It’s official. MGM has given the go-ahead for the next James Bond film, which will be released on 9th November 2012. The film is as yet untitled, but fan websites are feverish with speculation about the name. If the titles of the last two films set a trend, then Daniel Craig’s third film will use the name of an Ian Fleming short story. And there are a few to chose from: The Hildebrand Rarity, Risico, The Property of a Lady, and 007 in New York. I add to the speculation below, but before I do, it is worth thinking about Bond titles. What makes a title memorable? Or, to take a meme’s eye view, what gives a title, itself a meme, its survival value, or ability to be reproduced and remain active in popular culture?
It is reasonable to say that original film titles are more likely to be forgotten than those directly taken from Fleming. The titles Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is not Enough, and Die Another Day are as bland as Pierce Brosnan’s portrayal of Bond, and I expect occasional Bond watchers have trouble remembering them, let alone recall the films’ narratives. (The other day I was asked by a colleague to settle a debate had in a pub concerning the number of Brosnan’s Bond films. Out of a group of, I guess, four or five people, my colleague was alone in claiming four films; his friends, however, maintained that there had been only one or two, and he couldn’t convince them otherwise because he couldn’t remember the titles.)
The exceptions to the non-Fleming title rule are GoldenEye and Licence to Kill, which are probably more firmly imprinted in people’s minds, not least because the films’ titles are helped by other memes to give them improved penetration in cultural space (that is, they are replicated often and accurately, for example by the films being viewed or discussed in pubs). Goldeneye was helped by the six year gap between it and its predecessor, drawing a lot of interest before and after its release. The film also spawned a highly successful computer game, and the fact that Goldeneye was the name of Fleming’s Jamaican house was advantageous too. And Licence to kill was a well-known phrase before the film of that name was released in 1989.
Generally, Fleming’s titles, thanks to the success of the books and the films, are well embedded into popular culture. However, some are more successful than others. As with Licence to Kill, some titles have greater chance of replication, as their currency lies beyond the films, for instance often being used in or adapted for newspaper headlines (From Russia, With Love and The Spy Who Loved Me), becoming the soubriquet of politicians (Dr No), or existing as general figures of speech (Diamonds Are Forever and For Your Eyes Only).
In other cases, notably Goldfinger and Live and Let Die, the titles have been given increased prominence as a result of being attached to well-known and well-played songs. Few people will hear the word Goldfinger without recalling Shirley Bassey’s powerful rendition of the theme song’s opening lines, while Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die is a regular number at his concerts, and has been covered by other artists (Guns ‘n’ Roses among them) or featured in numerous non-Bondian contexts (for example the films Shrek the Third and Grosse Point Blank). These factors increase the chances of the titles’ replicative success as they enter people’s minds and are passed on in conversation or other media, and ultimately not forgotten.
What makes a successful title, then, is one that comes directly from Fleming, accompanies a good film or related products, or can be adapted and used in non-Bond connotations. So, which Fleming title would I recommend to the producers of Bond 23? Risico. It’s short, which makes it memorable and good for a song (I recommend Brian May – let’s finally bring the Queen sound to Bond), and the word could enter common usage similar to the way that Fleming introduces it (‘In this pizness is much risico’). However, it is known that Michael G Wilson dislikes Risico because the word is Fleming's invention (or perhaps more likely a rarely written down word that conveys a dialect he may have heard on his travels), and so my second choice is The Hildebrand Rarity. It has less potential to be adapted, but it is a more interesting title than The Property of a Lady.