Post by Matthew Freeman, Bath Spa University
This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond“ series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor, Matthew Freeman, completed his PhD in the department in 2015.
A couple of years ago, Jonathan Nolan, co-screenwriter of the popular Dark Knight (2005-2012) movies and brother of acclaimed Hollywood director Christopher Nolan, spoke candidly about the process of writing a real ending to the Nolan Batman saga. “It’s the right way to tell a story, to blow the whole thing up,” Nolan insisted. “It’s better than trying to spin the thing out indefinitely like the Bond franchise. They’ve successfully pulled it off with Bond, but at certain costs. I think with almost every other franchise it’s a mistake to try and keep those plates spinning. You want stakes.” Nolan here reflects on the process of telling serialized stories and the problem of constructing narratives with meaningful character arcs and payoffs in a world where movie stars are signed up for multiple sequels and franchise-filmmaking is the order of the day.
Nolan’s postulation got me thinking. In this age of Hollywood franchises and transmedia storytelling, where story progression, character development and narrative coherence across multiple films and peripheral media extensions have become a logical means of sustaining audience engagement in a crowded marketplace, to what extent is James Bond–one of the oldest, most enduring and most popular of all media franchises, one that spans books, movies and video games–something of an anomaly? After all, while Marvel et al. now build coherent universes for their pool of characters to roam, in the Bond movies actors change faces, story threads are dropped from one film to another, and the death of characters more often than not goes unnoticed in the hearts of heroes. And that’s not even to consider Bond in other media besides film, in works whose own narratives contradict, stray and repeat old ground as often they narrate new adventures. Don’t the Bond franchise’s constant contradictions and straying repetitions directly oppose the common ideology of how media franchises are typically built in the 21st century? For according to Henry Jenkins, “everything about the structure of the modern entertainment industry [is] designed with the single idea of transmedia in mind.” Transmedia, of course, speaks about the sort of narrative coherence, story progression and expansive character development I mention above.
How, then, has this noted loss of narrative coherence, story progression and character development across the Bond franchise affected how audiences engage with it? Is transmedia even a possibility for a franchise as contradictory, longstanding, episodic and fundamentally un-serialized as Bond? This is a property that celebrated its 50th anniversary, at least cinematically, fairly recently–and did so in style with 2012’s Skyfall, a film that earned more money than any Bond movie previously and will be followed by this year’s Spectre. Inevitably, spin-off video games preceded Skyfall, as they have done for years. But do the various Bond films and accompanying video games actually unfold in the same storyworld–and do fans even require them to do so? Are the video games consumed as coherent extensions of the Bond films or rather as distinct versions of some alternate Bond universe? And if the latter, is James Bond a minor anomaly in today’s transmedia landscape–and what might all of this tell us about the nature of media franchises?
I explore such questions in a chapter in Claire Hines’s upcoming collection Fan Phenomena: James Bond, and it might well be that a franchise like James Bond doesn’t actually engage with popular strategies of transmedia storytelling at all. Instead, we might say that Bond makes use of a fixed temporality that engages fans across multiple media via strategies based around nostalgia and retroactive continuities.
Nostalgia is hinted implicitly even in the titles of some Bond video games. The USP of 2012’s 007 Legends was that, as one review put it, the game “trades in nostalgia, and does so in spades.” Perhaps a more explicit example of how nostalgia works in Bond video games to encourage fan engagement despite the lack of so-called transmedia storytelling can be found in 2005’s James Bond 007: From Russia With Love. Here, the game was billed as “the first game to let you play as Sean Connery’s 007.” Released at a time when the Internet was filled with fans’ bewilderment about Daniel Craig’s casting in Casino Royale (2006), James Bond 007: From Russia With Love worked to pacify fans by returning them to a safer memory of the Bond of the past. “Starring a beautifully-realised digital double of Connery circa 1963,” Empire wrote, James Bond 007: From Russia With Love featured every major set-piece from that 1963 film, allowing players to extend their engagement in the Bond storyworld across media precisely by curtailing the storyworld’s extension: the audience’s engagement in the present was driven by a return to the past.
This mark of nostalgia says something about the audience for Bond in the 21st century. A game like James Bond 007: From Russia With Love might be seen to embody Bond fans’ almost perpetual desire to keep Bond in the past. In other words, is part of this character’s appeal the fact that he doesn’t actually change, or age, or progress, or remember, or look ahead? Living Bond as a site of nostalgia–either via rereading old books, re-watching old movies or reliving old memories via video games–has provided Bond producers’ with a seemingly endless means to capture audiences’ engagement across media. By keeping Bond in the past, forever unchanged and untainted, fans too can return to that world over and over again.
The idea of moving a story backwards rather than forwards may contradict today’s more conventionally transmedial franchises. Yet when encouraging Bond fans to cross multiple media, the Bond franchise gets even messier when one drills down. Indeed, over the years Bond video games have made use of retroactive continuities to engage audiences across media. Essentially, retroactive continuities–or retcons for short–refer to the deliberate changing of previously established narrative facts. Retcons are common in comics, which comprise long histories of many series that continue over many editions, and so sooner or later the makeup of the story must be radically reshaped to attract new audiences.
The Bond video games have been reshaping the narrative makeup of the films for years, seemingly as a way to attract fans across media. Take 2012’s 007 Legends as a case in point. This game was praised by Empire not only for the way it allowed fans not only to revisit Bond’s past, but also to experience a mixed-up version of that past: “For the most part the efforts to effectively reboot the major story beats of Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Licence to Kill, Die Another Day and Moonraker through the eyes of current 007, Daniel Craig, are admirably effective.” This was a game that distorted ideas of nostalgia by allowing fans to relive their old memories of Bond adventures in very different ways, effectively altering the legacy as story beats of Bond’s past unfolded in new and alternative ways.
While an example like 007 Legends shows just how effective incoherence and inconsistency can be when encouraging fans to migrate from one source of media to the next, the game indeed highlights the Bond franchise’s anomalous status in today’s transmedia entertainment landscape. Whereas games like 2003’s Enter the Matrix thrived on the way it expanded the Matrix story across movies and games in strikingly coherent ways–with the subplots of the films carefully woven into plot threads of the game–Bond’s use of retcons in video games works on the basis of historical revisionism and contradiction alone.
Bond’s entrapment as a source of nostalgia may indeed carve him a rare niche in today’s entertainment industry, one where the prospect of re-engaging with a so-called “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” offers a unique contrast to today’s more intricately transmedial communities that involve coherent world-building.
Bond has garnered an enduring popularity across multiple media not in spite of but because of the character’s adherence to the past. Bond thereby serves as a lens through which to study models of transmedia franchising at a time when other popular heroes constantly move forward.
 Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 104.