Quantum of Solace: Solving the Problem of Bond

It’s easy to forget that there are so many different James Bonds, and Bond fans all have their favourite.  Connery, Moore, Brosnan (Woody Allen and Bob Holness if you’re a serious hipster).  Or the character in Ian Fleming’s original novels.  That said, the current producers of the Bond movies are very careful to make sure that in each film the character fits within certain boundaries.  They know what happens if they ‘get Bond wrong’.  And Quantum of Solace (2008) is generally considered to be one of the worst cases of them getting it wrong.  For me, on the other hand, out of all of the Bond films, the movie double-bill of Quantum of Solace and its (much better received) prequel Casino Royale are the only stories I have time for anymore.

Why is Quantum of Solace so unloved?  Perhaps because it came so soon after The Bourne Identity, a film that was seriously loved.  Clearly the former owes a debt to the latter: there’s a fight between Bond and a hit man in a hotel that looks like it could have been lifted straight from a Bourne film.  But then, to be fair, the latter almost certainly owes a lot more to the former.  (There’s a main protagonist in The Bourne Identity that could almost be lifted from a James Bond story – even his name is similar.)  Aside from the Bourne connection, Quantum of Solace was generally considered to be confusing, incoherent and directionless – criticisms which I found baffling then, and find baffling now.  When the film came out I actually wrote a review for a local website in which I wondered whether the high expectations set by Casino Royale meant Quantum of Solace could only ever disappoint.  (Many people also complained specifically about the ‘ridiculous’ finale – why would anyone build a hotel that flammable?  To which my answer would be: well, because humans.)

But there was also a large section of the Bond fan world – the Roger Moore fans particularly – who just wanted Bond to be fun again.  As the video at the top (by comedian and film director Joe Cornish) so aptly demonstrates.  Where were the quips?  The hover gondola?  The jetpack?

I have a lot of sympathy with the Bond film producers.  I think they’re in a similar situation to George Lucas, in that their vision (and, I would argue, Ian Fleming’s original vision) of what their franchise is about is not what the majority of their audience wants.  Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was slammed for being too childish and silly, and lacking the maturity of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.  But I believe George Lucas always intended the Star Wars films to be primarily for children.  Whereas Ian Fleming intended his Bond stories to be well-paced and hard-edged airport fiction, for adults, not children.  There is a vein of real nastiness to the original Bond stories (e.g. Bond being tortured in Casino Royale by being stripped naked and literally beaten repeatedly around the testicles) which I think Fleming was conscious should not be taken out of context.  Sadly, 20+ films down the line, it has been routinely taken completely out of context, the stories are considered to be broadly family-friendly, and the producers are stuck with what I call ‘the Problem of Bond’.

The Problem of Bond

So what is the Problem of Bond?  Well, from a writer’s point of view, Bond is an ideal protagonist if you want to create adventure stories which offer dark, violent, escapist male fantasy.  Bond is a charming and well-spoken British government assassin and occasional spy, a violent sadist, a man of huge appetites, a lover of sex but a misogynist, an upper class snob, an obsessive acquirer of brand name goods.  Writer John le Carré has been particularly scathing about this ‘cheesy exec’ who travels the world killing people with impunity – a man who has more in common with fascist secret police officers and gangsters than with a dutiful public servant.  And the idea of duty is an important one: like Ian Fleming, John le Carré (real name David Cornwell) served with British intelligence, and le Carré points out that Bond has no politics.  Bond doesn’t seem to be the slightest bit motivated to do good in the world.  He is motivated purely by his appetites: for danger, for sex, for violence, for glamorous locations, wealthy company, good food, gambling.

Now I don’t actually believe that any of that should necessarily be a problem, if there were only a couple of James Bond stories.  Many dark adult stories can be very enjoyable even though their central character is an anti-hero: a driven and cunning manipulator who is in many ways utterly unlikeable (for me, Tom Hardy’s character in the BBC TV series Taboo is a topical example.)  You don’t have to like them – you just need to be curious about what happens next.

The problem is that there’s only so long that a story can get away with walking the line between good and evil.  Bond is a wicked man in many ways: charming, but cruel, particularly to women, and after a while we need to ask the question: are we actually supposed to like this guy now?  Is he still an anti-hero, or is he the hero now?  And if he’s the hero, aren’t the creators of these stories sort of endorsing this shitty behaviour?

That’s part of the problem with Bond, but the other part is that Bond is a character and a franchise that has escaped from its creators.  Originally Fleming intended Bond to be a complicated, troubled hero doing a dirty job using methods that were quite possibly immoral.  And he started to get dismayed that Bond was being seen (particularly by young boys) as a simple hero.  So he wrote The Spy Who Loved Me, a novel which attempted to drag the character back to earth.  The story is told entirely from the perspective of a young Canadian woman who leads a relatively ordinary life, full of romantic disappointments, until she finds herself mixed up with organised crime.  Just as she is being attacked in an empty motel by two gangsters, who should turn up with a flat tyre but James Bond – who promptly saves the day.  He rescues her, sleeps with her, and then disappears, but not before writing her a handwritten letter to say goodbye, and to let her know that he has called the police to come and look after her.  The story ends with the police officer explaining to her (and, presumably, Fleming’s younger audience) that people like Bond are not very different to those gangsters, and it would be wise to try to avoid all of them.

