Tuesday, 18 January 2011

What's in a name?

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.


  1. Sorry, but I disagree with pretty much everything said in this post. But the assertions that are used as evidence, and the conclusions drawn from them.

    Firstly, the idea that any post-Fleming Bond movie titles are bland is essentially a all-sweeping statement. I'm assuming you already know that 'The World is Not Enough' was a phrase specifically used my Fleming (if not coined by him, but as I'll show below, that's not unique). It has all the memetic properties one would expect of a successful Bond movie title, and the fact that you gloss over the fact that you say both Brosnan's movies and their titles are bland without drawing a causal link between them, is silly. I'd rather say that if The World is Not Enough is forgettable, it because it's in a forgettable movie. I also feel the need to slightly defend Tomorrow Never Dies, since it was based off 'Tomorrow Never Lies' rather than (as most assume) the saying 'Tomorrow Never Comes' and I feel it only seems more hamfisted after Die Another Day came out making the whole 'Die' -fix feel overused. Personally I think that Tomorrow Never Lies would've been a brilliant film title, had not a typo and a a following publisher change occurred.

    Secondly, the idea that Fleming is responsible for the best of his book titles, is actually something of a myth. Fleming himself always seemed to prefer more generic 'thriller' titles to the unique exotic/dangerous titles. Jonathan Cape, (Fleming's publisher) is much more responsible forcing Fleming to change his titles often. This is what Bond books would've been called without Cape's involvement:

    Live and Let Die = The Undertaker's Wind
    Moonraker = The Infernal Machine/ The Inhuman Element / Wide of the Mark
    Dr No = The Wound Man
    From a View to a Kill = The Rough with the Smooth
    For Your Eyes Only = Man's Work/ Rough Justice/ Death Leaves an Echo
    On Her Majesty's Secret Service = The Belles of Hell
    The Living Daylight = Trigger Finger
    Property of a Lady = The Diamond Egg

    The only Bond novels in which Flemings title got through without Cape's intervention (presumably because he agreed with them) are all noticeably generic descriptions or single-word names, and were: Casino Royale, Diamonds Are Forever, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, The Man With the Golden Gun, Octopussy and (technically) Goldeneye.

    Out of these, both Goldfinger and Goldeneye were taken from pre-existing phrases (Erno Goldfinger and Reflections in a Golden Eye). It's also worth noticing that Cape obviously left most of the short story names unchanged, given their stylistic differences, which were probably why the film makers opted not to use them before they backtracked (for God knows what reason) with Quantum of Solace.

    Given Flemings obsession with certain phrases, such as Spectre and operative names such as Thunderball, my guess is that Risico is simply an example of Fleming trying out the same, but getting it wrong, essentially making up a word in the process. None of the remaining names then are really that apt and the Property of a Lady I would say is actually the most suitable (given it's referencing the Queen, as in OHMSS).

    Ultimatly I'd say the Bond movie makers make the right decision to simply go back to ignoring the 'Fleming' names (which were, outside of those short-story names yet to be used were actually Cape names) and sticking with original names, hopefully avoiding anymore 'die' puns.

    EDIT: Just for fun, I decided to see if I could recreate the style of some Bondish names, whilst (admittedly) making the pun faux pas. I think they're quite mixed in quality but see if any of them match your 'feel' for Fleming, as it were:

    Through Hell or High Stakes
    Down to the Wire
    The Silver Lining
    The Devil You Know
    To Die A Dozen
    It Takes Two to Tango
    The Hand that Kills You
    The Best of Both Worlds

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comments. You clearly know your Bond and Fleming. I'd like to take this discussion further, but before I do, would it be possible to have some idea of who you are? I'm (reasonably) open about my identity and views, and I feel that a debate with 'Anonymous' leaves me at a disadvantage.


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