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Film

How Roald Dahl irrevocably ruined the James Bond series

These days, the James Bond series is a cliche. The actor, whether he’s the louche Roger Moore or the more harder-edged Daniel Craig, saunters around, scouring the bar for a martini, a murdered or a mistress to keep him entertained for the night. He says “The name’s Bond, James Bond”, dines with a nefarious villain, and discovers enough information to save the day from an evil, underhanded organisation, before the credits roll and a rock song kicks in, closing the latest popcorn escapade on a jaunty note. 

But it wasn’t always like that, as is evident from the first four Sean Connery features, which turned to the Ian Fleming stories with slavish attention to detail. Indeed, it was only after Roald Dahl opined that You Only Live Twice, Fleming’s lyrical dissertation on remorse in a foreign land, remarked that the book was virtually unfilmable that the series rocketed into plainly ludicrous territories, abandoning any semblance of integrity for innuendo, ingenuity and hardwire. 

To many Fleming purists, Dahl’s script was exactly the type of drivel the author had worked so hard to avoid during his tenure as a writer. A collection of nonsensical escapades wrapped up as a saccharine whole, the film flew in the face of a countercultural movement primed for more truthful forms of expression. Shot with scant regard for the fans, not least the critics who had built the mosaic on which the series had long held a firm standing, You Only Live Twice fizzles along like a bullet, parading from cars to magnets, before stopping at the face of a hidden volcano. The film is overblown, oversexed, and bolstered by an unwarranted sense of self-confidence, robbing its lead of some of the menace he had brought to previous entries.

When Connery comes to face his great nemesis, he meets a pernicious, plump mope, poised to cause destruction from the sanctity of his chair. It’s borderline laughable how miscast Donald Pleasance is as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but he’s no less a misfit than many of the other actors who have portrayed the arch-villain. Indeed, only Telly Savalas managed to carve some genuine evil into his portrayal, after director Peter Hunt had wisely steered away from the technological flourishes for a story based on sincerity, gumption and foolhardiness. 

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You Only Live Twice is the nadir of the series, a story so pedestrian it drove its star to quit the franchise, yet one that proferred a formula that cemented the series during its weakest ebbs. By the time Roger Moore took on the role, the series could barely sustain themselves beyond the unflattering label of novelty films, curating a franchise that indulged the inner pub-goer with a collection of inoffensive travelogues and scantily dressed fantasies, uniting overweight fathers with the dreams of their inner adolescence. 

It coasted along on this direction before the producers made the daring decision to return to more spy-oriented fodder, starring a refined, and deeply cerebral, actor. Timothy Dalton certainly had form, having finessed his portrayal on 007 on the character as was presented in the books, and his Bond was a man of instinct, carefully engineering every gunshot with a poise that stemmed from practice. He was debonair, but not aggressively so, and connected the targets of his oppressors by visualising their objectives during cigarette breaks and silent moments of introspection. 

Dalton starred in two of the best, and definitely most original, films in the series, but by 1989, audiences were too entrenched in the formula to cast off the shackles of tradition. He was replaced by the roguishly handsome Pierce Brosnan, an Irishman who made it his firm promise to bring internal characteristics out of the spy, in the hope of making the unflappable hero seem more relatable. 

But the series was still too hopelessly formulaic for Brosnan to stretch out in, and by the time he left the series, a hidden volcano held more dignity to the spectacle of embarrassment that was Die Another Day. Continuing the Dahl DNA, Die Another Day pushed the parameters of reality to breaking point, and the finished result was the most vacuous, and certainly the most soulless, entry in the best part of 30 years. Brosnan, like Connery before him, left the series feeling his contributions were overshadowed by the hardware parading across the screen, like the tedious inevitability of an unloved season. 

Roald Dahl was one of the most strikingly original writers of his time, and with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and The Twits, created a deliciously perverse world where adults could join their children in laughter. He perfected a formula, and one that worked brilliantly in the books he designed for the public at large. But he was a gothic writer, a pop peddler whose dialogue was as expressive and expansive as his characters. He was deeply unqualified to adapt spy fiction for the big screen, and by putting together the blueprint that the series would follow with little exception, robbed the series of much of its gravitas, nuance and heart. 

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