The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the time comes to reimagine James Bond, his origins might provide a model

Key aspects of the iconic character poorly suited for 2021 come from the movies, not Ian Fleming’s novels.

Passengers ride in a bus covered in an advertisement for the James Bond film “No Time to Die” in London. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

An earlier version of this piece labeled "The Spy Who Loved Me" as Ian Fleming's next novel after "Goldfinger." In reality, "Thunderball" was published between the two.

With the release in October of the latest James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” speculation is rife about what comes next for 007, now that Daniel Craig’s 15-year tenure in the iconic role has ended. While some are calling “time’s up” on an outdated character, others suggest new life could be breathed into the series if producers recast Bond as a woman.

The filmmakers have so far rejected this idea. Meanwhile some critics warn that self-consciousness about Bond’s masculinity is turning him into a killjoy — maybe even a feminist one — and destroying the essence of the character.

Yet the sense that a straightforward male chauvinism defines 007 is more a product of the movies of the 1960s and 1970s than an origin story that should forever bind the series. Readers and viewers have often found more than meets the eye in this celebrated character and his escapades. A deeper dive into Bond’s postwar literary creation reveals interesting ambiguities about Bond’s masculinity — which may offer a fresh perspective for Bond filmmakers in the years to come.

Consider the climactic scene of Ian Fleming’s first novel, “Casino Royale,” published in 1953, in which the villain ties a naked Bond to a seat-less chair and attempts to bludgeon his testicles into a pulp. His assailant gloats that he not only enjoys imposing the physical agony of torture, “but also the thought that your manhood is being gradually destroyed and that at the end, if you will not yield, you will no longer be a man.” And indeed when Bond is miraculously saved by Soviet intervention, he is left to question the foundations of his identity — masculine prowess and loyalty to country — while convalescing.

Bond’s full recovery allowed Fleming to develop a kind of formula in the dozen novels that followed where sexual and geopolitical triumph were more closely entwined. Still, the potential for the literal loss of his genitals and figurative impotence questioned from the start what made 007 an agent and a man.

Uncertainties about Bond’s manhood would have been amplified for many readers in the 1950s on the basis of his profession — a secret agent. This, after all, was the era of a Cold War “Lavender Scare” when prejudice led to the persecution of queer men and women working for the U.S. government, suspected of disloyalty.

Although this phenomenon was different (and in many ways less pronounced) in Britain than the United States, Fleming conceived of Bond amid a homegrown queer spy scandal in which two Foreign Office men — Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean — disappeared together in 1951, reappearing five years later in Moscow. The 1957 novel “From Russia With Love” begins by assigning Bond to a committee of inquiry about this episode in which there is some ambiguity about where his own sympathies lie.

This climate conflated queerness and spies. Secret codes, double lives, cover stories and surreptitious hook-ups linked the two worlds in the 1950s.

In 1958, Fleming responded to a wide range of criticism about sex in the novels by saying: “Perhaps Bond’s blatant heterosexuality is a subconscious protest about the current fashion for sexual confusion.” However, the acknowledgment of “confusion” in itself registered dangers Bond continued to face in the queer realm of espionage. Jump to Fleming’s final novel, 1964’s “The Man With the Golden Gun,” when Bond confronted an adversary, Scaramanga, labeled by a Secret Service report as a “sexual fetishist with possible homosexual tendencies” and a fixation on pistols. Readers were left to ponder, then, the moment when a nearly naked Scaramanga bursts into the bedroom of a nearly naked Bond, who was “reassured to feel the hard shape of his gun against his thighs."

Insisting on Bond’s “blatant heterosexuality” therefore only went so far in securing 007’s manhood. But Fleming had another weapon in his arsenal for this purpose: leaving no doubt about the character’s anti-feminist credentials.

Rejected by a potential love interest in the 1959 novel “Goldfinger,” Bond angrily dismissed her as “one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up.” Why had this happened? Because, he says, “of giving votes to women and ‘sex equality’.” Bond in this moment of rejection played to stereotypes about suffragists as “man-hating” and “mannish,” mixing in anti-gay rhetoric for good measure. Fleming also killed the character shortly after, as if in punishment for daring to reject Bond. Instead Bond “cures” (Fleming’s term) lesbian gang leader Pussy Galore at the novel’s climax.

Yet Fleming’s final novel before Bond hit the silver screen (two after “Goldfinger”), found the author continuing to experiment by adopting the narrative perspective of a Bond “girl.” In fact, Bond didn’t enter “The Spy Who Loved Me” until almost two-thirds of the way in. Instead the first half focused on the life story of Vivienne Michel, the book’s narrator, and broached topics such as female empowerment, sexual coercion, workplace harassment and even abortion, then criminalized in the United States and Britain.

Unsurprisingly, the novel had limitations as a feminist manifesto, with the narrator at one point making the invidious declaration, “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that made his act of love so piercingly wonderful.” This apparent justification for sexual assault was just one element of Fleming’s attempted female impersonation to trigger criticisms. It may have been too much even for the author himself, who banned paperback publication just as his back-catalogue sales shot up with the release of the 1962 movie “Dr. No.”

Whatever the case, the novel’s conclusion contained a striking critique of men like Bond when a friendly state trooper counseled Michel to steer clear from them in the future.

That warning stood little chance of being heeded by millions of fans who discovered Bond through the leading-man performances of actor Sean Connery over five blockbuster 1960s films (he’d return for films in 1971 and 1983).

Connery’s Bond displayed egregious sexual entitlement as part of a swaggering and suave masculinity to shore up his status as a real man among Hollywood’s reel men. And viewers were encouraged to identify with 007 — not critique him.

The marketing of the Connery Bond movies promised a version of 007 who single-handedly took aim at a fomenting feminist revolution. With scantily clad women crowded around Bond’s weapon-bearing figure, this pose left an indelible image.

As the movies came to define Bond, a fully-fleshed he-man attitude and incitement to hero worship began to replace the experimentation and ambiguity that had appeared in Fleming’s novels (albeit alongside ugly misogyny). The films also removed the necessity for readers to envisage 007 for themselves.

Still, queer Bond fans often continued to highlight more interesting aspects of gender and sexuality than the creators of the franchise intended. As the movies struck box office gold, for example, lesbian activists in Britain suggested “Pussy Galore” was “a very fine name for a girl, we think,” and wryly satirized Bond’s supposed conversion of this “undisputed queen of a posse of tough American Lesbians” at the end of the novel of “Goldfinger.”

Others sometimes reimagined 007 for themselves in parodies and fan fiction that similarly undercut the projected masculinity of the movies, seizing upon elements such as Bond’s own frequent nakedness, his sexual shamelessness, his conspicuous consumption, his interest in the most phallic of weapons and his close observation of other men. Drawing on source material that could seem flat at first glance, consumers generated efflorescent takes on masculinity.

Box office receipts ensure that Bond will return to the big screen, no matter how forceful the calls to draw the series to a close. Could some cosmic — or at least cinematic — justice transpire by casting Bond as a woman?

Director Cary Fukunaga’s “No Time to Die” anticipates such a move, with Lashana Lynch’s MI6 agent Nomi holding the 007 title for much of the story. That is an intriguing starting point. Predictably, it has already been decried in some quarters as “woke” revisionism — but such innovation is more grounded in the literary playfulness of Bond’s roots than reactionary criticism suggests.

Fleming’s own authorial experiments with Bond occurred amid all kinds of cultural insecurity. Today’s real-world uncertainties stand similarly to shape the future of Bond, whether he remains a man or not. Perhaps though — without too much deference to Fleming — the time is ripe to reconsider what can be reimagined by reading between the lines of the original.