Like millions of other people, I’m a big James Bond fan. Seen all the movies. Read all the books.
Ian Fleming, the author who created James Bond, wrote his stories during the height of the Cold War. Sadly, Fleming died just a few months before the first Bond movie, Dr. No, premiered in 1962. For the first two decades of the franchise’s existence the movies were largely based on Fleming’s work. But by the time Pierce Brosnan took over the Bond role there were no more original Ian Fleming stories to work with.
Bond is the original action hero. Whether or not you’re a fan, it is indisputable that the films set the standard for action thrillers and book adaptations. More importantly, the Bond franchise was an early forerunner of what is now the predominant trend in the content business – relentlessly mining established intellectual property to please audiences.
Marvel, Star Wars, Mission Impossible, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, Rocky, Jack Ryan – the list is endless. Hell, Peacock just launched a remake of Night Court.
The trend extends beyond movies and into books. Publishers continue to pump out books from Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler and Robert Ludlum even though all three authors are dead. Thankfully the people who control Agatha Christie’s literary estate haven’t allowed someone to ghost write new Hercule Poirot stories.
Given the massive tectonic shifts in the business during the past twenty years it’s hard to argue with this strategy. It’s a lot safer and easier to work with material that fans already know and love than try to introduce something new.
The classics became classics for a reason. Nobody did spy stories better than Fleming. Nobody did intergalactic space sagas better than George Lucas. Nobody did superhero stories better than the people at Marvel and DC Comics. This is a matter of taste, of course. You may not like any of the examples I mentioned, but in terms of cultural and economic impact there is no disputing that these creators were on another level.
However, I worry that the decision makers at the studios and publishing houses that continue to lean into these old franchises are robbing us of the chance to experience something new. There are only so many books and movies that can be pushed out to the culture each year. Every time an executive passes on a new idea to make the ninth installment of an existing franchise an opportunity for discovery is lost.
Moreover, I think history demonstrates that the quality and value of the IP is inextricably linked to its creator. The new Jack Ryan movies bear little resemblance to Tom Clancy’s original work. Read “The Hunt for Red October” and then watch Amazon’s most recent installment of Jack Ryan and you will see what I mean. The same can be said for Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel, the most expensive television series in history. Not to just pick on Amazon, there’s a growing consensus that Disney’s rush to feed streaming audiences with endless Marvel and Star Wars content is damaging both franchises.
There are exceptions. The Daniel Craig series of Bond films were by and large terrific. But in general, I think studios and publishers could better serve the public if they stopped looking to the past so often for ideas.
Such behavior is not only lazy, but cowardly. No great work of art was created without risk. To work in creative driven businesses like movie/television production or publishing is a privilege. With that privilege, at least in my mind, comes a responsibility or willingness to support and encourage artists who take risks. Pumping out watered down or stale versions of existing IP sends the opposite signal to the creative community – risk taking is not welcome here. Our culture is diminished as a result.
I will continue to watch and enjoy the classics. Nothing beats watching a good Bond flick on winter evening when you’re reclining by warm fire and sipping your drink of choice. But I hope this recycling trend abates and more new content gets a chance to find an audience. To quote the Bond song that inspired the title for this blog, it would be great to experience something new that makes me wonder, just like the first time I read Fleming and watched From Russia With Love, “how did you learn to be so good.”