Saturday, January 3, 2015

James Bond and the God Narrative

(The following articles was adapted from a rough excerpt of my upcoming new book Screenwriting and the Unified Theory of Narrative from a section entitled "Alternative Structures.")

It never fails. Whether it be online or in person, in the classroom or elsewhere, whenever someone well-versed in the basic principles of screencraft tries to express certain seemingly-unbreakable axioms of traditional narrative structure, particularly those of the protagonist's character arc, someone inevitably challenges those statements with the same dreaded question: What about James Bond? The “Bond Conundrum” has plagued dramatists for decades. James Bond is inarguably one of the most successful movie heroes of all time, yet the portrayal of the character seems to ignore many of the rules and qualifications usually deemed mandatory for a successful cinematic protagonist. As anyone familiar with screencraft should know, the protagonist's character arc is an essential component of the cinematic story's overall narrative structure, one which the other components interrelate and rely upon for the sake of development and completion. Yet in the Bond films, the protagonist does not seem to possess any identifiable character arc. He does not undergo a process of internal change in reaction to the plot's events. He does not seem to have any clear fatal flaw nor does he pursue an Internal Need. This by large holds true for the supporting characters in these films as well. (This analysis excludes the more recent incarnations of the Bond franchise, starting with 2006's Casino Royale which attempt to humanize the Bond character by putting him in a more traditional mold. For this reason, these films do not pertain this discussion.)

The commonly-offered explanation is that the Bond films have stood apart in the industry by existing from their start as an intentionally-serialized franchise, each instance acting more like episodes in an ongoing television series rather than the individual stand-alone and self-contained narratives we see in other films. This requires the Bond franchise to contain a stable, unchanging cast of characters that can be placed in one adventure after another and always return in the end to the status quo so that, like in television, the episodes can be enjoyed in any order without confusion. Unfortunately, this argument does not explain why the very first appearances of Bond in the films Dr. No (1962) and its follow-up From Russia With Love (1963) were originally successful as stand-alone narratives. Without the individual audience approval of these first installments, the serialized franchise would have never launched in the first place. This seems to suggest that the secret of Bond's success in spite of its infractions upon the standard rules of cinematic storytelling lies elsewhere, presumably in the structure of the individual films themselves.

To find the answer, it is important to note that as a character, James Bond does not in any way seem to be a common mortal man, nor is he even the exaggerated or figurative depiction of a mortal man as those often found in stories with highly fantastic settings or premises. James Bond is super-human. He is even more super-human than the likes of Superman or Hercules, as these heroes still struggle with “human issues” such as internal flaws, ethical dilemmas, or their own personal limitations. James Bond struggles with none of these. Bond is endlessly capable and endlessly self-confident. He never shows fear, never shows doubt, and never loses control of his emotions. Bond does not think, he simply acts – without a moment wasted debating the correctness of those actions. 

No sweat. Just an average day here.
In consideration of all of this, my chain of thought, for reasons I cannot remember, led me to the ancient Greek, Roman, and Scandinavian myths I read in my youth. These myths are generally of two types (with the exception of creation or cosmological myths). The first are the hero myths, stories of a mortal man or woman who dares in some way to challenge the gods. This, by various stretches of the imagination, can be considered the form that the vast majority of cinematic stories follow today. The second type are the myths about the gods themselves, in which mortal men play a minimal or nonexistent part. These myths are typically broad in scope, yet somewhat shallow in meaning, composed of tales of gods conflicting with the fickle whims of other deities, supernatural monsters, or other entities, reaching a conclusion which somehow acts to retain the order and balance of the universe.

The behavior and personality of James Bond is very much like that found in the gods in these myths. Bond himself may be considered as a modernized depiction of a god character for several reasons. The first is the effortless skill with which he achieves all things. Second, like a god, his character is unchanging and eternal (the actors who play him may change, but the character essentially remains the same). Third, unlike most movie heroes, Bond has an implied immortality. In most action sequences, the dramatic tension emerges from the audience's fear that the hero will meet some serious harm. However, this fear is never truly present in the Bond films. The audience is always certain that James Bond will find a way to survive no matter how threatening the situation. Finally, and most importantly, Bond never struggles with any kind of questions, ethical or otherwise, regarding his actions. He seems to instantly know the correct path and takes it as if by supernatural instinct. 

Oh, please. You're only amusing him.
The entire Bond franchise can be likened to an eternal saga of cosmic good versus evil in which one
and monsters...
not men
benevolent god continually maintains the order of the universe by keeping an endless supply of malicious gods bent on mischief or ruin in check. Of course, gods of evil are served by various monsters and minions, thus the Bond films are also filled with grotesque henchmen which the hero must continually fool or defeat. But the gods of myth have helpers too, often gaining aid or precious objects from lesser beings such as fairies, spirits, or soothsayers. Likewise, Bond is assisted in his quests by his own collection of “helper deities” such as Q, Miss Moneypenny, or various field agents or operatives, characters who often seem to have their own immortality or quasi-superhuman skills. This theory is further supported by the minimal or nonexistence of characters representing the common, everyday man or woman. If they do appear, they do so as little more than background players with no influence upon the plot's course of events, often doing nothing but look on in awe or occasionally provide Bond with a night of pleasure (gods are typically very lusty beings). By these similarities, it seems feasible to forward the idea that the Bond films do not follow all the traditional rules of narrative structure because they demonstrate an alternate type of narrative, one already established in lore with its own unique rules and structure.

