“Things Change, 007” – Reflections on SAMLA 2022

Words by Jeffrey Susla, Nichols College

It hardly seemed fair that after the ravages of Hurricane Ian, the weekend of 10-11 November 2022, found parts of Florida suffering the wrath of Hurricane Nicole, which closed regional airports and hotels, causing the South Atlantic Modern Language Association organisers, along with the Bond section co-chairs, Dr. Oliver Buckton and Matthew Sherman, to shift into overdrive to ascertain the Saturday presentations would go on, albeit virtually for the second straight year. Their stewardship in selecting the various presenters, along with their technological expertise, made this year’s conference on “Change” every bit as engaging as last year’s.

Once again, the Bond papers were delivered during a late morning and two afternoon sessions. I am delighted to correct my review of last year’s on Bond’s “Networks” by stating that three generations of Bond scholars were again represented, ensuring that “James Bond Will Return” not only to the screen, but for decades more of serious academic scholarship, courtesy of Messrs. Buckton and Sherman. The following reports on all the conference presentations. I regret, however, that Ms. Carlsen’s paper was not submitted for my review. I thank the other presenters for sharing their work with me. I alone am responsible for any misrepresentation of their work.

Andrew Wright, leading the section entitled “Fantasies of Change in the Bond Franchise” presented “The World is [Literally] Not Enough: Preventing Change in the Bond Franchise with One Last Screw”. In a self-deprecating opening, Wright recalled a time nearly six years ago when he drunkenly suggested that the Daniel Craig films “were the deconstruction of James Bond”. He soberly brings Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Zizek, and G.W.F. Hegel into his analysis of what we can possibly know of the world, given that all truths are relative. Where is Bond in this world? How can the Bond family motto, as Funnell and Dodds have written, suggest any sort of satisfaction with the status quo? Wright argued that the Bond series is replete with inconsistencies, and that the Bond we know is ever-changing, moving from the early, gadget-driven films to the Brosnan/Craig pictures where Bond’s psychological background is “backfilled” in the modern cinematic treatment commonplace in today’s superhero movies, making it integral to the continuation of the Bond formula. Thus, Bond’s childhood trauma is addressed by the adult Bond’s substance abuses in an effort to humanise an otherwise, unknowable and unapproachable secret agent. Wright is at his best when he states, “desiring change in Bond is no longer enough, we need to understand first what we need [emphasis his] in James Bond”.

In “The Rise & Fall Of The Blunt Instrument” Oliver Giggins chronicles Bond’s forbearers, from Sherlock Holmes to the detective fiction of Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler, among others, to demonstrate what Fleming’s goal was in creating James Bond. Fleming states, “I see nothing shameful in aiming as high as these writers.” Giggins dissected Bond’s persona and character, noting that except for two titles (The Spy Who Loved Me and 007 in New York) the novels are named mostly after villains or government projects, which emphasise Bond’s role as a neutral character, or “a tool for one secret purpose or another”. The purposes of film Bond morph from government agent to blunt instrument, with Bond vacillating between serving his country, (“The things I do for England.”) as opposed to his resignation in “Licence to Kill” to engage in a personal vendetta (This isn’t a country club, 007!)

Ironically, Daniel Craig appears to have it both ways in “Quantum of Solace” as he avenges Vesper Lynd’s death while being welcomed back to the Service by M at the film’s end by M. Bond’s reply, “I never left.” Giggins also makes deft use of the recently published book by John Higgs, Love and Let Die, which expands on the cultural landscape of both The Beatles and the Bond phenomenon.

Barbara Emanuele concluded the morning with “The World Has Changed Since You’ve Been Gone: The Future of the Bond Franchise in a Post-Pandemic, ‘Woke’ World”. Ms. Emanuele was kind enough to elaborate on her presentation in an email exchange with me. She comments that while Bond “reflects the zeitgeist of each actor’s era” discussion of Bond’s character becomes concurrently problematic and “woke” bemoaning the rise of the online world forums where amateurs can post without the background knowledge necessary to advance scholarship. She writes, “This is where truly the woke phenomena starts: those who always used Bond as a blunt instrument in the worst way possible suddenly have a large platform to spread their words elsewhere.” She reminds us that it is the responsibility of Bond fans to allow the franchise to evolve as it will. Emanuele defers to Abdurraqib’s view on the matter:

The political responsibility of a fan is to challenge their nostalgia, and their attachments to the object of their affection. He says it’s the responsibility of fans to ‘love themselves more than they love their icons. To love themselves even more than they love their memories, and to love the evolution of all those things in harmony: the evolution of themselves, the evolution of their memory, and the evolution of the artist—for better or worse’ (Abdurraqib 2019).