The book was a critical and commercial flop.  So much so that Fleming asked his publisher never to reprint it.  To be fair, it was a problematic book, but really no more problematic than his others.  It was also trying to do something different, and to bring a bit of perspective to the character.  And it was the first time that the Bond public stepped in and said: no, we know what a Bond story is, and we don’t want it to change.  It’s quips, gadgets, female flesh and an uncomplicated ‘Roast Beef of Old England’ patriotism.  Fleming’s attempt to solve the Problem of Bond clearly hadn’t worked, because a large chunk of the public clearly didn’t feel there was a problem.

Fleming died not long after his failed experiment with making Bond more nuanced, and it then fell to the film-makers to carry on the franchise.  For decades, they delivered what the public wanted: quips, gadgets, minor characters played by former Miss World contestants who die in horrible and sexy ways.

Enter Daniel Craig (and Paul Haggis)

Then along came Daniel Craig.  His first film, Casino Royale, came not long after The Bourne Identity had proved such a cinema hit, and had breathed new life into the spy/assassin genre.  Prior to that, the Bond franchise had seemed particularly ridiculous and dated: a man in his 50s running around in a beige suit trying to bed 20 year olds.  It turns out the producers had long felt that the Problem of Bond had to be dealt with.  Now, played by Craig, he was going to be grittier, darker, more physical, more like Fleming’s original character.

And I remember thinking: why?  What is the point?  I grew up with the Roger Moore movies and as a child I loved them: as a child, as I was probably the target audience.  But now I was a John le Carré fan.  Fleming was clearly an arsehole, and his original character was an arsehole – a total dick, no better than the movies.  Bond is a character whose time had come and gone.  And anyway, they’d tried making Bond more grown up with Timothy Dalton, and it had been dull dull dull.  If you want serious spy fiction, read John le Carré.  If you want fun spy fiction, watch Austin Powers.  Whoever your favourite Bond was, I thought, somebody else does it better.

But I was interested in seeing that the new writer for Casino Royale was Paul Haggis, who I had been a fan of for years.  And when I finally saw the film I was completely blown away.

Because there have always been aspects of the Bond stories that I’ve loved, and in many ways I think Ian Fleming’s writing has been underrated.  Not only are his books great adventure novels on a technical level, but they also create a world full of such colourful, arch characters.  If you were to take Bond out of the stories (probably one of the less interesting of these characters) you still have M (head of MI6), secretary Miss Moneypenny, quartermaster Major Boothroyd, and villains like Mr Big, Dr No, Red Grant, the henchman Oddjob and the Man With The Golden Gun.

And yes, there are the Bond girls: women with names like Pussy Galore and Honey Ryder.  But let’s not forget, both of these characters are killers.  Ian Fleming had worked with the real and unfeasibly badass members of the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War, and they clearly form the inspiration for many of his female characters.  (Generally, in the books, there are two kinds of ‘Bond girl’: the ones that get killed in their lingerie by the henchman, and the ones that hide a deadly scorpion in the henchman’s bed.)

These are often very witty books, although the sense of humour is very dark.  When Bond finds the bad guys have fed his best friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter, to sharks, he finds a note next to the body saying “He disagreed with something that ate him. (P.S. We have plenty more jokes as good as this.)”

There are actually a great number of similarities between James Bond and John le Carré.  Both are fictional characters, with names chosen for their blandness (le Carré means the ‘square’ or the ‘straight’).  Both became active in the 1950s, both became household names, both defined how we thought about British intelligence, and how Britain is seen globally.  And Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace (the two Bond films written by Paul Haggis) seemed, to me at least, to finally find some sort of middle ground between these two extremes.

Because these two films, I believe, solved the Problem of Bond.  And they did it simply by giving him two gadgets that he had never had before.

Gadget #1: A brain

This franchise has perhaps the thing I like most from any ‘hero’ story: a hero who succeeds based on their wits, rather than luck.  No longer is Bond almost comically ultra-masculine – now he is just very clever.  To pick one small example in Quantum of Solace: Bond investigates a lead that takes him to a hotel room where he is surprised by a hit man, who Bond ends up killing (small point: the audience gets to see up close the fear, pain and confusion of this dying man in an uncharacteristically sympathetic way) – but on his way out Bond thinks to check at reception, pretending to be the hotel room’s occupant, asking to see if there are any messages.  There are, and this turns out to be Bond’s next lead.  In both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Bond doesn’t spend all his time reacting to his enemies’ grand traps.  Instead he is constantly problem-solving, and taking the initiative.  And his ingenuity is what initially makes him interesting, even when he is not always likeable.

Gadget #2: A conscience

But this is the big one: over the course of these two films, it’s revealed that he’s not actually a misogynist or a cold bastard.  He only acts that way because he believes that this particularly dirty job demands it, and he might even be right.

