5 Storytelling Lessons You Can Learn From James Bond
This week sees the release of Spectre, the latest James Bond film. Bond films have really run the gamut from the release of Dr. No in 1962, switching actors and styles as the times demanded. Some of them (A View to a Kill, for example) are awful, but there are lessons, real storytelling lessons, to be learned from the Bond films, particularly the most recent ones. Whether or not Spectre lives up to them remains to be seen.
1. Bond Fails, or Reversals
In Casino Royale, both the book and the film, Bond is chosen for the mission because of his skill at playing cards (Baccarat in the book and Poker in the film). This is such a big part of the book that a whole chapter is devoted to explaining the rules of baccarat. Bond is given a nice bundle of cash from MI6 to play with, and is doing well, until...he loses it all. Every penny. Suddenly, in the middle of the story, he’s lost. He’s about to be kicked out of the game. There seems no way for him to win.
Luckily, in both versions, he’s saved by a donation from the US government courtesy of longtime ally Felix Leiter. It doesn’t come without a cost, though. Bond must give Le Chiffre over to the Americans. It’s a deal he’s willing to make. The last minute save might be expected but for a moment we believe that Bond’s luck has run out.
True suspense comes from being able to surprise your readers. Inevitability ruins that. Showing that Bond can lose, or at least come close, helps to keep the reader (or viewer) guessing.
2. Upset the Staus Quo
Bond is a secret agent, working for MI6, and so he is uniquely positioned to take part in all kinds of thrilling adventure. But Bond as a dutiful secret agent is not nearly as dramatic as Bond at odds with his own people. It’s a well the movies return to again and again. In License to Kill, Bond goes against orders to get revenge for Felix Leiter’s death. In Die Another Day, Bond goes against orders to complete the mission that resulted in him being imprisoned. In Quantum of Solace, he again defies MI6, and in Skyfall he essentially retires after being presumed dead. The thing is, Bond being a secret agent is exciting, but Bond being a secret agent mistrusted (and sometimes hunted) by his own agency is even better. Taking away your protagonist’s support structure (even if you just return it later in the story) makes for more tension. And it makes the climax all the more exciting when it’s earned under overwhelming odds.
3. A Flawed Protagonist
Yes, James Bond is a capable secret agent (most of the time) and he’s dashing and good-looking and stylish and deadly. But he’s a deeply flawed individual. Daniel Craig flat out called him a misogynist in this interview. The recent films show him to be an emotionally stunted individual a lot of the time. Some might even call him a sociopath. On occasions he falls in love (Casino Royale and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), often with the eagerness of a schoolboy, but when that love is betrayed (or dies) he turns into a vengeful killing machine. It’s a reminder that underneath his polished exterior, Bond can sometimes be a thug.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy his adventures, any more than we can enjoy the exploits of an assassin or a mobster or a criminal. That the recent films acknowledge Bond’s brokenness only makes him a more interesting character. And one that grow. Earlier films didn’t allow Bond much growth from film to film. The books gave us more of that. But the Daniel Craig movies very much form a continuum, one that is capable of showing growth. Let’s see if Spectre capitalizes on that.
4. A Worthy Antagonist
Face it, Bond would be nothing without his villains. Yes, they are cartoonish and over the top much of the time, but in many ways, so is Bond. Just as Batman demands a Joker, Bond demands his villains. And whether they take the form of a mastermind and henchman (like Goldfinger and Oddjob, or Karl Stromberg and Jaws) or just a main villain like Silva, they are usually memorable. Are all of them great? No. But many of them are. Take Scaramanga, the Man with the Golden Gun, a deadly assassin who hunts Bond. Or the aforementioned Raoul Silva. Or Bond’s archetypical villain, who inspired a thousand knockoffs, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. I’ll go so far as to say that Bond would not be as memorable if not for his villains. They make up one of the most memorable rogue’s galleries every created. Want to create a memorable character? Give him memorable enemies to defeat.
5. The Hint of the Past
The thing is, Bond existed for years without any real hint of his past (in the movies). He did just fine without anyone knowing much other than he was a womanizing, suave secret agent (who was once married). But part of the success of the recent Daniel Craig movies has been that they’ve given Bond more of a backstory. In Casino Royale, we get a glimpse of this as Vesper Lynd dissects (or as he says, skewers) Bond. We learn that he’s an orphan who has tried hard to present an upper class lifestyle. In Skyfall we visit his family estate in Scotland and find out more about his backround.
Why is this important? On the one hand, it helps make Bond more human. One could argue that his trajectory had been taking him into the superhuman realm and superhuman characters are hard to connect with. Bond being both flawed and an actual human being goes a long way toward making his struggles something we can relate to.
It also just allows for a deeper form of storytelling. In Skyfall, knowing that Bond is an orphan and showing us the old and dusty estate that he grew up on, helps to stress that he found new “parents” in MI6. This in turn plays off nicely against the idea of Silva as M’s surrogate son, the one who was left out in the cold. Bond hasn’t shared Silva’s fate, but the implication is that he easily could. Bond is another surrogate son and has become the son the organization has asked him to become.
The trick here is to treat this with a light touch. I don’t think there are too many of us wanting to see an in-depth examination of Bond’s childhood and upbringing. The rumor is that Spectre does delve deeper into Bond’s backstory, but will it succeed? We’ll have to see. But my instinct is that while some is better than none, less is better than more.
Are there any tricks or methods that you’ve found illuminating from the Bond films (or books)? If so, sound off in the comments. I’d love to hear what you would add.
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