Meet the Reader: James Bond’s Goldenscribes

The James Bond film series turns fifty this year. There have been twenty-two movies in this remarkable cinematic line featuring the superspy character created by novelist Ian Fleming, starting with 1962’s Dr. No. and followed by From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill, Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day, Casino Royale, and Quantum of Solace. The golden anniversary installment, Skyfall, debuted in Europe in October and opens in the United States on November 9.

The 007 series is significant for many reasons, among them:

  • It is the longest continuously running franchise in movie history – all of the films in the official chain have been made by Eon Productions, Ltd., which was founded by London-based American film producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and his Canadian partner Harry Saltzman and is currently run by Broccoli’s daughter, Barbara, and his stepson, Michael G. Wilson. Two rogue Bond movies were made outside of Eon’s auspices – 1967’s spoof version of Casino Royale and 1983’s Never Say Never Again.
  • It is a genuine pop culture phenomenon. Following the smash success of Goldfinger and Thunderball, the James Bond films became one of the popular sensations of the 1960s, second only to the Beatles. The Bonds generated hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket and merchandising sales; they were referenced in every conceivable media arena from skits to commercials to pop songs to political cartoons; they made original lead Sean Connery the biggest movie star on the planet, and they inspired dozens of imitations, knock-offs, and rip-offs on television, in print, and at the movies. Also like the Beatles, 007 has never gone away. Over the decades, the series’ popularity has ebbed and surged (most especially in the late 1970s, after the tremendous box office success of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker and the release of the early films to network television), but has never disappeared. Many of the series’ key elements – including the suave, cool, tuxedo-wearing figure of Bond himself; John Barry’s dynamic arrangement of Monty Norman’s theme music; and Maurice Binder’s distinctive gun barrel logo – have become pop icons in and of themselves.
  • The films have served as an ongoing showcase for the talents of the marvelous artists, craftspeople, and technicians of the great British film industry, especially the production designers (lead by the brilliant Ken Adam), cinematographers, special effects technicians, stunt people, and editors.
  • The movies are just a whole lot of fun.

Since the concern of this column is screenwriting, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the scribes behind the Bonds. Like most modern producers, Eon has employed multiple writers on most of the 007 scripts, but there are a few key screenwriters whose contributions have been vital to making the series the great success that it has been.

Perhaps the most important screenwriter in Bond’s cinematic history was Wolf Mankowitz, a British novelist, playwright who Cubby Broccoli hired in the early 1960s to pen a film script based on the Arabian Nights stories. Broccoli had long wanted to bring Ian Fleming’s 007 novels to the screen, but had been unable to secure the rights. When Mankowitz heard this, he introduced Cubby to his friend Harry Saltzman, who had optioned the Bond books from Fleming, but had been unable to raise the funds necessary to turn them into movies. That option was about to expire, so Saltzman agreed to join forces with Broccoli, who then used his contacts to make a production deal with United Artists. So, without Mankowitz, it’s likely that Eon never would have existed and that James Bond never would have come to the screen — at least not in the form we know him, anyway.

Creatively, the key scripter for the entire Bond series was Richard Maibaum. Born in New York in 1909, Maibaum worked as an actor and playwright on Broadway before going to Hollywood in the 1930s, where he became a screenwriter and producer on films such as OSS (1946), The Big Clock (1948) and The Great Gatsby (1949). In the 1950s, Maibaum wrote a number of successful action films for Cubby Broccoli, including The Red Beret (1953), Hell Below Zero (1954), and Cockleshell Heroes (1955). After Eon made its deal with United Artists, Broccoli brought Maibaum in to write its first James Bond screenplay – an adaptation of Fleming’s 1961 novel Thunderball. When that project was postponed due to legal issues, Broccoli and Saltzman asked Maibaum to adapt Doctor No instead. Maibaum worked on a treatment for the picture with Wolf Mankowitz and then wrote the screenplay himself (it was later revised by Johanna Harwood and Berkely Mather). Broccoli and Saltzman were extremely pleased with Maibaum’s work and invited him back to work on four of the next five films in the series.

