James Chapman opens his Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films by asking a strikingly simple question: “Why should we take James Bond seriously?” And he answers this query by denying the series’ creators, propagators, and propagandists the opportunity to regard anything Bond as mindless entertainment. He emphasizes and endorses the subgenre of Bond as simultaneously influenced by, and influencing, our shifting ideologies.
Chapman’s work is a refreshingly fine-tuned and valuable volume for both film and cultural studies, particularly in the shallow waters of serious James Bond scholarship. As Chapman indicates, although the Bond books and films deserve a critical drumming for their misogynist, heterosexist, and imperialist over/undertones, serious analysis cannot dismiss their continued appeal. We may as well admit; that bastard Bond deserves better.
Licence to Thrill operates in a tight theoretical spot, somewhere between serious, strenuous film theory and casual, populist non-fiction. Chapman’s book is historical and therefore rarely strays from a strict chronology of the series. Chapters group the films into movements, such as “Bondmania,” “Bond in Transition,” and “Millennial Bond.” Each film within these chapters is detailed from inception to reception, from problems on the set to critical response and box office intake.
In reviewing any specific film, Chapman seldom dives into any sort of strenuous scene analysis or deeper discussion of film style. Instead, he focuses primarily on narrative structure and reception as rooted in historical context, tethering each film to significant world events, popular fears, cultural dilemmas, and contemporary artistic movements. His analyses of those intertexts are nuanced, especially the relationship between Bond, popular cinematic movements, and its subsequent manifestations within the series, sidestepping the curbside chit-chat characteristic of the Casino Royale discourse which compared that film with the Bourne series. Furthermore, this intertextual approach also positions Licence to Thrill within genre theory. Bond scholarship has seldom ventured explicitly into the territory of genre theory in a wholly satisfying manner; Chapman encounters these theories in evaluating the expectations engendered by the Bond cycle and its deeper narrative structures, and Chapman succeeds in identifying the varying responses of the Bond films to social, cultural, or political dilemmas.
I recommend Licence to Thrill based on the level of engagement with reception studies alone. Chapman provides a lucid account of the accord, and more often discord, between the critical community and the teeming masses.
One issue prevents me from wholeheartedly endorsing this work. Chapman insists throughout on instituting a faithful/unfaithful binary in regards to adapting the novel to the screen. For Chapman, the critical and popular success of any given Bond film depends in large part on its literal approximation to the announced Fleming original. Of course, this reproduces the longstanding injustice subordinating film and venerating literature in its place. It does not seem possible to Chapman that a Bond film could indeed be better than its source.
And yet, there is much to recommend in Licence to Thrill. While a substantial stylistic analysis of the films is still lacking in Bond scholarship, Chapman opens up the discourse to equally intriguing dimensions of genre theory and reception so far unexplored. So. Should we take James Bond seriously? How could we not?