James Bond is a cultural phenomenon. Britain's super-agent, created by Ian Fleming in a series of 14 novels and short-story collections published between 1953 and 1966, continues to appear in new books by other authors, having taken on a life independent of his creator, who died in 1964. The film adaptations began in 1962 and are still running after 40 years and with five different actors in the leading role. But Bond now functions in and reflects a world very different from the one that Fleming depicted. It is a phenomenon deserving of serious cultural analysis. In 1999, James Chapman published an excellent cultural history of the Bond films, License to Thrill . Hard on its heels comes Jeremy Black's The Politics of James Bond , which subjects the Bond books and films to close analysis and political contextualisation.
Part one of the book skilfully and illuminatingly charts the evolution of the Bond novels in the context of the cold war and of Britain's imperial decline. For those raised exclusively on the Bond films - with their unbeatable blend of conspicuous consumption, brand-name snobbery, technological gadgetry, colour-supplement chic, exotic locations and comic-strip sex and violence - it is instructive to return to the earlier novels, which, with their clubland ethos, casual racism, preoccupation with the Soviet threat and references back to the war, are closer in tone to Sapper and John Buchan than the "swinging Sixties" era of the first films.
Black points out how many of the earlier books are set in British colonies and how the weakening of the British role in opposing the Soviet Union led to the replacement of the Russian spy organisation Smersh by the international criminal organisation Spectre as the source of the mayhem. This fictional crime cartel was something Britain could still plausibly tackle. Whatever Britain thought about the "special relationship", the Americans had no doubt who was the junior partner. Fleming created a supportive American sidekick for Bond, Felix Leiter. But when Casino Royale was adapted for American television in 1954, Bond became American and the subordinate sidekick British.
Part two examines the transfer from page to screen. Black explains how the films were the product of a different era from the books, and the politics reflected that era, with the Chinese now more prominent among the enemies of the West.
The nature of Bond himself also changed. Significantly, Fleming's own choice for Bond, David Niven, was passed over in favour of a relative newcomer, Sean Connery, who brought to the role a macho classlessness and hard edge that was more in tune with the "new Britain" than Niven's old-style officer and gentleman.
Of all of the actors to play Bond, the least successful with the public has been the one (Timothy Dalton) who played him closest to Fleming's authentically English secret agent. The most successful have been Scottish (Sean Connery), Irish (Pierce Brosnan) and parodied upper-class English (Roger Moore).
The keynote of the films has been action-adventure and the appeal mid-Atlantic, the cold war politics receding as new and more contemporary villains took over from the Soviet warlords: South American drug dealers, international media moguls, the Russian mafia.
Black interestingly points out that what the films have lost is a sense of the past. Fleming's novels were permeated with the idea that the world was changing, with advanced capitalism and social transformation eroding traditional British values. One of the appeals of the films is the reassurance, contrary to the evidence, that Britain is still a leading world power. Black's well-informed and well-argued analysis is an important addition to the growing corpus of serious works on the enduring and evolving appeal of James Bond.
Jeffrey Richards is professor of cultural history, Lancaster University.
The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming's Novels to the Big Screen
Author - Jeremy Black
ISBN - 0 5 96859 6
Publisher - Praeger
Price - £23.50
Pages - 264