Just try to name another literary character as identifiable with a number as James Bond. Everything about 007 is iconic: the number, the gadgets, the title sequences and the knowledge that at least once in the film, a beautiful girl will whisper, "Oh, James!"
Ian Fleming's books were popular, but when the superspy hit the silver screen in 1962, he launched one of the most successful and enduring series in film history. And, as author Sinclair McKay tells NPR's Mike Pesca, James Bond gave the British the opportunity to save the world, too.
"This idea that this super-suave, super-manly spy basically saves the world on behalf of everyone else, including the Americans, is a fantastically flattering self-portrait," McKay says. His new book, "The Man With the Golden Touch: How the Bond Films Conquered the World," is a biography of the English icon.
Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who produced the first Bond films, wanted to give their character a broad international appeal, too, McKay says. "So they steered away from geopolitics as much as they could, which meant that the villains would come from the kind of private sector of villainy," rather than having obvious opponents like the Soviets. A Soviet general would be rather colorless, anyhow, when compared to Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his famous Persian cat.
Which Bond Is Best?
Your opinion of Bond is probably based on which film version of him you're watching, McKay says. "There are not many of my contemporaries who look at Roger Moore and feel that this is the man who can instantly save the world. But we adore Roger Moore over here [in the UK] for the fact that he brought a certain kind of light humor to the part."
While Sean Connery is the original, one-and-only Bond for many viewers, McKay says his casting was not without controversy. By some accounts, McKay says Fleming thought Connery "looked like a truck driver — meaning that he was of too low a social class to play this suave secret agent." But the producers insisted on Connery, figuring — correctly, as it turned out — that his rough edges would appeal to the ladies in the audience.
In the end, McKay says, it's the character and the familiar structure of the Bond films that bring in the audiences year after year. No one really cares about the plot. "We know there's going to be a supervillain," he says, "and we know there's going to be two or three girls, one of whom will probably end up getting bumped off, and we know there's going to be an absurd vehicle chase of some sort. It's not the plot we're going for."
But audiences may have to wait a while for their next dose of supervillains and speedboat chases due to financial troubles at Bond's parent studio MGM. McKay hopes the wait won't be too long. "When Bond is off the screens, it does make you realize we all rather miss him."