Emanuele’s scholarly, well researched, and nuanced report ranks with the best that I have encountered for the clarity of writing and the concentrated scope of her focus—that cinematic Bond was woke before his time, and that each actor, (save Roger Moore, whose longevity in the role made him increasingly “strenuous to watch”) become a James Bond worthy enough to serve the series ultimate purpose—to inspire us to be better.

Charles Fraser-Smith

The first afternoon session, “Changes at MI6,” had two of the conferences’ young guns presenting their work. College senior Karl Benkert gave a PowerPoint presentation entitled, “Devious, Antisocial, and a Little Bit Crazy: Q’s Role in the Bond Series”. Before commenting on the film Q, Benkert gave us the historical background behind Charles Fraser-Smith, the Ministry of Supply officer who likely served as Fleming’s model for Major Boothroyd, the Service quartermaster. The items devised by Fraser-Smith for espionage included cameras hidden in cigarette lighters, shaving and hair brushes with secret storage compartments, and ink filled golf balls which could be used for forging documents, or had compasses inside for navigation. Fraser-Smith was also consulted by the Royal Navy for Operation Mincemeat, which Ben Macintyre has chronicled in his book on the plan, devised in part by Commander Ian Fleming. In addressing Desmond Llewelyn’s Q, I learned that the actor had trouble memorising his lines, and Connery’s fiddling with the props caused the actor consternation, thereby increasing the initial attention between the Q Branch head and the Service’s best agent. This relationship mellows over the course of the films, with Q giving the Dalton Bond field assistance, and later, a kind, yet foreboding farewell to Brosnan’s Bond. In Ben Whishaw, we have a competent, young Q who still has “spots”, and while assisting Bond in the field, he also covers for him with M (knowing full well his job is on the line). His Q is also not embarrassed to display his homosexuality in front of Bond and Moneypenny, who appear unannounced at Q’s flat, prior to his private dinner party. Benkert ends by expressing his hope that the tone of future films influences Q’s gadgets and demeanour. The repartee between the field agent and the tech wizard has evolved from hostility and comic humour to mutual respect and admiration.

'M' - Illustration by George Almond

‘M’ – Illustration by ©George Almond

Rosalie Carsen, the youngest presenter, analysed the changes M has undergone in “Mother to Master and Back Again: The Evolution of M”. Her synopsis of her paper is as follows:

. . .changes often are made to the original material to better suit a modern audience. This includes not only the main characters, but how plots revolve around them and their interactions with other character. In the world of Bond, a continuous presence in his adventure is M, his superior and general voice of reason in both the books and movies. M challenges and controls a sometimes-impulsive Bond and gives a new perspective to the character.

Ms. Carlsen’s discussion of M, ranged from Fleming’s own use of the word to refer to Evelyn, his own mother, Bernard Lee’s M, to Judi Dench’s mother figure. To Carlsen, “the character of M has an intense development in the film series which truly comes full circle in “Skyfall”. Her scholarship continues to impress.

Kevin DiNovis teaches at the New York Film Academy. His paper, “A Little Help from His Friends: The Expanding Role of MI6 in the new 007 Cinematic Universe” is a film primer par excellence. DiNovis skilfully addresses the changes made in the Craig era films, which allow the character development of three MI6 operatives: Q, M, and Moneypenny. The disrupted ritual of the missing gun barrel sequence in some of the Craig films is suggestive of a larger mosaic in the five films, which DiNovis explains in his discussion of sequencing, based on Paul Joseph Gulino’s work on the subject. He deconstructs the films to show how a 15-18 minute sequence becomes an “incident” which then in turn leads to the “central dramatic question”. His juxtaposition of “Skyfall” and “Spectre” show the fallacies behind the character development that “technically cannot exist”. DiNovis states that the Craig pictures “played fast and loose with continuity, preferring instead to reward fans’ inter-textual awareness.” His brilliant paper ends, as does “No Time To Die”, on a mournful note:

By disrupting the very ritual they continue to hone, the recent Bond films have morphed into something not quite as recognisable as Bond films, and the faithful concluding covenant seems more honest as a question: Can James Bond return?

I began the last afternoon session, “Changes in the Bond Novels: Ian Fleming and James Bond” with “James Bond’s Appalling Behavior”. I had always been intrigued by the last sentence in The Man With the Golden Gun, “For James Bond, the same view would always pall.” Erroneously, I long suspected that Fleming didn’t write it, but the original MS clearly displays Fleming’s loopy handwriting in the final, pen inked paragraph. I chronicled the changes Bond makes and fails to make in the novels. I am grateful to Lucas Townsend, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Roehampton, for reminding me after the conference that Fleming uses the word “pall” in the Honolulu section of his Thrilling Cities.

