Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Blueprints For Brilliance: Skyfall (Bond 23)


['Blueprints For Brilliance' is a non-regular feature focusing on how best to adapt challenging or interesting properties to a certain medium. It's a bit like Flixist's How To Do It, where a version of this article was first published, but with added alliteration.]

The next entry in the James Bond series is set to start filming during the next month, with more and more details of shooting locations and possible cast members being unearthed as the time draws nearer. We now have enough concrete details and strong rumours by now to start speculating on how Skyfall, the twenty-third entry in the Bond series, could shape up.

Once again, the Bond series finds itself at something of a crossroads after Quantum of Solace failed to receive the same widespread adoration as its celebrated predecessor, Casino Royale, and even recouped slightly less at the box-office. Skyfall is going to lay down an important marker for how people see Daniel Craig's Bond: was Quantum a one-off blip caused by the writers' strike, or symptomatic of the writers' struggle to create strong stories for the character without having the work of his literary creator, Ian Fleming, to fall back on?
  
Let's first think about who Daniel Craig's Bond is and what he represents. In the aftermath of the Pierce Brosnan-starring debacle, Die Another Day, Casino Royale was supposed to take Bond back to his literary roots. It isn't the first time this has happened, with the casting of Timothy Dalton happening for many of the same reasons following Roger Moore's infamous tenure of the role. The way Ian Fleming describes Bond in the novels fits in quite well with how Craig (and Dalton) portrays him: good-looking - even if Craig looks nothing like Hoagy Carmichael, the jazz composer whom Fleming used as a model for Bond's facial appearance - but ruthless, cruel in the mouth and cold in the eyes. Craig's baby blues get that last detail spot on.

In character, though, a mistake made in Quantum was to assume the literary Bond was a merciless killing machine. That's as far from the truth as could be: in the novels, Bond kills efficiently and out of professional duty, but only because he has to. The Goldfinger novel opens with a wonderful scene where Bond reflects on life and death while sitting in an airport lounge, having killed a man less than twenty-four hours earlier. Bond's exact way of thinking is as follows:
It was part of his profession to kill people. He had never liked doing it and when he had to kill he did it as well as he knew how and forgot about it. As a secret agent who held the rare double-0 prefix – the licence to kill in the Secret Service – it was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon. If it happened, it happened. Regret was unprofessional – worse it was death-watch beetle in the soul.
In Quantum, Bond quite happily slaughters any number of people without any hint of feeling. Although similarly brutal, his portrayal in the Casino Royale film is more in line with Fleming because though Bond kills, it is made clear that he suffers the consequences: you don't drain back whisky while staring at your bloodied self in the mirror for hoots. Quantum's Bond may have been on a revenge mission, but that was no excuse turning him into a mindless psychopath.

Since nobody wants to retread old ground and outright repeat scenes from Casino, the best approach would be to take a leaf out of Tim Dalton's book in Licence To Kill. Bond was also on a revenge mission there and responsible for many deaths, yet while there weren't any full scenes dedicated to him showing guilt for the slaughter, Dalton humanised the character by giving him more physical pain, more panic when on the brink of death. In Quantum, Craig's Bond took everything in his stride. In Skyfall, it would be nice to see Bond stumbling just a little, taking his share of hurt and not tearing through fights and peril like an automaton. The character is first and foremost a hero, far moreso than the likes of Bourne or Bauer, so if he's going to do these terrible things, the audience need to see them affect him in some way.

Now let's talk villains. There's a justified fear of Bond turning into Austin Powers, which skewered the ridiculousness of the camp megalomaniacs whom the series had used for antagonists in the past. Yet that fear has turned Bond a little too far into absolute seriousness, where much of the appeal of the series comes from its slightly escalated fantastical elements. Producer Michael G. Wilson used to say that Bond occupied reality plus 10%, a fair summation. It's not that every Bond villain with a deformity or unusual trait is instantly camp, just the ones that go too far. You'd be hard pressed to get away with metal teeth these days, for example, but Le Chiffre's bleeding eye in Casino was a perfect mixture of the sinister and the grotesque, larger-than-life without being comic book. Bond's villains should be a bit boo-hiss, counteracting Bond's heroic nature, but hopefully Skyfall's writers will remember that there's a way of doing that without slipping into silliness.

Although he gets a lot of criticism, I was a fan of Tomorrow Never Dies' Elliot Carver, who represented a  megalomaniac for a modern, media-driven age. Where his being nebbish and weak was part of the point that his power came from his empire ("[...]Words the new weapons, satellites the new artillery."), Quantum's Dominic Greene was similarly meek, but also only a middle-man in a bigger operation. He never felt sufficiently powerful, either physically or in terms of his position in a criminal empire, to give Bond a proper challenge. (His henchman was also a wordless bore with a similar lack of physical prowess - a good henchman should offer muscle when the main villain cannot). The lesson here is that there are many different types of villain, some physically imposing and others powerful through their connections, but the one thing they all have to offer is a sense that they can put Bond in real danger when required.

Let's directly address a rumour which has cropped up recently, that Blofeld will be making an appearance in the new movie, possibly to be played by Ralph Fiennes, who has been confirmed for the film in an unknown role. (Javier Bardem will also play a villain, although my money is on him being a one-shot). My editor at Flixist and fellow Bond geek, Matt Razak, has opined that the series benefited from the character's absence, opening up a new range of villains and better plots than always having this one evil figure in the background would allow. I agree, to a point: villains stroking cats has become the most absurd cliché and certainly represents territory that can be left behind, with thanks for all the fighting fish.