Maibaum was an expert screenwriter with a strong sense of story and structure who was able to use his skills to strengthen Fleming’s often-illogical plots. For example, in the Goldfinger novel, Auric Goldfinger’s plan is to rob Fort Knox, a scheme that in reality would take hundreds of men weeks to complete (gold is really heavy and moving it takes a very long time) – conditions not conducive to the quick getaway for its villain that the story required. Maibaum replaced this unwieldy concept with a far more workable (and sinister) one – in the screenplay, Goldfinger breaks into Fort Knox not to steal the gold, but to irradiate it with an atomic bomb, thus ruining its market value, causing worldwide economic chaos, and significantly increasing the value of his private stash. (Despite having to tackle such problems, Maibaum was actually a great fan of Fleming’s work and his scripts are the most faithful to the original novels.)

As he worked on the scripts of these initial films, Maibaum helped define and perfect the Bond film “formula:” an exciting pre-credits sequence followed by a narrative in which 007 is assigned to investigate some mysterious goings-on that lead him to uncover and then foil a deadly, high-stakes scheme conjured up by a nefarious, larger than life criminal mastermind (who is usually assisted by a freakish henchperson), with Bond’s efforts leading to an explosive climax that often saves the world from a terrible fate. In a 007 movie, the narrative is frequently punctuated by exciting, highly imaginative action sequences, which Maibaum and Broccoli both referred to as “bumps, Bond becomes involved with at least two women (one “bad,” the other “good”), and receives assistance from an ally (often a third woman) that usually ends up dead. The formula also includes dark humor, primarily in the form of the sardonic one-liners that 007 tosses off after dispatching his adversaries (these asides were a Maibaum invention – Fleming’s secret agent is humorless). The gigantic success of the Bond movies led to Maibaum’s template being copied time and time again by the generations of action moviemakers that came after. Maibaum’s influence is so apparent in the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Die Hard series, and the Lethal Weapon movies, as well as in hundreds of lesser efforts, that a legitimate claim can be made that he is one of the principal fathers of the modern action movie.

Unlike the Bond novels, the Bond movies are also known for their large helpings of fantasy. Maibaum was essentially a realistic writer and his scripts were (relatively) down to earth (Maibaum even fought to remove fantasy elements from the stories whenever possible. Famously, he and Wolf Mankowitz replaced Doctor No’s Fu Manchu-like villain with a more realistic antagonist in their original treatment because they though Fleming’s baddie was too ridiculous to be believed. They were going to give the Doctor No moniker to the villain’s pet monkey until Cubby Broccoli intervened and ordered them to stick to Fleming). The two screenwriters most responsible for introducing more out-of-this world elements into the Bond formula were Paul Dehn and Roald Dahl.

Dehn, an English poet, librettist, and screenwriter who possessed a very fertile imagination (which he later put to excellent use in the four Planet of the Apes sequels that he wrote for producer Arthur P. Jacobs), did the final rewrites on Maibaum’s Goldfinger screenplay and it was he who injected over-the-top elements such as the gadget-laden Aston Martin supercar (the first in a long series of increasingly outlandish gadgets that would be featured in the series), Oddjob demonstrating his incredible strength by crushing a golf ball in the palm of his enormous paw, Bond converting the criminal lesbian Pussy Galore into a heterosexual do-gooder by the sheer force of his…er…personality, and the final battle amidst impossibly tall stacks of gold inside Fort Knox into the piece. Beginning with the wonderful gag in which 007 unzips a wetsuit to reveal that he is wearing a full tuxedo (complete with carnation) underneath, Dehn also brought a broader, more tongue-in-cheek humor to Goldfinger (much to Richard Maibaum’s chagrin) than had been featured in the first two films in the series and was carried over into many of the later entries as well.

