though this has rarely been acknowledged then or now.
A more involved character angle underpins some of Goldeneye (the Bond/Trevelyan betrayal subplot) and, less successfully, Tomorrow Never Dies (Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) and his wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) have snatches of interesting back-story that never get explained or connect with anything). But The World is Not Enough goes farther than any Bond film in this direction, putting Bond in a hard-boiled world of duplicity and perversion that he seems saddened and bewildered by. He has proper feelings for Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), and she reciprocates in the finest ‘Bond girl’ performance since Diana Rigg. The nominal villain Renard (Robert Carlyle) adds another level to this through his self-loathing and inferiority complex to Bond—he tells ‘M’ that Elektra “is worth fifty of me”.
That both Renard and Bond care for, and are controlled by, Elektra is a fascinating undercurrent that is well explored in the story. Surprisingly, Elektra is the first female Bond villain (yes, I know there was Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) in From Russia With Love, but Bond wasn’t—what’s the best way to put this?—wasn’t that ‘into’ her), and her emotional detachment gives her a spiritual numbness that ties in well with Renard’s literal lack of feeling (thanks to a pesky bullet lodged in his skull).
This personal plot gives resonance to the larger-scale shenanigans—which are rather more plausible than previous 007 capers. Indeed, Elektra’s pipeline seems to have gained in potency in the oil-drenched decade since this film came out (similarly, Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp machinations suddenly makes Tomorrow Never Dies not so far-fetched anymore). Another (unrecognised at the time) innovation is the larger involvement of ‘M’ (Judi Dench), who here has a greater stake in the action and a personal connection with Elektra. Possibly cribbed from Kinglsey Amis’s 1968 Bond novel Colonel Sun, this is the most potent examination yet of the notion (discussed by Amis and Umberto Eco, among others) of ‘M’ as a parental figure for James Bond.
Yes, she’s miscast but it’s achingly apparent that the woman Bond actually cares about is that twisted world-conqueror (we’ve all been there).
I could be here all day mentioning everything about this film I loved (side note: has Robbie Coltrane ever been more lovable than as Valentin Demetrivich Zukovsky?). But I simply have to mention this one scene: where Bond pleads with Elektra to abandon her plan, but she refuses, doubting that he would kill her because “you’d miss me”. When Bond shoots her, he kisses her—Brosnan here throws aside his usual charm and plumbs some downright creepy depths—and sighs, “I never miss”. Had the film ended with this masterful moment, rather than the confused submarine antics that follow it, mark my words it would be as universally admired as Goldfinger or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or Casino Royale. Don’t believe me? Just ask Christopher Nolan, who clearly pilfered this strange triptych for The Dark Knight Rises.
As far as Die Another Day goes, I know I’m fighting swimming against some tidal waves of received wisdom. I’ll admit it has problems, but that it should regularly finish last in polls, instead of Moonraker or Quantum of Solace, just shows the power of singular annoying memories. Take out the invisible car, Madonna, and director Lee Tamahori’s leaden camera trickery, and you have a decent ‘back-to-basics’ Bond. The Cuban scenes hearken back to Dr. No’s location-filmed authenticity. Bond operating without official sanction always has great dramatic mileage, and Toby Stephens and Rosamund Pike make excellent villains (although Halle Berry’s Jinx is hopelessly cardboard-y—maybe it’s fair to say Purvis and Wade aren’t so great at writing the ‘good girl’ parts?). Even the Iceland sequences, though hampered by some CGI stunts (does anyone actually like CGI, for the record? We’re always told how great it is but all everyone does is complain about it), take Bond to some interesting new environments. And it’s not all high-tech: Bond’s duel with Gustav Graves, in the wood-panelled plushness of Blades (‘M’s club in Moonraker, you know) makes an agreeable contrast.
So yes, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade achieved great things with Casino Royale and Skyfall later on, but that was all built on foundations they had laid with little celebration. Contrary to my estimable colleague Barnaby Eaton-Jones’s opinion, there is much that is original, unique and interesting in their writing, and I think the Bond world would be a poorer place without them.
Throughout Purvis and Wade’s scripts, I’m continually impressed by their attempts to push Bond, physically and psychologically. When he’s not stung with scorpions or having ‘one last screw’ in antique torture devices, he’s betrayed and given up. Worse, his reputation counts against him: “You’d think he was some kind of hero,” Michael Madsen sarcastically declares in Die Another Day. Maybe it doesn’t come off every time, but compared to the smug ossification of Bond of Christopher Wood’s late-1970s scripts (The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker), one can’t help but admire the attempt.
They understand one important thing: that for modern myths to escape self-parody, they need to be roughed up. Their Bond is “a flesh and blood man” first and a superhero second, and it’s about time they got their credit for helping make him so.