Bond, James Bond: How the world's greatest super-spy evolves for an ever-changing audience.
Audience reception directly influences the way in which film-makers and film studios produce movies (Moore, 2016). As audiences become more aware of the structure and expectations of film and grow a clearer understanding of how certain sequences and “tricks” are achieved, film-makers must respond with films that continue to grab an ever-changing audience’s attention (Ebert, 1978). In turn outside factors, such as political and sociological effects on society, also alter audience interests and the way in which they receive film (Caldwell, 2013). These elements and the effect they have on cinema can be seen clearly when looking at the official James Bond franchise.
By applying a theoretical approach to both the context and the audience of the James Bond franchise, beginning with 1962's Dr. No and ending with 2015's Spectre, one can see the effect that audience reception has on films and film-making from both a profitability standpoint and a creative standpoint. The James Bond franchise's many incarnations, spanning six decades so far, will enable me to examine how the contextual output of film has evolved and changed because of the way audiences receive the texts, both through an understanding of the structuralist nature of the Bond films and contemporary outside influences at the time of the various films releases.
By approaching the Bond franchise in terms of semiotics it becomes obvious that the films have a clear structure and, in more recent years, these ‘tropes’ have been subverted within the franchise itself. The most recent incarnation of the franchise, headlined by actor Daniel Craig, has gone to great efforts to subvert many of the structural tropes seen in previous Bond films – such as the Bond Girl, a beautiful woman that, in the end, falls for the super-spy (Breihan, 2017). In the Craig era Bond films, the women rarely fall for him, and those that do are often either capable without his help or, in one instance, villains tricking the character (Casino Royale, 2006).
Audiences have received the Bond franchise in a variety of different ways over the course of the years; ranging from an escapist fantasy (Goldfinger), a surrealist and comedic action adventure (The Man With The Golden Gun) and a hard-hitting and gritty spy thriller (The Living Daylights), to a tongue in cheek homage to the franchise itself (Die Another Day) and a rebooted, emotionally layered action drama (Casino Royale). Most clearly the alterations in atmosphere and style can be seen with the recasting of Bond himself. Whereas Sean Connery introduced the world to the super spy and as the original was free from baggage and expectation, thereby becoming the “definitive” on screen interpretation, four decades later Pierce Brosnon inherited the role and would utilise the audience foreknowledge of the character by attempting to recapture Connery's performance while knowingly winking at the audience by doing so (Female First, 2017).
This is a clear example of how the franchise has evolved because of the way the audience receive it. In the early '60s, when the first Bond film was released, audiences were unaware of the structural mainstays of the films, nor did they have any awareness of the character or the world he inhabits outside of what the film offered. Flash forward to 1995 and audiences are not only aware of Bond as a character but have certain expectations and understandings of what they will be getting when they see the film. As a result of this shift in audience reception '90s Bond is far more self-aware than his 1960s counterpart.
Audience reception theory theorises that an audience is capable of extracting the meaning from texts (in this case films) placed within the context by a producer or creator, but that the audience will decode the text in different ways, not always in the way intended by the producer (Revision World, 2018). Obviously, there are certain elements of Bond that are received in the way that the film-makers intend entirely. The themes of National Identity and the ideologies of Queen and Country and the British way are present in every Bond film from start to finish and are what many of the fans love, while its appeal is often accredit to the simplicity of the narrative and the wish-fulfilment aspect of the character (Mahal, 2017). We see the archetypal roles at play within almost all the Bond movies, from the hero (Bond himself) to the villain, the donor (often one of the gadgets, or Q), the dispatcher (usually in the form of his boss, M) and the princess (the Bond-girl).
