Saturday 19 March 2011

Quantum of gadgets: How to measure fantasy levels in the James Bond films

Peter Hunt, the director of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) was keen to re-introduce some realism to the Bond series. ‘It’s one of the best Fleming stories’, he noted. When director John Glen embarked on the production of For Your Eyes Only (1981), he said, ‘It was time to get back to the spirit of Ian Fleming’s books.’ Of the actions scenes, Glen says, ‘I endeavoured to make them as realistic as possible.’ Later, when preparing for Licence to Kill (1989), Glen said, ‘This was going to be a harder-edged Bond film than any that had gone before’. Director Martin Campbell described Casino Royale (2006) as ‘more realistic and emotionally involving’, adding, ‘How many control rooms can we blow up? How many madmen can take over the world?’.

There is a pattern of excess followed by purge evident in the evolution of James Bond films. The series follows a trajectory of increasing fantasy, then is reset to something approaching plausibility. The films then recommence an upwards path towards greater fantasy as the cycle is repeated. The films mentioned above are those which critics and makers of the Bond films have acknowledged counter the excesses of previous films and bring a more human and realistic Bond (as Fleming wrote him) to the screen. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service followed You Only Live Twice, which included a volcano lair complete with rocket-launching pad and monorail. For Your Eyes Only brought Bond down to earth after he had been in space in Moonraker. The Living Daylights, the film that preceded Licence to Kill, was relatively realistic, but there was still a touch of Roger Moore silliness that did not sit well with the student of Fleming’s works, Timothy Dalton. Casino Royale avoided the quip-heavy dialogue and edge-of-world-war-three antics of Die Another Day.

The pattern is obvious enough when we watch the films, but can we measure the pattern in any way? One possibility is to take the total number of gadgets per film as an index of fantasy. The more fantastic the film, the higher the number of gadgets it contains. The chart shows the frequency of gadgets for each film (placed in chronological order). We can see that the number of gadgets rises with each successive film, beginning with Dr No (1962), until You Only Live Twice (1967), which sees a slight drop. There is, however, a much steeper fall with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There is then a prolonged period of fluctuation, with frequent rises and falls until GoldenEye (1995), which heralds a relatively steady increasein the frequency of gadgets, reaching a peak with Die Another Day (2002). Casino Royale featured relatively few gadgets, and its sequel, Quantum of Solace had even fewer. Interestingly, the number of gadgets Bond uses does not always move relative to the total number of gadgets. In Live and Let Die (1973), for example, Bond relied on his wits (and charm) more than gadgets, but the film itself represented a peak. (The additional gadgets refer to objects like cars, which have been counted once in the total per film, but contain a range of other gadgets.)

The chart suggests that the frequency of gadgets does have validity as a fantasy index, and identifies the films long regarded as being relatively realistic and closest to Fleming. It also shows that the peaks and troughs in the cycle of excess and purge are more frequent than the traditional focus on the four films mentioned at the start of this piece would suggest. To these, we can potentially add The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), which is relatively gadget free.

From an evolutionary perspective, the changing frequencies in gadget numbers are the product of selection pressures that act on the meme for gadget choice. For example, in the 1960s (which included films from Dr No to You Only Live Twice) the cultural environment favoured zany and surreal films, and this was manifested in the selection of an increasing number of gadgets put to outrageous use. The cultural environment changed in the late seventies, which saw the rise of the blockbuster, led by Jaws and Star Wars, that favoured spectacle and inevitably more gadgets. The Spy Who Loved Me (1976) and Moonraker (1979) are certainly products of this environment. More recently, films makers have adapted to an environment that has demanded harder-edged, realistic portrayals. The series of Bourne films is an early response to this, and the Bond producers followed suit with Casino Royale.

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