Frieda Toth

Two of the most enlightening conference presentations then ensued. The long misunderstood, fan ignored and critically panned The Spy Who Loved Me was given new light in Frieda Toth’s, “The Failure that Succeeded: The Long, Strange Journey of The Spy Who Loved Me.” Toth herself, has taken another strange journey, travelling on a motor scooter from Montreal to the Adirondacks, following the same trail that Fleming’s heroine, Vivienne Michel takes in the novel. Her fascinating account can be found on this website. Toth notes that while the sales of the ninth Bond novel were strong, Fleming biographer John Pearson’s failure to mention the novel in a 1966 Life magazine article directly impacted sales. Toth suggests the criticism of the novel, along with the aftermath of the Thunderball legal case, and his own suffering health, caused Fleming to turn his back on it. More’s the pity, especially as Pearson, along with Fleming’s wife, Ann, followed suit.

Conference co-chair Sherman ended his insightful paper “Sins and Mirrors: The Spy Who Loved Me” by echoing Toth’s earlier call to “Do your part. Read The Spy Who Loved Me today.” Sherman’s equally blunt message is simply, “Lord, help us to turn off Netflix and open our books.” Preceding Sherman’s plea is a genuine tour de force–a scholarly close reading of a long under-appreciated novel. Sherman began by mentioning sins of both Bond villains and Bond himself—a subject Fleming knew well as he wrote the introduction to The Seven Deadly Sins. The sin of lust, along with cruelty, are omnipresent in the novel, and these traits are not only seen in two of “the most frightening Fleming villains” (Sluggsy and Horror) but Sherman examined how they manifested themselves in both Viv’s and Bond’s characters. His adroit analysis took an unexpected and shockingly good turn when Sherman explored the nexus between the characters of Bond, Viv, and Fleming himself. Thinking all Byronic in looks (“tall, dark and not quite English”) , Bond and Viv share similar tastes in travel, food, and drink, and Viv and Fleming are journalists at heart, with similar training in foreign languages. Sherman notes over 60 comparisons between the three. I thought Matthew Sherman’s paper on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service at last year’s conference was brilliant. This paper is equal to it in every respect and deserves as wide a readership as possible.

Fellow conference co-chair, Oliver Buckton, ended the afternoon with “From ‘Wound Man’ to Cold Warrior: Transforming James Bond in Ian Fleming’s Dr No.” Buckton’s historical look at the content of the sixth novel (and first film) is fascinating, as Fleming attempted to resurrect a character who had survived Rosa Klebb’s fugu poison to then suffer the ignominy of the most brutal battery of torture in the Bond series. Buckton based his intriguing paper, not only on his previous distinguished scholarship, specifically his biography of Fleming, The World is Not Enough, but he also used Fleming’s letters, along with reference to Fleming’s publication, The Book Collector, which printed a medieval illustration of the Wound Man, originally designed to help surgeons in the late fifteenth century. The English version of the Wound Man, in the words of Fleming’s editor, William Plomer, is “a striking and poignant picture”, but he thought it ill-suited for the book’s title. Buckton then shows his literary and analytical skill in describing how Bond’s “Holiday Task” in Jamaica becomes a prolonged exercise in cruelty, from the injustice Bond felt at having his Beretta taken from him, to the attempts to kill him through poisoned fruit and a deadly centipede, to Dr No’s diabolical chamber of horrors. The insults Bond suffers are the basis for the oft-repeated critical commentary on the novel by Paul Johnson and Bernard Bergonzi. The film, “Dr. No” “radically and irrevocably transform[ed] the traumatised “wound man” of Fleming’s novel into a cool, confident, and invulnerable screen icon.” Gone are the “injuries or traumas” of Fleming’s agent. In their place, a man of “charm and sex-appeal” designed to reflect a Kennedy-esque view of the Cold War, aided in part by the suave British agent who, along with The Beatles, represented a “’cool’ resurrection of British global power”.

Jeffrey Susla teaches English and a course, “The Bond Experience” at Nichols College.


One thought on ““Things Change, 007” – Reflections on SAMLA 2022

  1. The November hurricane was named Nicole, not Katrina. A glaring error, but as I wrote the review, I’ll take full responsibility. My thanks to Joseph Fins, MD, for first noticing it.

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