You Can't Change James Bond, But You Can Replace 007

by Michael Satterfield - Updated 06/03/2022

There has been a lot of talk about how the next James Bond needs to be a woman or a person of color, while I understand the want for characters to reflect different demographics, with a character like James Bond it simply can't be done. An opinion piece from screenwriter Bruce Feristein that ran in The Washington Post declared that "of course" it was time for a black James Bond. What is should have read was, it was time for a black 007.

This whole debate seemed to boil up after a Twitter storm calling for Idris Elba to be the next James Bond back in 2018. When the latest film No Time to Die was on the horizon, online commentators again began to call for a fundamental change to the franchise. Mainly upset that Bond was "too white and male" many on Twitter were demanding a more intersectional Bond. Even actor Ralph Fiennes, who currently plays M, received backlash for suggesting that Bond should remain true to the original character telling BBC Newsnight: "I'd like to see a great black actor inhabit a Bond-like persona, but not necessarily have it be in the same franchise. I think we remake the idea of a Bond as a woman, or as an actor of any ethnicity in another vehicle."

Perhaps the most bizarre argument made by many of the Twitterati is the "Code Name Theory" that James Bond is a code name. If that was the case Bond wouldn't need a code name of 007. This theory mostly comes from people assuming that a different actor means that a Bond is actually a different person. However, throughout the films, the storylines do intersect such as Roger Moore's Bond visiting Tracy Bond's grave, etc... As usual with Twitter, anyone who pushed back against the idea of a different version of Bond was immediately declared to be a racist or anti-woman. But outside of the political passions and the quest for reTweets, suggesting that Idris Elba being cast as James Bond is like campaigning for Vince Vaughn to be the next Shaft. Cast Idris Elba as 007, that is a totally different proposition and no, it's not just semantics.

First I don't believe that most Bond fans are inherently racist and if an incredible actor like Idris Elba was cast as Bond it would still be a blockbuster success, I would still go to see it, however, based on his current age it would be a little late to start a Bond series. Secondly from the perspective of art, Ian Fleming created a character with an identity and history that are pivotal to who James Bond is as a character. I know that many people may not be as versed in the fictional universe of Bond, but as a fan of the series and collector of the books, I will give you a brief overview of who James Bond is based on Fleming's original works and what is considered Bond canon.

James Bond is born in Zurich, Switzerland, to a Scottish father, Andrew Bond, of Glencoe, and a Swiss mother, Monique Delacroix, of Canton de Vaud. His father worked for Vickers Armaments Company and was a Captain in the Royal Navy during the First World War. The fictional Andrew Bond is a descendant of Sir Thomas Bond, 1st Baronet (a real historical figure from the 1600s). It is from Sir Thomas that the Bond family motto "Orbis non-sufficient" or "The World is Not Enough" is derived. This motto makes its first appearance in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and was the title for the Bond film The World Is Not Enough. Bond Street, Westminster in London is named for Sir Thomas Bond

As a boy Bond traveled to Europe with his parents and learned to speak German and French. When James was 11 years old his parents were killed in a mountain climbing accident. After his parent's death Bond is raised by his aunt, Charmian Bond in the English village of Pett Bottom. The family estate, Skyfall, is looked after by the gamekeeper we know only as Kincade.

James attends Eton College, but runs into trouble and is sent to Fettes College in Scottland, the same school his father attended (this is a real private boarding school in Scottland). At 16, Bond makes his first trip to Paris where he loses his virginity, he then briefly attends the University of Geneva where he goes on ski holidays in Kitzbühel. He takes ski lessons from Hannes Oberhauser, who becomes a bit of a father figure to Bond (in the Daniel Craig timeline Hannes Oberhauser is the father of Franz Oberhauser, Bond's foster brother who would become his nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld)After university, James joins the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and by the end of the war (WWII) has risen to the rank of commander. Bond then applies for the Secret Service and quickly rises to the rank of principal officer. We also know that at some point during his service he was knighted making him Sir. James Bond in the Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.

Bond lives in an upper-middle-class flat off the King's Road in Chelsea, London. He has a Scottish housekeeper named May who keeps the place up since he is so often gone for months at a time. As a government employee Bond makes just under $70,000 a year, but apparently has family money, and he takes full advantage of his unlimited expense account while on assignment.

