After 70 years, the popularity of James Bond endures
Stephen Mexal, professor of English, comparative literature and linguistics, is fascinated by how some novelists catch the imagination of a large public.
Take, for example, Mark Twain. Or Charles Dickens. Or Ian Fleming, whose debut novel, “Casino Royale,” was published 70 years ago this April.
“It’s legitimately impressive to invent a character who is enjoyed by billions of people all around the globe and who is, after 70 years, arguably more popular than ever,” Mexal says of Fleming’s timeless creation: the suave, sophisticated and daring British secret agent James Bond.
In 1953, “Casino Royale” became an instant classic, and the Bond franchise — books and movies — has become one of the most successful in history, with more than two dozen novels and a hugely successful series of 25 films to date (“No Time to Die,” released in 2021, is the most recent).
Cinema fans will continue to debate endlessly over which Bond actor they prefer — do you take your Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton or Daniel Craig shaken or stirred? — and the character’s varied incarnations over the years in movies, Mexal says, underscores a clue to Bond’s continued success:
He’s evolved over time.
“Bond maintains a superficial sameness,” Mexal says, “but in fact, he’s changing all the time. Every generation gets the bond it needs.”
The same, but not the same
Mexal, who grew up in Las Cruces, N.M., and who recalls “GoldenEye” (1995, the first to star Brosnan) as being his first experience with Bond on the big screen, notes that the novels and movies follow a familiar formula.
Italian medieval literature scholar and novelist Umberto Eco (“The Name of the Rose”) analyzed the narrative structure of Fleming’s novels and came up with a series of repeating character types and narrative touchstones.
For example, M will give a task to Bond, a villain will appear, a woman will appear to Bond, the villain will capture Bond, etc.
“Eco said the appeal of Bond novels wasn’t in the surprise of the plots — we’ve been trained to recognize those narrative elements — but the pleasure comes in how you get what you’re expecting,” Mexal said. “Eco compared it to a Harlem Globetrotters game. We know they’re going to win, but our pleasure comes in watching their virtuosity in deferring the moment that they actually win.
“And that’s what Fleming does with Bond.”
Mexal notes that Fleming was amenable to tweaks in his novels over the years.
For example, “Live and Let Die,” his second novel, was published in the U.K. in 1954, and a year later in the U.S. The New York publishing house Macmillan changed the title of one of the chapters that included a racial slur.
Fleming was OK with the change, “and according to some sources he even preferred the American version,” Mexal says.
Earlier this year, the London Telegraph reported that Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., concerned about sexist and racist references in the Bond novels, commissioned a review of them and that they now will carry a disclaimer saying “a number of updates have been made in this edition, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period in which it is set.”
“Fleming was certainly open to the idea that the books could change over time and that Bond would change over time,” Mexal says.
In the movie “GoldenEye,” M — head of the Secret Intelligence Service, the agency known as MI6 — calls Bond a “sexist dinosaur,” notes Mexal, who has written two books, “Reading for Liberalism” (2013) and “The Conservative Aesthetic” (2021).
“It was an in-narrative characterization that would have been surprising for people reading Bond in 1955 but certainly made sense to us in 1995,” says Mexal, who joined CSUF in 2007 after earning his doctorate in English literature from the University of Colorado, where he also earned his master’s degree.
“He’s the same character, but his behaviors are being commented on in a way that reflects the tenor of the day.”
Batman vs. Bond
Mexal notes the difference between James Bond and classic American heroes in literature — which may further explain Bond’s enduring allure in the U.S.
“He’s different from certain American hero archetypes, like cowboys or superheroes,” Mexal says. “Often we like these American heroes because they stand outside of governmental organizations and take the law into their own hands.
“If you think of Batman, if it wasn’t for the fact that we’ve all agreed to call him a hero, he would be a terrifying figure, right?
“Here’s a guy who’s so rich and powerful that he’s able to stand outside of any court of law or legitimate social institution and then identify people who haven’t been found guilty of a crime and target them for punishment or capture. In America, we’re like: ‘Oh yeah, we like that guy. He’s a hero.’
“But Bond isn’t like that. He’s an organization man with a civil servant salary, and he does what his boss asks him to do in the service of his country. That type of heroism in the worlds of the Bond novels and films is in the service of a democratically accountable government, which I find interesting.”
As do millions of other fans.