However, I do believe that it is quite possible to do a new interpretation of Blofeld that is consistent with what a Bond villain should be in the modern era. For one thing, the Blofeld character in the books had neither a fluffy pussy to fondle, a penchant for drag (thanks for that, Diamonds Are Forever) or a ridiculous scar over his eye. He wasn't even bald. Instead, he was a physical behemoth with a crew cut, black eyes, scientific brilliance and a sexless marriage (nearly all Fleming's villains are sexually unusual) to his second-in-command, Irma Bunt - a character who needs to return if Blofeld does, if only so we can see her killed and thus have Tracy's death in On Her Majesty's Secret Service properly avenged, albeit in a different timeline.

To get him right, though, he needs to be more on the James Moriarty side of the supervillain graph than Fu Manchu. Osama Bin Laden proved that it is possible to have one man become the embodiment of evil in real life and the new Blofeld should be similarly reclusive, intellectually brilliant in all the worst disciplines and with an extremist dedication to his cause. No more brown Chinese shirts and silly accents: he should be a figure who inspires fear and exerts control over the modern world as much as MI6 are struggling to keep up with it. Given the sinister intensity and otherness he brought to his Voldemort performances, Fiennes would be a terrific choice.

There's also a scene from Fleming's You Only Live Twice (my favourite of his books) that I have been longing to see translated to the screen, which could be easily adapted - without some of the more questionable racial implications present in the novel - for the modern era. Bond discovers that Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, the man he has been assigned to kill, is none other than Blofeld, living in a castle atop an island off the Japanese coast, where he is cultivating all the most toxic plants and substances known to man in what is colloquially referred to as a 'Garden of Death'. His reasons for doing so are related to the aforementioned racial politics and I will consequently be leaving them well alone.

Bond scales the cliff to Blofeld's castle and has to navigate the garden in the pitch black of night, knowing that one wrong step could result in his being lethally poisoned or drowning to death in a sulphuric bog. It's one of the most suspenseful and morbidly abstract sequences Fleming put to page, as well as being a perfect environment in which to introduce a man driven by his deranged but brilliant scientific intellect. As for the reason for such a 'garden', that's easy enough: biological weapons, anyone? Suspense and weird imagery are two things largely missing from the modern Bond, both of which could be offered by such a sequence.

I'll end this article with a bit on the Bond girl. In their constant striving to seem modern and politically correct, new Bond movies have often sought to present leading ladies every bit as strong and action-oriented as Bond himself. I don't disagree with the idea, because the worst Bond girls are always the ones who figuratively and literally just roll over - say hello, Mary Goodnight! - but more recent ones have occasionally slipped into the 'female Bond' role without developing any sort of character to call their own - let's try and avoid another Jinx (urgh), shall we? - or are just defined entirely by their jobs, such as bland computer programmer Natalya Simonova or Denise Richards as nuclear physicist (yes, really) Christmas Jones.

Craig's main Bond girls have both had a nice mix of personality and proficiency, with Vesper being a proper femme fatale and Camille so consumed by her quest for revenge that it had turned her almost feral. Aside from the usual baseless speculation, details have not been particularly forthcoming about what Skyfall's female lead will have to do, but hopefully care will continue to be taken so she has much personality as purpose. Whomever Craig's latest lass turns out to be, she could probably do with avoiding a comedy name, though, even if I seemed to be the only person in the known universe who thought Strawberry Fields was a pretty great Bond girl moniker. Berenice Mahole's character is known to be called Severine, which is appropriately unusual but hopefully will be left at that.

So those are my thoughts on how Skyfall can recapture some of the Fleming-ian flavour missing from Quantum of Solace without compromising the series' credentials as a modern action series. I had actually written out a whole possible plot for the movie, using all the confirmed locations and suggestions above, but thought it best not to turn this article into fan fiction. I'm currently serialising my own Fleming-inspired action thriller anyway.

My real point is that, with careful consideration, Bond can be relevant without losing everything that makes his best movies so special. Moneypenny and Q could easily have taken the place of characters from Casino and Quantum, for one thing, and slightly mad gadgets are fine so long as they don't become easy escape routes that kill suspense. As you can probably tell, I could write several thousand more words on this topic, covering everything from M to locations and when to deploy the Bond theme for maximum effect. But even on this blog, that degree of nerditry is probably going a bit too far.

Oh, but the gunbarrel sequence definitely needs to be back at the beginning. It's the single most exciting movie introduction ever devised! What goon thought it would be a good idea...

OK, I'll stop now. Skyfall comes out on November 9th next year in the US and October 26th in the UK. As you can probably tell, I'm a little bit excited about it.


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1 comment:

LRR said...

great writeup. The Organization named Quantum...ugh, what a terrible name. Clearly contrived to try and come up with an alternate meaning for the title of the worst Bond Flick in the franchise history. It doesn't even sound evil. It sounds...all happy and physicsy...Now SPECTRE. What a GREAT name! :-) Pure evil....QOS was so bad that I wish it could be annulled....like make it as thought it never existed. Bond23 has no where to go but up. Thanks for your thoughtful writeup.