Karin Slaughter, #1 New York Times best seller and author of Criminal , explains why James Bond is as fascinating today as ever. In many ways, he has his enemies to thank.
James Bond. That short, simple name has come to mean so many things for generations of people. Exotic locations, beautiful women, danger and intrigue. Growing up just outside of Atlanta, I could always count on a James Bond story to take me far away, to transport me to some exotic place that was totally different from anything I saw in my own world. Of course, once James Bond was there, anything could seem exotic. Florida, for instance, is just below Georgia, but when Ian Fleming put 007 in Miami it might as well have been on the other side of the planet.
Or would it? Because Fleming knew something that a lot of other writers don’t. He knew how to take a place and make it real. We see this in Casino Royale, the very first James Bond novel, when we find ourselves in a fading but grand resort in France—something glamorous and removed—but the best food is at a little place near the train station. Or Bond might be in Istanbul, on the hunt for the Soviet agents who attacked the local British spy office, but his adventure would take place in front of a large movie billboard instead of inside some catacomb beneath the Sultan’s palace. That combination would allow us to place ourselves in the middle of not just the action, but the culture of the place. It was distant and exotic, but there was a curtain being pulled back on how the locals live.
The same was true of the villains, those amazing bad guys who have become so familiar that they’re a part of our vocabulary. Blofeld. Dr. No. Le Chiffre. Goldfinger. We know them so well--or is it that we just think we do?
It’s interesting to go back to the source material and see just how different and more interesting these characters are from what we saw on screen. In some ways, they are the larger than life figures we remember. After all, this is James Bond, international secret agent. He’s often got the fate of the world in his hands. But when he first meets Auric Goldfinger, it’s for a far more down to earth reason. A friend of Bond’s thinks a man at his country club is cheating at cards, and asks if Bond could catch him. It’s as simple as that, but it tells us so much about Goldfinger; he’s someone whose greed is so intense that he’ll do anything to get more money. Later, when Bond learns of Goldfinger’s plot to rob Fort Knox of all its gold, we’re moved up into a heightened reality, the reality that we all expect from James Bond, but really Goldfinger isn’t doing anything all that different from what he was doing at the beginning of the novel. He has an unquenchable passion for gold, and it drives his big plans just like it drives the small ones. It’s a common flaw — insatiable greed — made very large.
And then there’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the supreme villain in all of Fleming’s Bond stories. He’s a man who works behind the scenes, directing an attempt to blackmail the world with nuclear weapons and striving to destroy England via biological weapons (introduced by unwitting young women, of course; if a modern woman can find one flaw in James Bond, it’s that his women aren’t very modern).; Blodfeld is also the villain who does Bond the greatest harm, murdering his wife and sending him into a downward spiral that nearly ends his career. Blofeld (who doesn’t have a white cat) is an entirely different kind of monster from Goldfinger. He’s not an “ordinary” criminal taken to a great height of villainy. He’s a real demon, a man whose only love, whose only pleasure, appears to be death itself. Though he tries to justify himself, telling Bond that his schemes would have made the world a better place in the end (his nuclear blackmail leading to disarmament, for example), we’re not fooled any more than Bond is fooled. This man had genuinely embraced the darker sides of his soul.
Does this make Blofeld a less compelling villain than someone like Le Chiffre, who has lost his Communist cadre’s accounts in an investment scheme and then desperately tries to win back enough money to hide his activity from his SMERSH masters? Not at all. Instead, it makes Blofeld a different kind of villain. Because there are all manner of dark deeds in the world.
Of course, James Bond is a product of the Cold War, when everyone felt the encroaching fear that there was something unknown threatening us with great harm. But Bond and his villains are more than just stereotypes from old war stories. Fleming didn’t just place his novels in the middle of a superpower confrontation, after all. He knew that there was more going on in the world than just politics. Perhaps this is the one thing that keeps the Bond stories from becoming too dated—as outlandish as the locations and storylines can be, they were still grounded in a familiar reality. Blofeld is scary because he embodies the unknown. And when Bond finally beats him, strangling him in a wave of fury, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. At the end of the day, it’s possible for the heroes to defeat the bad guys.
That simple formula is why James Bond endures. The antagonists, those memorable villains whom Bond has to outwit in order to protect the world, embody the worst traits that we all see around us all the time. Some of these transgressions are ordinary human failings, the greed and ambition which can cause people we know to act like monsters. Sometimes they’re the faces of darker fears, childhood nightmares which we as grown ups might have forced down but haven’t quite managed to banish completely. They bring us a chill of recognition, then a thrill of relief when they’re defeated. That relief might be even greater when it’s Fleming’s Bond, the hero on which we can project our dreams, the shark that keeps moving forward no matter how much blood is in the water.