This week we welcome Professor James Chapman in from the cold. James is known for many things not least his work on British popular culture and cinema and television in their historical contexts. He is interested in the role of the media as propaganda, the representation of war and history, and the cultural politics of popular fictions.
His interest in James Bond produced “Licence to Thrill”, which chronicles how Bond, a representative of a British Empire that no longer existed in his generation, became a symbol of his nation’s might in a Cold War world where Britain was no longer a primary actor.
1. Do you think there have been significant changes in the cultural perception of Fleming’s Bond novels over the years and how much cultural impact do you think the books have on today’s audience?
In the 1950s and 60s critical opinion of Fleming’s Bond stories was divided between those who regarded them as nothing more than ‘escapism’ and not really to be taken seriously and others (most infamously Paul Johnson in his ‘Sex, Snobbery and Sadism’ review of Dr No in the New Statesman in 1958) who regarded them as harmful and pernicious. Kingsley Amis (The James Bond Dossier) was the first to argue that the Bond stories were worth taking seriously and Umberto Eco (‘Narrative Structure in the Novels of Ian Fleming’) was the first to undertake an academic-style ideological analysis (informed by theories of structuralism).
The high point of popularity for Fleming’s Bond was in the 1960s when the films boosted sales of the books and the combined sales of paperbacks were over a million a year. Today – although there are more critics who are willing to acknowledge Fleming’s significance in the history of popular fiction – I don’t get the impression that the books are as widely read. Evidence of the changing critical standing of Fleming is that the books were repackaged as ‘Penguin Classics’ about a decade ago – i.e. Fleming is now respectable. But I don’t think many youngsters read them. Most of the fans of Bond movies today have not read Fleming. The real Bond aficionados, yes, but not the general audience who enjoy the films – which in any event are now at quite a distance from Fleming’s Bond.
2. What kind of lasting impact do you think Fleming’s novels have had on foreign cultures such as Russia, Japan, USA etc
I’ve no idea how to assess what impact Fleming’s books might have had on foreign cultures, but I’m sure they have influenced Anglophone perceptions and views of other countries: e.g. Russia as Enemy No.1 (still topical today with the resurgence of Cold War tensions over Ukraine). The Anglo-American relationship as presented in the books was a quaint reversal of the real power relationship: in the books Britain (Bond) is the dominant or lead partner and America (represented by Felix Leiter) is the secondary ally.
On the whole the books suggest a positive view of America and the British Commonwealth and are more problematic in their views of non-Western cultures: this probably reflects general popular perceptions to a large degree and – possibly – may have played a role in supporting the persistence of such views.
3. Did Fleming’s Meta-branding in the books have an impact on product placement in today’s movies and books?
The answer is “Yes – and No”. The brand name products in Fleming’s books served a cultural-ideological purpose: as well as being indicators of snob value they can also be seen as reflecting the gradual emergence of Britain from a post-war culture of austerity (Casino Royale was published in 1953) to a culture of affluence. Today the ideological import of this is lost: I’ve met taxi drivers who were Rolexes! The product placement in the films is more tied to commercial branding and has less obvious snob value: Aston Martin, yes, but Bond drinking Heineken in Skyfall is a mass-market rather than an exclusive product. This reflects the fact that the films are mass-market popular movies produced for the widest possible audience, whereas Fleming saw himself as writing for “the more sophisticated” type of reader.
4. Do you think the literary Bond will still be relevant in some 50 years?
Bond has lasted for more than 60 years and remains as popular as ever, so – with the caveat as always that popular culture is inherently unstable and can be subject to periods of constant flux and rapid transformation – there’s every reason to believe that Bond will still be a popular culture hero. But as for the books, I don’t know. Perhaps the best analogy would be to the Sherlock Holmes stories. Far more people are familiar with Holmes through film and television than through the source texts. It’s important to recognise that while the Bond films constantly renew the formula and remain contemporary (in the sense of ‘in the present’) adventures, Fleming’s books are more and more becoming period artefacts of the 1950s and early 1960s.
5. Do you have a favorite Bond novel and why?
If I had to pick one it would be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which I think is the best of the later books where Fleming’s style had reached its maturity. But it’s a close call, as From Russia, With Love and Goldfinger are also among my favourites. My favourite sequences – as opposed to complete novels – are the baccarat game in Casino Royale, the Blades sequence in Moonraker and the golf sequence in Goldfinger.
A more general point I’d make is that Fleming was a brilliant journalist travel writer. Some of the best bits of the novels are his descriptions of travel and Bond’s response to arriving in different locations – sometimes familiar to him and sometimes unfamiliar. I love reading them when I’m taking a flight overseas. See also Fleming’s Thrilling Cities, which deserves to be regarded as one of the great travel books. Oddly, he’s rather less effective at writing basic thriller stuff, and the action scenes in the books are sometimes quite perfunctory – see, for example, the Fort Knox sequence in Goldfinger.
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester. He has written several books on the history of British popular culture, including work on cinema, television and comics. He has written or edited ten books, including two which he has co-authored with Professor Nicholas J. Cull including Projecting Empire: Imperialism and Popular Cinema.
Buy Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films
“This is a compelling and important book . . . [that] makes a significant contribution not only to studies of Bond and Ian Fleming but also to studies of popular culture in general.” —Michael Bérubé
Read Projecting Tomorrow: An Interview with James Chapman and Nicholas J. Cull
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