Idris Elba and the 'true' James Bond: Why 007 will never stop evolving
A cultural icon can only survive by changing with the times
On Tuesday, Anthony Horowitz — the author behind Trigger Mortis, the latest James Bond novel authorized by the Ian Fleming estate — drew considerable criticism when he tackled the subject of 007's big-screen counterparts. When asked about the possibility of Idris Elba taking the role of the superspy once Daniel Craig's run is over, Horowitz said he thought Elba was the wrong choice.
Of course, these kinds of debates over the casting and recasting of iconic characters happen all the time — but Horowitz waded into controversy when he attempted to justify his skepticism. Despite his insistence that his aversion to Elba playing 007 wasn't "a color issue," Horowitz said he thought Elba was "a bit too rough" and "a bit too street" to play Bond — with the latter, in particular, sounding a lot like thinly veiled racism. (Horowitz has, for what it's worth, since issued an apology: "Clumsily, I chose the word 'street' as Elba's gritty portrayal of DCI John Luther was in my mind but I admit it was a poor choice of word. I am mortified to have caused offense.")
Horowitz is the fourth novelist to take a crack at a new Bond novel within the past decade alone. Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care, Jeffrey Deaver's Carte Blanche, and William Boyd's Solo have had no significant cultural legacy, and despite a sort-of disingenuous claim that Trigger Mortis contains previously unpublished, "original material by Ian Fleming" — the first chapter was adapted from one of Fleming's failed ideas for a TV series — I suspect that Trigger Mortis will quickly be ignored and forgotten by all but the biggest 007 diehards.
But Horowitz — who, to be clear, has never had (and probably will never have) any creative stake whatsoever in the 007 film franchise — clearly thinks of himself as the character's most committed and authentic torchbearer. "It was always my intention to go back to the true Bond, which is to say, the Bond that Fleming created," he said in an interview with the BBC in May.
That might be why he was so willing to judge what he views as the missteps of the current cinematic incarnation of James Bond, which stars Daniel Craig. In the full Daily Mail interview that blew up on Tuesday, Horowitz elaborates on his problem with Skyfall, the franchise's most recent installment, which he calls his "least favorite" 007 movie. He's equally skeptical about this year's Spectre, which seems to be doubling down on Skyfall's unusually revelatory approach to James Bond's personal history. "I know the fans are all terribly excited to know more," says Horowitz. "But I'm saying, 'Don't tell me, I don't want to know. I don't want to know about his doubts, his insecurities, or weaknesses. I just want to see him act, kill, win.'"
To my mind, that's a fairly dull version of James Bond, but it's not a surprising sentiment from a writer who just spent months trying to capture the "true Bond" by sounding as much like Ian Fleming as possible. What I think Horowitz is trying to say — albeit clumsily — is that he prefers a cinematic 007 in the Sean Connery vein: cold and violent and basically guilt-free, without the angst or hand-wringing that tends to characterize modern-day Hollywood heroes.
But the "true Bond" turns out to be a trickier ideal than it might seem to pin down. Filmmakers departed from Fleming's Bond from the very beginning. None of the six actors cast as 007 has featured the three-inch scar that Bond, according to Fleming's novels, bore on his right cheek. Popular culture will always associate 007 with the vodka martini, but in the novels, he also drinks gin, scotch, bourbon, champagne, and beer — including, at one point, a Miller High Life. (Today, his favorite tipple tends to be whichever alcohol brand is willing to pay most for its product placement.) He has also, repeatedly, been brought in line with the cultural norms of the era; despite his two-plus-packs-a-day smoking habit in the novels, it's been many years since James Bond lit up a cigarette on-screen.
In short, this fabled era of the "real" James Bond never actually existed. The very first adaptation of Fleming's 007 novels reinvented him as an American spy called Jimmy Bond. Dr. No, which brought Bond to the big screen, drew criticism from many — including Ian Fleming! — for casting Sean Connery, who was considered a poor match for the literary spy. (Fleming eventually came around, writing a Scottish ancestry for 007 into a later novel to make his literary hero more closely resemble Connery.)
And the franchise has never really stopped evolving. 1979's Moonraker is a goofy failed attempt to infuse James Bond with Star Wars. 1989's Licence to Kill drew direct inspiration from the hits of its era, including Lethal Weapon and RoboCop. And 2006's Casino Royale was an attempt to correct for the goofy excesses of the Pierce Brosnan era — a rebooted superhero origin story for the world's most famous superspy. These controversies about the "true Bond" are in a perpetual cycle. You may recall the internet campaign against Daniel Craig being cast as 007, which assembled a laundry list of complaints: Craig didn't look like the previous actors, Craig was blonde, Craig was too "uncouth" to play a suave superspy.
Of course, when Casino Royale arrived, it was clear that those departures from the norm were intentional — a much-needed course correction for a franchise that was starting to feel creaky and old-fashioned in a world of Jason Bournes and Jack Bauers. "Hopefully, my Bond is not as sexist and misogynistic as [earlier incarnations]," said Craig in a recent interview with Esquire UK. "The world has changed. I am certainly not that person. But he is."
Even Anthony Horowitz, who was basically hired to sound as much like Ian Fleming as possible, understands this. His Trigger Mortis features the return of Pussy Galore. She's one of the best-known and best-loved Bond girls — but there are elements of her character, as conceived by Ian Fleming, that are embarrassingly outdated. As Pussy tells Bond in Goldfinger, she became a lesbian only after she was sexually abused by her uncle at the age of 12. She eventually falls for Bond anyway. Horowitz's Trigger Mortis picks up just weeks after the events of Goldfinger, but he attempts to correct for Fleming's original arc for Pussy: By the end of the novel, she leaves Bond for another woman.
But if the 007 novels are earnestly attempting to carry on Fleming's literary legacy, the 007 movies have long since forged their own trail. In practice, that has meant throwing out or ignoring much of what Fleming wrote. Idris Elba may well turn out to be the right actor to carry 007's mantle after Craig, though the speculation is incredibly premature; Spectre doesn't even hit theaters until November, and Daniel Craig still has one more movie on his contract after that. But when Craig is finished with the role, why not? The producers will have no choice but to chart a whole new course for the franchise again, and casting the first-ever black Bond would be a great way to do it.
Horowitz's dumb comments do hint at a more compelling question: What makes James Bond James Bond, anyway? He's British. He's a spy. He likes alcohol and sex. He's a pretty sharp dresser, and he usually introduces himself by saying his last name first. It's hard for me to imagine a James Bond that didn't have all those qualities — but there was a time that a blonde Bond seemed strange too. This is what happens to the few characters that become entrenched cultural icons: They expand and grow and change far beyond anything their original creators could have imagined or intended.