When I did a structure breakdown of Casino Royale, I focused on the single most important technique the writers used to kick that story to a whole new level: they gave Bond a psychological and moral weakness. This element transformed Bond from a super-hero to a human being with exceptional physical abilities. More importantly, it made it possible for James Bond to undergo character change. So the audience got to see Bond succeed on two tracks: the action line and the character line.
Giving the action hero a weakness is a technique brought over from the drama form, which gives us the most subtle and complex depiction of character of all story forms.
Combining character flaw with the myth-action hero is also the main technique writers have used in the last decade to reboot the big story franchises. We’ve seen it in the Batman films, Star Trek, the Bourne films and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
In Skyfall, the writers have pushed the strategy of applying drama techniques to the myth-action forms even further. But because of problems in execution, the cost is high. I would go so far as to say that this is not James Bond.
As in Casino Royale, the Skyfall writers begin by establishing some severe weaknesses for Bond. But instead of a coldness and arrogance that gets women killed, this Bond is getting old. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bond has to face the fact that he may be over the hill. Notice this causes Bond some psychological problems as he begins to question himself and what he does, but it is not a moral problem.
For this actor, it’s also not very believable. Daniel Craig may not be in his 20s, but he is one buff dude, as the opening action scene ably shows. Yes, he takes a bullet, but he survives a horrendous fall that’s right out of Sherlock Holmes and the Reichenbach Falls.
In classic myth fashion, Bond is forced to undergo a series of physical tests before he can rejoin MI6. He fails these tests, which highlights the fact that he is over the hill. But again, it’s not believable, because as soon as he has to face a real test he is his old Bond self.
Once Bond is back in the fight, the story shifts to its real focus, whether to replace M with Gareth Mallory, played by Ralph Fiennes. This is the second technique the writers take from drama. Where in the past M was just a rarely seen ally, now she is front and center and provides personal conflict with Bond. The two have been in conflict before, but it’s been mostly M trying to keep the reins on the roguish Bond. And the intimacy between the two is sprung on the audience for the first time in this film. Though Judi Dench tries mightily to make it real, you can’t make the audience feel something that hasn’t been set up in the story.
Notice also that she, not Bond, is given the moral problem of the story. Bond questions whether she should have sacrificed him in the opening scene for the mission. The question goes to the heart of what M does as the boss of MI6, and it is also the reason for the main opponent’s attack.
The main opponent, Silva, represents the third technique from drama. Unlike the typical Bond villain out to control the world, Silva’s goal is personal, to destroy M. Like Bond, Silva is an ex-agent whom M sacrificed for the good of the mission. On the plus side, this makes Silva a human opponent and gives us intimate and personal conflict.
But Silva doesn’t quite work as an effective opponent. And I’m not just talking about the fact that the actor, Javier Bardem, is made to look and sound like a hairdresser. Once again, because Silva is introduced for the first time in this film, and has relatively little screen time, the intimacy of the conflict between him and M feels manufactured.
There’s also a high cost of making such an intimate opponent, which again comes from pushing myth-action toward drama. Silva doesn’t feel dangerous. This guy may be a very smart ex-agent, but the idea that he can slip out of a maximum-security prison, destroy MI6 and take out the British Parliament is laughable.
Now let me be clear. Absurdity is part of the action genre. When we put the audience within a strictly action world, we allow the characters to operate within a looser set of rules of believability. The normal James Bond can chase a guy while riding a motorcycle on the rooftops. But as soon as you push into the everyday reality of drama, you have to be much more strict about the believability of the characters’ actions.
Which brings us to the final major dramatic technique the writers use in Skyfall, and the one that is most at odds with the action form. After Silva’s attempt on M’s life, Bond takes her to his childhood home in Scotland. Here we learn Bond’s ghost, in which both his parents died and he emerged the cold, emotionless man who became James Bond, efficient killer.
The question immediately arises: what is the value of this information for this story? Finding out that Bond is an orphan doesn’t make any difference to how this story plays out (let’s not even mention the fact that Bond hasn’t the slightest trace of a Scottish brogue). Yes, the Wuthering Heights house on the barren moors is a physical expression of the coldness in Bond’s heart. But so what?
The cost of making this fake trip back in time is immense, because this is where the final battle will occur. And the battle is the single most important structure step in an action film. I mentioned that pushing into drama makes the rules of believability much stricter, and this battle is truly absurd. But this is a James Bond film. So maybe we let that slide.
But what a battle cannot be in an action film, especially a Bond film, is stupid. Part of the action hero’s, and Bond’s, very identity is tactical and strategic brilliance. So what does Bond do? He takes M, an old woman, to a country estate in the middle of nowhere where he plans to defeat about twenty heavily armed men with absolutely no back-up, and armed with only a pistol and a shotgun. That should work.
The mechanics of this story choice come right to the surface as we see that all this has been designed to give Bond and M one great moment together. But the fact that we’ve never seen either of these cold people be personal with each other until now, coupled with the absurdity required to get here, makes this moment hollow.
Connecting drama techniques with genre is the primary strategy a writer must use to transcend the genre. It worked beautifully in Casino Royale. But you have to be acutely aware of the costs of trying to bring these opposite story forms together. I realize I may be making a big to-do about nothing, given the success of this film with critics and audiences alike. But you don’t have the luxury of writing the latest script in the most popular story franchise of the 20th century.
One last thing: why do I seem to be the only person in the world troubled by the fact that Voldemort is now the head of MI6?