Between the trailer for Daniel Craig’s final James Bond outing, No Time to Die, and excitement for the movie rising, a number of websites are once again talking about who is the best 007.
Was it Sean Connery, Roger Moore, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, or Craig himself?
The answer is: none of them. The real, best James Bond has never appeared on the screen.
In many respects, Ian Fleming’s James Bond was anything but the superspy who appears in the movies. The literary Bond is a civil servant who spends most of the year in an office dealing with paperwork, aided by his secretary, Mary Goodnight. While he’s in the office, he lives a modest life. He dresses for comfort rather than style and consumes plain British cuisine. For a couple of months every year, he is sent abroad on assignment and uses that as an opportunity to run up MI6’s credit card as far as is humanly possible.
Bond is approaching the mandatory retirement age of 45 for 00 agents, and very aware that almost none survive that long. He is terrified of flying, spending most of any flight fantasizing about the many different ways the plane can crash and kill him. He also knows that the odds are even more stacked against him than normal – during his assignment in Casino Royale, a Soviet agent carved the Russian letter Ш into his hand, marking him as a spy to any Soviet agent. In that same mission, his heart was broken by Vesper Lynd, who proved to be a double agent shortly before she was killed. He never lost his feelings for her and visits her grave every year.
This does not prevent Bond from attempting to engage in romantic relationships, although most of them fail due to the toxic effect that his life has on them. He was hardest hit when he fell in love with Teresa di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – he married her, only to have Ernst Stavro Blofeld kill her just after the wedding. This sent Bond into such a self-destructive tailspin that he was sent to Japan with his 00 status revoked, in the hope that he might be able to be of some use to the diplomatic service. There, he discovered that Blofeld had a base of operations and goes undercover to infiltrate Blofeld’s base and kill him, trained in part by a former Japanese actress named Kissy Suzuki.
Bond kills Blofeld, but suffers a head injury and loses his memory. Kissy Suzuki, who has fallen in love with him, conceals Bond’s identity from him and becomes pregnant with his child. Unfortunately, Bond is feeling drawn towards Vladivostok, and travels there to learn who he is. This leads to him being captured and brainwashed by the Soviets, and in Fleming’s final James Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun, Bond attempts to assassinate M. When he fails, he is reconditioned by MI6 and sent to Jamaica on a suicide mission, just so that Bond can have the opportunity to die with dignity. Bond survives, but Ian Fleming died before he could write any other novels.
This version of James Bond – a heavy drinker, smoker, and gambler trying to make the best of what little time he has left before he’s killed, bound to a job he hates out of a sense of duty to Queen and Country – has never really appeared on the big screen. And while that’s a pity for the portrayal of the character, it also makes sense.
Much of the literary Bond’s life and character would not translate well to film. Bond’s work as just another boring civil servant when not on assignment would bore an audience to tears. Nobody wants to watch Daniel Craig do paperwork for months on end, or cook ordinary meals in his flat. When the first two movies – Dr. No and From Russia With Love – showed part of Bond’s life at home in England, it only showed what he was doing right before he left for assignment. Bond’s office at MI6 has never appeared on screen, and while Mary Goodnight does appear in The Man With the Golden Gun, it is never made clear that she is his secretary.
Another problem lies in the genre of the Bond franchise. While the cinematic Bond is an action hero, the literary Bond is a spy. This shift into the action genre began during the first four movies, and by Thunderball it was well underway. The franchise retained at least some of its spy movie trappings – Roger Moore’s Bond is often a favourite of real intelligence agents due to his tendency to think and charm his way out of dangerous situations – but with Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond movie, Goldeneye, the transition was complete. Bond had become an nigh-invulnerable action hero, gunning down mobs of Russian soldiers and more comfortable with a sub-machine gun in the open than a silenced pistol in the shadows.
Another factor was the movement away from the original source material. While the first few movies were very faithful to Fleming’s novels, this came to an end with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. By Live and Let Die, the movies tended to only share character names and settings with the novels they were named after. The ongoing character development in the books was lost along with their original plots.
To be fair, while the Daniel Craig reboot of the franchise was still grounded in the action genre, his Bond is as close to the literary Bond as audiences have ever seen, at least since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. His Bond comes across as a human being (mostly), hating his job while being bound to it by his sense of duty – in fact, in three of his four movies thus far, Daniel Craig’s Bond either resigned from or otherwise left MI6. His first outing, Casino Royale, was faithful to the book, although it added a great deal of setup to the plot. He is also a Bond who has suffered physical consequences over the course of the movies. In Casino Royale he is hospitalized after being tortured by Le Chiffre, and in Skyfall he is left barely capable after being accidentally shot and spending several months laying low. He has emotions, he falls in love, and he suffers.
But there’s still a lot missing that could otherwise be there. When it comes to a fight, Craig’s Bond is fearless, only showing any signs of worry when faced by a Komodo Dragon in Skyfall. He has the physical prowess of a superhero, and leaves a hefty body count behind him. When he’s being chased he is more like a hunter leading his prey into a trap than a man running for his life. He might be the most human of the cinematic Bonds since Timothy Dalton, but he’s still far from Fleming’s original.
And this is a pity. While there are many aspects of the literary Bond that are probably next to unfilmable – one could depict the months-long relationship Bond had with Tiffany Case after Diamonds are Forever, but only by shoehorning it into the following movie – there is one key aspect of the literary Bond’s character that keeps getting left out and shouldn’t be: Bond’s fear.
In life-threatening circumstances, James Bond is a fearful man, and his overcoming of that fear to triumph makes him vulnerable, compelling, and relatable. To see just how much this would make any Bond movie better, one just has to watch the single Bond movie in which it appeared: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. When escaping from Blofeld’s lair on skis, Bond is chased and attacked by Blofeld’s henchmen, who keep up with him at every turn. Throughout, Bond is terrified, and as a result the chase is the most suspenseful sequence in the history of the franchise. When he finally runs into and is spirited away from danger by Teresa di Vicenzo, it sells the romance between them and their marriage at the end – Bond marries her because she is the woman who literally saved him. It also makes her death right after the wedding hit like a hammer blow, as well as Bond’s complete breakdown as he cradles her dead body, telling a concerned passerby, “There´s no hurry, you see? We have all the time in the world.”
It’s because of this that in retrospect, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is remembered by many as the best of the pre-Craig Bond movies. For the first time, James Bond is a full human being, and it makes everything better. And all of this was erased when Sean Connery returned in Diamonds are Forever, getting over Teresa’s death in the pre-title sequence.
The literary Bond – the flawed, vulnerable spy knowing his time is almost up – is the best and truest version of James Bond. And while we may not have seen him in the cinema yet, we can always hope – after all, there’s still all the time in the world.