Things I Learned From… Skyfall

Bond’s back!  Again. Come on, we never really thought he wouldn’t be, right? Fifty years of drinking martinis and blowing up the bad guy’s volcano lair, and Bond is still a solid business proposition. Record takings, critical acclaim, well-deserved praise for Daniel Craig (though seriously, isn’t he starting to look alarmingly like an Easter Island statue? When they make Easter Island: The Movie, he’s going to be top of the list…)

There’s been a lot of discussion of the ‘rebooted’ Bond and how it relates to the earlier movies – and to Ian Fleming’s original novels, of course. Is the new Bond a softer proposition, made more accessible by allowing us to see his fear and anger and desire for revenge? Or is he, as some would argue, tougher: a proto- Jason Bourne, leaping off buildings and surviving impossible stunts?

(Actually, the interesting question here is, if Jason Bourne has fed into James Bond, has Aaron Cross then absorbed some of the DNA of reinvented Bond – and if so, who’s next in the chain? But that’s one for another post…)

What all these questions boil down to is  “Is this the real Bond?”

“Real” is a slippery word when it comes to fictional characters (and sometimes, even real ones.)  We’ve always reinvented heroes. Robin Hood was probably originally a pagan demi-god of the forest – then became a folk hero, a Saxon rebel against Norman overloads, a romanticized gentleman outcast, a Hollywood action hero, and most recently, a traumatized war veteran returning to a betrayed and tyrannized homeland.

The best characters will bear constant reinvention, and yet reflect and illuminate the era in which this version of the story is being told. Yes, Hollywood returns to familiar characters because of name recognition and out-of-copyright base material: but viewers return because these characters still have something to say to us, and that something is relevant, and renewed, for each generation.

So is there a key to reinventing the great characters of fiction, in the way that the most recent Bond movies have retooled their central character? How far is too far? How do we know what to keep and what to throw out?

I suspect that all the great characters have a solid, definable character function at their core. It’s partly who they are, and partly what they do. It may be very simple, but it’s powerful enough to sustain plots and supporting characters and entire movies.

Often it can be boiled down to a sentence, or even a catchphrase associated with the character. Robin Hood, as we all know, “robs the rich to feed the poor”. That’s the simple intention that powers everything he does, and that provokes the hatred of his enemies. It’s a passionate and personal belief that expresses itself in a concrete way. It’s not a hobby, or even really a choice; it’s the core of the person that he is.

Retain that core idea, and you can mess about with every other element of the character and it will still work. Lose the core idea, and as Ridley Scott found out, you have a name in search of a character…

There may also be an irony or contradiction at the heart of the character function. Doctor Who is the traveller who saves others, but need human companionship to ‘save’ him. Sherlock Holmes is the genius who can solve crimes because he understands everything about human beings; but he doesn’t really know how to be one himself.

So what’s James Bond’s character function? You could pick out a lot of vital elements from the books and the films. The girls, the gun, the alcohol. “Queen and country”. Incorruptible loyalty in a world where allegiances are bought and sold. Protecting the values of a cultured, mannered old world against a rebellious, frightening new one (new money, new inventions, social and political reshaping of all kinds).

Good rich material there, however you want to condense it into a character function. It’s hardly surprising that Bond has been around for so long, and will doubtless continue for many more years. So, if you’re reinventing a well-known character, make sure you dig down to the core and find their character function, the mixture of character and actions that truly defines them.