As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, all things James Bond lead me down a winding path.
Skyfall. 143 min. Sam Mendes. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 2012.
Skyfall marks the 50th anniversary of the Bond film franchise with a movie about doing the job of espionage. This rendition centers on vengeance and order and is markedly not about the girls, the drinks, or the gadgets. The plot largely focuses on M, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, who is played by Judi Dench. M is under dual attack: by a villain brought to vibrant life by Javier Bardem on the one hand, and by the government she serves on the other. At its core, the film questions the purpose of shadow agents and is rooted in a heroic patriotism crosscut by the costs of dying for one’s country. The film is atmospheric and dark, yet for all its brooding, it is super-fast, opening with a chase scene and then leapfrogging through various others up until its final confrontation.
As action-packed as its plot is, this is also a stylish and highly designed film, gloriously shot and exquisitely framed, filled with saturated colors that lend a crisp and bright feel at the start and then darken as the film advances. The mood, as in all of the Bond films starring Daniel Craig, is cool, vengeful, intense, and relentless. Like Casino Royale, it is an intimate film, and one that pays more attention to the development of Bond’s character and personal history than viewers have gotten in the past 50 years combined. In particular, Bond’s relationship with M is explored and enough hints are given about his childhood to spark speculation about what may be revealed in future films. As is fitting in an anniversary title, a number of moments reward fans for their past attention, and while some of those moments are weirdly anachronistic, they are still clever and highly rewarding—as is the film itself.
Watch- and Read-Alikes:
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. 133 min. Brad Bird. Paramount. 2011.
Viewers who enjoy Skyfall are likely to want more fast action, and for that, this Tom Cruise vehicle—the fourth series installment—makes a fine next choice. The film traces super-agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) as he and a team of disavowed agents race to stop a madman named Cobalt, who believes that peace can come only from the ashes of nuclear war. Like Skyfall, the film is slick and tightly plotted, moving from one action scene to the next. Also like Skyfall, the movie is stylish and full of carefully framed images, such as one of Hunt racing to escape a sandstorm as its shadow slowly overtakes him. While Ghost Protocol is, overall, funnier than the Bond film, which is light only occasionally, it still reflects on the cost of service and it certainly delivers what many Bond fans want: a high-intensity viewing experience and the pleasure of watching highly competent agents getting the job done. Other similarly paced films, all of which share some aspects of the Bond sensibility, include the Bourne movies, Salt (starring Angelina Jolie), and the films based on Tom Clancy’s novels, such as Clear and Present Danger and The Hunt for Red October.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. 112 min. Martin Ritt. Criterion Collection. 2008.
There are a number of intriguing directions in which to take next-watching suggestions, including Westerns with steadfast heroes, action movies with relentless anti-heroes, postmodern takes on villainy, films featuring determined military or police officers saving the day, and espionage films that home in on the work itself. If you have viewers open to films outside of the standard action-thriller model, then suggest the intense and methodical The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965). Based on the book by John Le Carré, it tells the story of a British agent working as head of section in West Berlin during the height of the Cold War. Le Carré’s work is often thought to be the opposite of Bond culture, given his workaday agents and focus on the psychology of spying rather than on action thrills. But this dark and moody film, brilliantly framed and constructed, echoes a central theme of Skyfall: what costs are worth paying in the spy game? The answers this film provides are not too far from the ones M arrives at.
Cussler, Clive. Shock Wave. Pocket Star. 2008. 672p. ISBN 9781416587101. pap. $9.99.
When it comes to books that read like the Bond films, Cussler’s are some of the best choices. His hero, Dirk Pitt, works for the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). He is very much a version of Bond—capable, relentless, witty, and a man who never shies from danger. The plots of the Pitt novels follow the global pattern of the Bond movies; they’re also fast-paced, plotted from one chase, disaster, or escape to the next, and the stakes are always high. The villains are all larger than life, and there are girls to save and technology to detail as well. In this outing, Pitt must take down the evil head of a diamond empire, a villain killing sea creatures and humans alike in an attempt to corner the gem market. Other titles to consider include Lee Child’s Reacher books and Matthew Reilly’s Scarecrow titles, both of which share the über-competent heroes and fast pace of the Bond movies.
Fleming, Ian. Dr. No. Thomas & Mercer. 2012. 255p. ISBN 9781612185491. pap. $14.95.
Sometimes fans simply want more. For Bond-film fans, that means turning back to Fleming on the page. This sixth novel in the series is a great choice for readers who do not have to start at the beginning (if they do, Casino Royale is first). In this installment, Bond travels to Jamaica, where he takes on the case of a missing M16 operative and encounters Dr. No in his island fortress, complete with what locals think might be a dragon. The novel, like most of Fleming’s work, is sparse, tightly plotted, and quickly paced. Fleming was a journalist, and the clean style characteristic of journalism flavors his prose, especially in his brief dashes of description. Unlike the films, which have little room for it, Bond is often self-reflective, evaluating his actions and the characters he encounters. Here he thinks he has gotten off to a bad start, having to surrender his favorite gun to M and carelessly broadcasting his arrival in Jamaica. But soon he gets back on track and the story speeds ahead. Readers new to Bond in print should note that the stories, published from the early 1950s through the 1960s, reflect the prevailing prejudices of their time and often express attitudes off-putting to many. But for readers who have watched the movies over and over again, turning to the novels and stories is certainly the next step.
From Russia with Love. Blackstone Audio. 2000. ISBN 9780786198290. $56.