Famed children’s author Dahl took Dehn’s fantastic approach and ran with it in his script for the fifth Bond film: 1967’s You Only Live Twice. Dahl not only began his script by killing off 007 and later presented sequences in which Bond flies a gadget laden auto gyro into a dogfight with a fleet of helicopters, picks up a car with a giant magnet, and undergoes surgery that turns him Japanese, but he was also the screenwriter who came up with what is probably the best known, most outlandish, most imitated, and most parodied Bond fantasy element of them all: a secret villain’s lair concealed inside a dormant volcano that comes complete with a fully-operational spaceship, a launching pad, a control room, monorail, reflecting pool stocked with man-eating piranha, and a private bad guy army (all wearing matching jumpsuits) that can only be defeated by an invading force of highly-trained, righteous ninjas.

Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice aside, the Bond films of the 1960s were basically played straight – the plots were taken seriously, the action was relatively realistic and believable, and the violence was intense — but after the disappointing box office performance of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – the most realistic of all of the early pictures (as well as the first not to star Sean Connery, which probably had a lot to do with the movie’s underperformance) — Eon made the decision to follow and enhance the Goldfinger/You Only Live Twice approach. As a result, the Bond films of the 1970s heavily emphasized the fantasy and humorous aspects of 007 – the stories were less serious, the action was more over-the-top, and the violence was less intense and more cartoonish.

Many fans criticize this period, complaining that the movies are too light and too humorous in comparison with many of the films that came before and after. This criticism might be true, but it fails to take into account one very important fact – if the series had not lightened up, it would not have survived long enough to return to relative seriousness in the modern era. By the end of the 1960s, the Bond formula was beginning to wear thin – it had been repeated enough times by then that what once was fresh was in danger of becoming cliché. This is the point at which most series die out – audiences tire of the repetition and begin laughing at what they once embraced. Eon’s brilliance was to head this problem off at the pass by inviting audiences to laugh with the Bond films rather than at them. This allowed viewers to go on enjoying the movies for another decade or so until they began to miss the more serious approach and welcomed a return to it. (What these critics also miss is that these lighter Bonds are just as entertaining in their way as the more serious entries are in theirs.)

Tom Mankiewicz

Tom Mankiewicz

Richard Maibaum continued to work on the series in the 1970s (he did initial drafts for Diamonds Are Forever and The Spy Who Loved Me and a major rewrite on The Man with the Golden Gun), but the key writer for the Bond-lite era was Tom Mankiewicz — the son of the Academy Award winning writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) and the nephew of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J.  Mankiewicz — who worked on all five of the Bond films made in the 1970s  (he wrote the shooting script for Diamonds, the screenplay for Live and Let Die, and the initial draft of Golden Gun. He also did the final rewrite on Spy and composed the initial story for Moonraker). Mankiewicz had a strong sense of story and talent for concocting fantastic spectacle with a humorous touch (a talent he would also display in his screenplays for Superman and Superman II). His dialogue was sophisticated and witty and he had a terrific knack for concocting enormously clever one-liners. Mankiewicz began his tenure on Sean Connery’s last turn as Bond (Diamonds), but his style found its ideal interpreter when Roger Moore took over the role in Live and Let Die. Moore knew how to play the sort of sophisticated humor that was Mankiewicz’s forte and was always in on the joke (he also brought a suave elegance to the part that was not part of Connery’s interpretation – an element that has remained part of the popular conception of the character ever since).

Another important writer on the 1970s Bonds was Christopher Wood, who was brought onto the 007 series by his friend, director Lewis Gilbert, to rewrite Richard Maibaum’s original script for The Spy Who Loved Me and stayed to transform Mankiewicz’s Moonraker treatment into a full screenplay. Like Mankiewicz, Wood — who under the pseudonym Timothy Lea had written the ribald Confessions series of novels and their screen adaptations — had a light touch and a witty sense of humor that made him a good choice for the disco-era Bond. He also had great respect and affection for the Bond formula and made a conscious effort to both utilize and celebrate it in both of his screenplays.