Physically, the best description of James Bond as written by Ian Fleming comes from the novel From Russia with Love. Bond is six feet tall, 167 lbs, a slim build with blue-grey eyes, black hair, and a thin scar on his right cheek. Fleming also commissioned the artist rendering above to give direction to artists working on James Bond comics. In Casino Royale and Moonraker, it is remarked that he looks like American jazz singer Hoagy Carmichael. For Bond's looks, like much of Bond's personality, Fleming was creating an idealized version of himself.

I think one of the best descriptions of Bond comes from a 1964 interview that Fleming gave to Playboy Magazine:
I don’t think that he is necessarily a good guy or a bad guy. Who is? He’s got his vices and very few perceptible virtues except patriotism and courage, which are probably not virtues anyway. He’s certainly got little in the way of politics, but I should think what politics he has are just a little bit left of center. And he’s got little culture. He’s a man of action, and he reads books on golf, and so on – when he reads anything. I quite agree that he’s not a person of much social attractiveness. But then, I didn’t intend for him to be a particularly likable person. He’s a cipher, a blunt instrument in the hands of government.

In the first book, Casino Royale, Bond is already a 00 Agent, having killed two enemy agents, a Japanese Spy in New York City, and a Norwegian double agent. In You Only Live Twice, it is revealed that Bond unknowingly fathers a child, James Suzuki, after spending several months living with Kissy Suzuki while suffering from amnesia. Bond does find out later that he has a son and supports Kissy and James, but has little contact with them. A few books later in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, James meets Teresa Draco, the only child of Marc-Ange Draco the leader of a powerful international crime syndicate. Teresa (who goes by Tracy) is saved from committing suicide by James and through a series of events the two fall in love. Tracy and James are married in the registry office in Munich and head out for their honeymoon when Blofeld attempts a drive-by shooting, killing Tracy and leaving Bond uninjured. All of these stories and experiences shape the character that Fleming created and this is just a brief overview of Bond's fictional history.

However...while you can't change James Bond, 007 can be anyone. To use an example from another genre. In the Marvel comic books and films, Captain America has several different characters, but the character of Steve Rogers has a specific origin story that determines who he is. The code name and shield of Captain America have been used by a number of fictional characters including Isaiah Bradley, William Naslund, Jeffrey Mace, William Burnside, Bob Russo, John Walker, Sam Wilson, Dave Rickford, and even Bucky. In Avengers: Endgame we see Steve Rogers pass on his shield to Sam Wilson to carry on as the new Captain America. So while anyone could be cast into the role of Captain America or 007, the characters of Steve Rodgers or James Bond have been given certain immutable characteristics by their creators as part of the origin story. While some authors, like JK Rowling, attempt to retroactively create new backstories for characters, it is often seen as pandering and inauthentic.

The idea that 007 is a code name and that James Bond is a character is enforced by Fleming's own work and the subsequent films and novels in the Bond series. We know that 00 numbers are resigned as agents are killed or retired from service, just as M or Q are replaced throughout the series. In The Man with the Golden Gun, we find out that 002 is named Bill Fairbanks, who ends up being killed by Scaramanga. In The Living Daylights 002 is an agent only known as John, who is killed during the training exercise at Gibraltar.

We know that 004 was a male, Frederick Wardener, in Thunderball and the novel The Facts of Death. But in the Bond novel, the Devil May Care, 004 is a female named Scarlett Papava who replaced 004 after he was killed on a mission in Berlin. Alec Trevelyan is mentioned in the novel On Her Majesty's Secret Service and in the novel and film version of Goldeneye. 006 would later be named Jack Giddings in the spinoff book The Moneypenny Diaries: Guardian Angel. This reasoning was again validated in No Time to Die when we meet Nomi, played by Lashana Lynch, who has taken over as the new 007 since James Bond's retirement from MI6. 

So yes, 007 can be any race or gender, gay or straight, but Sir James Bond is middle-thirties, white Scottish nobleman who drinks too much, womanizes, drives too fast, kills people for a living, and never really ages. Bond film continuity does tend to drag on with many fans accepting that Dr. No through Die Another Day is contiguous and the 2006 edition of Casino Royale is a hard reset of the series. Even with the relaunch Bond's basic background story remains the same, so it would make it harder to justify a radical change for the Bond character.

If you want to make the case to finally retire Bond and introduce a new 007, I could get behind that, with the right character development and storyline. But with the timeline having just reset when Daniel Craig took over, and with No Time to Die ending with the traditional "James Bone will Return" in the credits, I can't see the studio abandoning James Bond any time soon.

This article was originally written on 04/28/2020 and has been updated with new information.
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Image of Ian Fleming via