However, there are also times when the Bond films have been received in an oppositional reading. In this case we can see the theory directly at play with 2002's Bond outing Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnon's final film as 007. The producers and director, Lee Tamahori, intended for the film to act as a darker, harder Bond outing while doubling as a pastiche of the Bond franchises more absurd structural constants (‘Die Another Day audio commentary featuring director Lee Tamahori and producer Michael G. Wilson’, 2006), such as technologically impossible gadgets, absurdly beautiful and incompetent love interests and a villain with some kind of visually striking hook (such as metal teeth or a bowler hat capable of slicing through stone). However, the film was poorly received upon its release when audiences by and large received the intentionally over the top features as ridiculous (Williams, 2016). As a direct result of this poor reception the franchise creators removed Brosnon from the role and totally rebooted the franchise several years later with Daniel Craig cast as a more grounded and ‘real’ incarnation (‘The road to Casino Royale’, 2006).
There is also an element of fan culture at play within the Bond franchise. The movies, however much they attempt to modernise and revamp the formula, often stick close to certain structural elements that are known and loved by the fans. The Bond Girl is a good example, although the more stereotypical approach to this character has since been replaced by a more equal and less sexist version in an effort to ensure better representation in the films (McBride, 2018). However, we can see fan culture at play in other areas. For example, when the studio revamped Bond to be more gritty and real with Casino Royale, they omitted the more outlandish elements of the films such as the gadgets. Fan disappointment resulted in the return of Q and gadgets being reintroduced beginning with 2012's Skyfall (Sky News, 2012).
Speaking of the Bond Girl, the franchise has been subject to controversy on numerous occasions for its depiction of women and the way in which men treat women (Mokhefi-Ashton, 2015). The films are often accused of influencing societal outlooks on women and are often used as an example of how pop-culture can influence and effect the audience (Leckerman, 2015). In an attempt to remedy this, the films have taken steps to ensure that female characters are treated as equals within the plot. Dame Judi Dench was cast as Bond's superior, M (a role traditionally played by a man), in 1995's Goldeneye, while the character of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale is considered one of the strongest Bond girls to date (Ford, 2015).
Bond is a franchise that is built upon appealing to an audience's gratification. It appeals to an audience's sense of escapism and encourages the audience to join 007 on his globe-trotting adventures (Grierson, 2017). By and large Bond encourages an active audience, one that responds to the film and attempts to solve the mystery, as oppose to a passive one simply sitting back and watching, although there is an element of enjoyment to be got from that. As a result of the active audience the films have had to grow and continue to evolve over time, not only in showcasing more exotic locations, more interesting and ethnically diverse cultures, and more and more over the top stunts and action sequences, but in developing a more mature and emotional centre in order to continue appealing to an audience's thirst for entertainment (Valero, 2012).
We can see this effect over a relatively short period of time. We don't have to go from one end of the franchise to the other when looking for examples of where the franchise has sought to become more appealing to an audience seeking escapism. When comparing the 1963 Cold War thriller From Russia With Love, Sean Connery's second outing as the super-spy, with his penultimate turn in the official franchise, 1967's You Only Live Twice, there is a very clear difference not only in content but within the genres of the films themselves. While both are clearly Bond films and so feature action, From Russia With Love involves a grounded and serious espionage themed plot (‘From Russia with Love’, 2006) while You Only Live Twice is about a villain's plan to dominate the world by building a laser inside a secret base hidden in a volcano (‘You Only Live Twice’, 2006).
James Bond as a franchise is one the most vast and successful franchises in the world. The films mean lots of different things to lots of different people, and each Bond represents a very different time within the history of cinema and of society. It is fascinating to look back over them and see how they have evolved and changed in these different ways while maintaining the original ideals and enjoyment. The films have managed to remain relevant to an audience and continue to be received positively by understanding the different theoretical approaches to both content and audiences that make movies successful.
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Casino Royale. (2006) Directed by Martin Campbell. [Blu-ray] Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
‘Die Another Day audio commentary featuring director Lee Tamahori and producer Michael G. Wilson’. (2006) Die Another Day. Directed by Lee Tamahori. [DVD] 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
From Russia with Love. (2006) Directed by Terrence Young. [DVD] 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
‘The road to Casino Royale’. (2006) Casino Royale. Directed by Martin Campbell. [Blu-ray] Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
You Only Live Twice. (2006) Directed by Lewis Gilbert. [DVD] 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.