Her hands were lifeless in his. "My darling," he said. "Won't you tell me? Do you know, that first morning I was coming back to ask you to marry me. Can't we go back to the beginning again? What is this dreadful nightmare that is killing us?" At first she said nothing, then a tear slowly rolled down her cheek. "You mean you would have married me?" Bond nodded. "Oh my God,' she said. -- Ian Fleming's Casino Royale
There are two serious love stories in the James Bond canon, nine books apart. The first, Casino Royale, is the inaugural Bond story. Thanks in part to an ill-conceived and boring parody film in 1967, Casino went 55 years before a serious effort was mounted to film it. The other, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, is story number ten, and pairs Bond with a brash young heiress and scion of a pan-European crime syndicate named Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo. Both stories have down endings, and fans of the film series often feel a sense of robbery with regards to the second, since Albert Broccoli waited until after Connery left to make a faithful adaptation of a superior Bond story. George Lazenby, despite being adored by some contrarian critics, was fairly assessed at the time as a failure. He was reportedly a terror to work with and his interpretation is so different from Connery's that the film almost stands outside the series. And now that Fleming's stories will no longer be used for forthcoming films, there's seemingly no chance for a re-do of On Her Majesty's.
That means the current film version of Casino Royale may have to stand as one of the only serious attempts to transmute Ian Fleming's idea of 'Bond drama' to the big screen. Not that it's a PBS piece or anything. The film is neatly cut in two, with one half faithfully adapting a present-day version of Fleming's novel (only 213 pages) and the other half devoted to big, wordless action set-pieces. You can't really expect anything more tame than that, with so much money at stake, I guess. But the interesting thing to note is that the drama in Casino Royale actually works, despite its sparsity. The origin of Bond's asshole-persona is resurrected as an epic origin tale of romantic treason, with the supremely gorgeous and worldly Vesper Lynd eating the young, naive spy for breakfast. The book ends on an abrupt quote, resurrected word-for-word in the film, that almost suggests (to me, anyway) that Bond may have been set up with Vesper as a final stage of his training. A necessary freezing process.
If they want, the producers of the series now have an interesting opportunity -- to push dramatic concerns to the forefront and use the talents of Daniel Craig to return some real character-heft to this cinematic cipher called Bond. It would be a welcome change. Despite going strong for over 40 years, the series has rarely stopped for a dramatic breather. Pierce Brosnan's quartet of films are all competent and entertaining, but the first two are so concerned with 'keeping it up' as far as action is concerned, that they hardly allow a hint of character. The last two approach the supernatural, with Die Another Day in particular harkening back to the worst of the Roger Moore era of excess. The Roger Moore films are all but unwatchable, in my opinion. The Timothy Dalton films weren't as eager to be action bonanzas, but they were suffocated by over-plotting and bad direction. Interestingly, when The Living Daylights was released in 1987, Roger Ebert blamed the specter of the AIDS epidemic for what he perceived as an intolerable stuffiness that had crept into the series.
If not drama, what other leg does the series have to stand on? There's hardly any chance of the films returning to the spirit of cheerful misogynism that surrounded some of Fleming's more popular stories like From Russia With Love. Take this passage from that book, in which Fleming lovingly describes Bond's negative opinion of Tatiana Romanova's ass. It was so "hardened with exercise that it had lost the smooth downward feminine sweep, and now, round at the back and flat and hard at the sides, it jutted like a man's." Sean Connery could have internalized and spit back a passage like that with one glance, but his Bond was so much his own that it can't be recreated. This new Casino Royale doesn't even bother to include a Moneypenny for Bond to sexually harass, as is his wont. The film series would also be wise to avoid trying to be the King Kong of action films. The trend in Hollywood these days is so tilted in favor of fantastical comic book action that Bond could never hope to keep up.
Finally, the films must not be afraid to engage the current political situation. The word 'terrorism' is bandied about freely in Casino Royale, but there's absolutely no grounding in specifics other than a vague reference to the villain, Le Chiffre, making some kind of money on a 9/11 scam. This kind of avoidance strikes me as babyish and unnecessary -- are the producers worried about offending specific terrorist groups? The Fleming stories were so eager to mount the Cold War and ride it that the books were easily injected into the pop culture bloodstream as being "about" something relatable. The stories crackled with Fleming's own personal revulsion with French communism, the Soviet Union, American gigantism and sundry other political prejudices. God knows he never worried about hurting anyone's feelings. The series should retain that spirit and engage us in the politics of the fictional MI6. I enjoyed Casino Royale. There's no emergency -- Daniel Craig is fine in the role and the film creates a decent foundation to expand. But to build on that, it's time to get real.