Of course, a theory requires more than one example to hold any water. God narratives are rare, but others do exist. The 1966 Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly follows the samesuch form. Its protagonist (played by Clint Eastwood), a man with no real name and known only by the nickname “Blondie,” is another god-hero. 

He is endlessly capable, endlessly confident, and devoid of strong emotion or moral quandaries. The fact that, unlike Bond, Blondie is a self-serving antihero concerned only with his own wealth does not taint the argument. If one remembers their mythology, it should be recalled that though some gods are benign or hostile towards mankind, most are indifferent to the existence of man and its morality, acting largely to serve their own pleasures. Indeed, Blondie behaves as if he is both outside of and above the world of the common man. Neither their worries, their causes, nor even their law are of any concern to him. His only real struggles comes from the constant tricks and treachery played on him by story's two other larger-than-life beings; the impish trickster Tuco and the shape-shifting devil Angel Eyes – two characters with many mirrors in mythology. Blondie's character does not change. Like a deity, his character is eternal and unchanging. This is principally because he had no need to change. Blondie's physical abilities are already perfect, therefore no flaw could exist to interfere with them. As an “idealized being” of his place and time, he essentially lacks nothing, so unlike a traditional hero, he has no Internal Need which he must pursue to improve as an individual. In times of trouble, Blondie never needs question whether his past behavior is to blame or seek moral guidance in the future. It is all merely another up or down in an eternal battle of good and evil. Even when things are at their worst, Blonde is usually rescued by some random twist of fate, suggesting that there is some cosmic order in which he hold a part.

Like the Bond films, the conclusion of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly does not suggest that the hero's adventures have wrapped up and come to an end as they do in most. This story seems only to have been a brief episode in an endless saga which will continue on for the hero, though most of it we never get to see. The film's end is merely a pause in the existence of its unchanging god-hero.

A god narrative of a far difference character is found in the film Forrest Gump. While The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly only presents a few episodes in a suggested saga, Gump shows the saga of its hero in it near entirety. Gump's narrative presents a very non-traditional structure composed of a series of adventurous episode, one after another. The only thread which holds Gump together into anything suggesting the traditional three-act form is the one story element which never changes: Forrest's continuing desire to find Jenny and make her his love. The rest of the film, in its epic saga form, is really nothing more than the many ways an immortal god-hero like Forrest finds to fill his time while waiting to meet his Jenny again.

It might be difficult to imagine Forrest as a god-hero, however his character demonstrates the same non-traditional qualities as James Bond or Blondie. First, by way of his slow-witted and simple-minded nature, Gump perpetually exists outside of the world of the common man. He walks amongst them, but he is not one of them. Forrest's simple-mindedness actually has the effect of elevating him above others as a virtuous being. He cannot lie, he cannot hate, he cannot understand the petty arguments, prejudices, greed and anger which often consume the common mortal's life. He can almost be considered a being without sin. Second, one cannot deny that Forrest's physical skills border on the supernatural. He has the speed to become a college football All-American with no major effort. He has the strength to carry five Army buddies to safety. He becomes a world-class ping pong player only months after first picking up a paddle. He's the only captain with the skill to keep his shrimp boat from being destroyed in a hurricane. The examples go on and on. Third, he has an implied immortality both in a physical and metaphysical sense. He is not only immortal in body as he survives Vietnam and the hurricane, but immortal in spirit. As the decades pass, Gump's exploits pop up in the national media again and again, as if he were unknowingly some sort of cosmic thread uniting American history. Fourth and most importantly, like Bond and Blondie, Forrest never suffers any ethical dilemma or confusion over what actions to take. Thanks to his simple mind and pure heart, he does not think, he simply does and always comes out in the right. 

Isn't it weird how I keep showing up at these things?
As a character, Forrest Gump does not have any fatal flaw which he must overcome. Though his naivete and childish innocence do pose difficulty in his ability to understand people and situations, this is not a fatal flaw in the traditional sense. First, this is part of Forrest's innate nature, a trait which essentially cannot be changed. Second, this “flaw” is actually Forrest's greatest virtue since his innocent mind is the tool which leads him time and again down the correct paths to overcome conflicts and succeed with hardly any effort.

The Bond franchise, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Forrest Gump. Here we have three examples of highly-successful films of non-traditional structure in which the protagonists all share the same unusual heroic traits. These successes are not freak occurrences in the one-and-only monostructure of cinematic storytelling, but evidence suggesting an alternate form of structure, one with significant parallels found in the existing god narratives of myth – perhaps even providing the modern evolution of these tales. However, any further understanding of this structure and how it functions will require further investigation and hopefully uncover many more examples of its type.