The 1980s were an inconsistent decade for the 007 series. Following Moonraker, Cubby Broccoli (now working solo following the departure of Harry Saltzman after Golden Gun) felt that the light approach was growing stale and decided that a return to the “serious” style of From Russia with Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was in order (proving that the Bonds were adept at rebooting long before the rest of the industry even knew what that term meant). For Your Eyes Only was a reasonably realistic espionage drama, full of mystery and intrigue and with a minimum of fantasy, gadgets, and broad humor. The movie was a big success and it appeared that ensuing installments would continue to follow the serious template. However, the next several Bonds were all over the tonal map: Octopussy was an awkward mixture of both the serious and the fantastic approaches; A View to a Kill was pure fantasy; while The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill tacked backed toward serious (a suitable choice for the series’ new star Timothy Dalton, who lacked Roger Moore’s light touch). It seemed as if Eon couldn’t figure out what sort of film it wanted to make and was trying a little bit of everything to see what might stick.

Richard Maibaum wrote all of the 1980s Bonds in collaboration with Michael G. Wilson (Cubby Broccoli’s stepson and co-producer) – although novelist George MacDonald Fraser contributed an early draft for Octopussy. The Maibaum/Wilson screenplays were problematic in a number of ways. The team had a talent for concocting intriguingly complex plots, although sometimes they were too complex: whereas the team’s best scripts – For Your Eyes Only and The Living Daylights – are entertaining puzzles, the stories of A View to a Kill and Licence to Kill are hard to follow and the narrative of Octopussy is at times incomprehensible. Maibaum and Wilson were comfortable with the more serious aspects of Bond’s world and their action sequences are generally quite inventive, but they had little facility for humor and fantasy. Their villains tended to be bland (and there were usually too many of them) and their scripts overlong.

Following the release of Licence to Kill, legal problems kept the series off the screen until the mid-1990s. By the time it resumed, Richard Maibaum had passed away and Michael G. Wilson was working on the series full time as a producer after Cubby Broccoli’s retirement (the venerable producer would pass away in 1996), so there was not only a new 007 – Pierce Brosnan – but also a new batch of 007 writers.

The story for Goldenye was concocted by Michael France (Cliffhanger) and revised by Jeffrey Cain and Kevin Wade, but it was American writer Bruce Feirstein who did the final production draft and it was Feirstein who turned out to be the key screenwriter for the Brosnan Bonds. In keeping with most of the action films produced during the period, the 007 films of the late 1990s and early 2000s tended to be action spectaculars, with the plots taking a back seat to non-stop set pieces. The films were so busy that Bond could have easily been lost in all the chaos. Fortunately, Feirstein had a strong feel for the character of 007 in general and for Brosnan’s interpretation in particular and, as a result, Bond remained distinct and vibrant in all of the Brosnan Bonds that Feirstein wrote (in addition to Goldeneye, Feirstein devised the story for Tomorrow Never Dies and did the first and final drafts, as well as the final draft of The World is Not Enough) and is sorely missing from the one that he didn’t (Die Another Day).

Since The World is Not Enough, British screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have been responsible for devising the plots of the Bond films, although — except for Die Another Day — the final drafts of their pictures have usually been done by others (Dana Stevens and Bruce Feirstein completed The World is Not Enough, Paul Haggis was the final writer on Casino Royale, and Haggis and Joshua Zetumer finished Quantum of Solace). The results of this too-many-cooks approach have been mixed: TWiNE and Solace are middling and, after a marvelous set-up (007 is framed as a traitor and has to clear his name), DAD collapses into silliness and confusion. However, Casino Royale is terrific – a smashing adaptation of Ian Fleming’s original Bond novel, a terrific introduction for new star Daniel Craig, and one of the undisputed highlights of the 007 film series. Purvis and Wade created the story for Skyfall and the final drafts were done by John Logan. The results are reportedly excellent.

So where does 007 go from here? Ever forward, we can imagine, continuing to mix elements of the real and the fantastic as Eon and its writers continue to enthrall us with unique blends of exotic action, adventure, romance, and thrills – hopefully for another fifty years.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Bond.

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