And that provides such a perfect solution to whether Bond is a hero or not.  Because there is something heroic, even tragic, about a character motivated by a sense of duty who finds himself having to play the part of a person even he doesn’t like.  But we still get to see the same familiar Bond character, having the same old adventures in broadly the same way.  Only now we’re aware that there’s much more to him than meets the eye.

I’ll single out two examples of when Quantum of Solace shows us this more complex side.

Firstly, it turns out that Felix Leiter is going through his own crisis of conscience, as his CIA boss wants to help a dictator come to power in Bolivia in exchange for American rights to its oil supply (as his boss says: “Yeah, you’re right – we should only deal with nice people.”)  This leads to Bond and Leiter having a conversation in a seedy dive, which I believe to be one of the best pieces of dialogue in any Bond story.  Bond mentions the CIA’s controversial history in Latin America, and their tendency to put brutal dictators in power who are sympathetic to the USA.  He sarcastically quips that he’s always admired the way they’ve carved up the whole continent.  And Leiter fires back that, coming from a Brit, he should probably take that as a compliment.

Secondly, perhaps my favourite plot thread in the film most concerns a beautiful but innocent MI6 office worker, played by Gemma Arterton, who is sent to bring the errant Bond back to headquarters.  Her name – classic Bond, this – is Strawberry Fields (although we only learn that from the credits – she is just referred to as ‘Fields’).  Bond seduces her, and gets her to help him in casing out who the villains are.  And then later, as Bond’s investigations sufficiently piss the bad guys off, they turn up at his hotel room, find her, and kill her.  Just before she dies she sends a written warning to Bond, simply one word: ‘Run’.

This is all very standard Bond stuff.  But here’s where it’s new: Bond returns to his hotel room to find M (Judy Dench has a ball in this film by the way), and half of MI6.  And M proceeds to tear into him.  She explicitly tells Bond that he is responsible for Ms Fields’ death, and reminds him that he has a habit of charming women into doing anything for him, which results in them being tortured and killed.  (In the previous film she says after one such death “I would ask you to emotionally detach, but that’s not your problem, is it?”)  “How many is that now?” she asks.  And then she arrests him.

Bond escapes, as you might expect.  But the next thing he does is find M (unguarded) and tell her that Ms Fields showed true bravery, and she should put that in her official report.  In doing so, Bond implies that Fields was in fact motivated by a sense of duty rather than girly infatuation, and he is prepared to risk re-arrest to ensure she gets the posthumous recognition she deserves.

And so finally Bond isn’t just some flippant prick who considers Fields to be a ‘disposable pleasure’ – useful, and then instantly forgotten once he has got her tortured and killed.  My sense is that here we see a Bond who is actually pretty close to Fleming’s original character.  He was an arsehole, but he was trying not to be.

Post-Quantum

I’ll leave it there with the Quantum of Solace gems.  And I haven’t even covered the many many little touches that I love about this film.  The battle at the opera.  The Bolivian taxi driver.  Quite how funny M is (“How can they have people everywhere and we don’t know about it?  Lots of people say they have people everywhere.  Florists say it.  It doesn’t mean they have someone in the bloody room with you.”)  I understand that it’s a film that’s started to get a little bit more love.  But it’s generally considered vastly inferior to the film that came after it: Skyfall.

But that was the point where I felt the audience, after the unpopularity of Quantum of Solace, caused the series to return to its default setting of a cheesy superman fighting cartoon villains.  I’ll try not to be too spoiler-tastic, but in the two films that follow Quantum (as of writing) Bond is first shot on top of a moving train and falls down a vast ravine into a river way below, and somehow survives, and then he is tortured in a way that it is made clear will disable him for life, and yet it has no effect on him, and no explanation is given as to why.  (Unless I’m being dopey and explanations are given for these which I missed, in which case my bad, obviously.)  Gone is the driven, problem-solving, duty-bound agent using his wits to drive the plot forward.  Now the villains drive the narrative with increasingly implausible set pieces, and Bond survives them because… he just sort of does.

And there is a scene in Skyfall which I just detest.  Bond is captured, and confronted with the woman that he seduced for information, who is chained up, with a glass of 50 year old whisky on her head.  (Who drinks 50 year old scotch by the way?)  Bond is told to shoot the glass off her head.  He fails to do so, and the chief villain promptly shoots and kills her.  And then asks “What do you have to say to that?”  Bond quips: “It’s just a waste of good scotch.”  And he then proceeds to kill all of the henchmen and capture the villain.  We don’t hear about that woman again.  Not only is Bond back to being a dick, but he’s back to being an unfunny dick.

At that point I stopped caring whether the character lived or died.  And when the film started to delve into Bond’s oh-so-tragic childhood, for me it only added another layer of self-pitying narcissism to this unlikeable arse.

I still think Daniel Craig is a great actor, and a great movie star.  But until I dug Quantum of Solace out the other day, I had forgotten that there was ever a point where I actually cared about the character.

Perhaps it goes in cycles.  Perhaps the Problem of Bond will once again become so insufferable that the Bond-going audience will be happy to see a return to the man with the brain and the conscience.  Until then, sadly, I don’t think I’m going to have a problem with emotionally detaching either.