Other forms of the Bond books are available as well, namely audiobooks, comic-strip collections, and games. Six-time Audie Award–winner Simon Vance narrates the stories for Blackstone in the United States. His sharp and terse reading captures the urgency and tension of this particularly well-crafted plot: a sinister and carefully planned scheme to assassinate Bond. While Vance’s reading voice does not sound as British as one would expect, he excels with the accents in all other respects as he depicts the novel’s many characters. Fans of comics should be pointed to The James Bond Omnibus (volumes 001 through 004) for fine editions of the comic strip that began running in the Daily Express in 1958. The strips are graphic and violent and hold tight to the same themes and concerns as the novels. The illustrations, by John McLusky, are sharp and square, a bit like Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. The later strips, drawn by Yaroslav Horak, are more kinetic. As for games, the original Golden Eye 007 is widely accounted to be the best, but consider Nightfire as well, with its visually appealing sets.
Burlingame, Jon. The Music of James Bond. Oxford UP. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9780199863303. $35.
Another way to enjoy more Bond is to focus on other aspects of the films. To this end, Burlingame, who teaches film-music history at the University of Southern California, has created a guide to the soundscape of the Bond films from Dr. No through Quantum of Solace. The accessible and engaging text traces the evolution of the Bond sound from big band to jazz to rock and explores how the dangerous and relentless tone of the films is created and expanded by the scores. Each of the films is treated in its own chapter, in which Burlingame meticulously guides readers through the film, starting with the opening song and moving on to critical moments in the soundtrack. But it is not all about the music; Burlingame also interviewed many of the artists involved with the creation of the Bond sound and shares their insight and backstory tidbits, adding layers of additional interest to the text. Pair the book with any number of Bond recordings such as Adele’s Skyfall single or The Best of James Bond 30th-anniversary or 50th-anniversary sets for an immersive reading and listening experience.
McKay, Sinclair. The Man with the Golden Touch: How the Bond Films Conquered the World. Overlook. 2010. 400p. ISBN 9781590202982. $25.95.
Yet another way to stay within the world of the films is via a critical analysis of their impact, which McKay provides with great verve and delight. Written in a conversational style, his cultural history of the Bond franchise explores the complete world of the super-spy and those who created him, including the movie producers, the iconic actors, and Fleming himself. McKay has an engaging manner sure to please fans, and his book will give them plenty to think about as they re-watch the films in years to come. His primary focus is the history, creation, impact, and aesthetic approach of the movies, but he casts a wide net and pulls in any number of threads. As a result the book seems packed with data, all of which makes for fascinating and fun reading. Pair McKay with Paul Duncan’s lavishly illustrated The James Bond Archives or Greg Williams’s Bond on Set books for a full Bond-film experience. For readers who want more cultural history, suggest License To Thrill by James Chapman, and, for Roger Moore fans, suggest his new book Bond on Bond. If you still have them in your collection, offer James Bond in the Cinema by John Brosnan and The James Bond Bedside Companion by Raymond Benson as well.
Archangel. 133 min. Jon Jones. Allumination. 2007.
Fans of Skyfall who want more of Daniel Craig on their screens and have already seen Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace have a number of next films to consider. In this three-part BBC production based on the book by Robert Harris, Craig stars as British academic and Stalin expert Fluke Kelso, who is smart and dogged, and has more than a whiff of Bond about him. While in Russia for a conference, he is approached by an old man who has a story to tell about the death of Stalin as well as a long-hidden secret he is now willing to share. Intrigued by the story, Kelso becomes deeply enmeshed in a web of Russian political aspiration, both modern and historical. As the series develops, it becomes clear that Kelso has become part of a 50-year-old plan, one that involves a number of players who have been waiting for the right circumstances—and Kelso seems to be their man. The series is sharply plotted, continually suspenseful, and beautifully—and authentically—set. Bond fans will enjoy Craig’s performance as an academic sleuth who can hold his own and puzzle through a half-century-old cover-up.
Layer Cake. 105 min. Matthew Vaughn. Sony. 2005.
Craig stars in this gangster film as Mr. X, a drug dealer who has a profitable and fairly safe business selling cocaine, but who is now looking to retire young and enjoy his profits. His plans are derailed when he gets caught between a Serbian drug lord and a London crime boss, both of whom can force his hand. The drug lord has lost possession of a large amount of Ecstasy, believes X has it, and demands either its return or X’s head. The London crime boss gets word of the windfall and wants X to sell the pills and pass the money up the chain—or else. Narrating the story, at times directly addressing the camera, Mr. X guides viewers through the mess in this slick, fast, clever, and very hip caper. Craig is riveting as he plays a character who is smooth, smart, and capable—just one not in service to his government.
Defiance. 137 min. Edward Zwick. Paramount. 2008.
Based on the book by Nechama Tec, this film of force and self-possession tells the true story of the survival of 1,200 Jews who hid in a Belarus forest during World War II. Led by Tuvia Bielski, the group forms a community whose very existence represents resistance against the Nazis and claims physical and ethical space. Craig plays Tuvia as a resolute and strong man who comes to understand that the community must stay together if the individuals within it are to survive. He is joined in the forest by his brothers, one of whom, Zus, has more desire to fight than to build. After a power struggle with Tuvia, Zus leaves to join the Soviet army. As the film unfolds, Tuvia continues to gather members of the community, helping entire groups steal away into the woods, and faces down more threats to his authority and to the community. While the film is action-based and has a fugitive-on-the-run feel, its most notable feature is its textured and luminous visual detail, which makes the harrowing history intimate and visceral.