One of the big stories in the news this past week has been the leaked Sony emails. Among this leaked info has been the idea that actor Idris Elba has been suggested as a candidate to someday play the part of James Bond. This has caused a lot of differing opinions in various places online, including some controversial statements regarding Elba’s race, among other things.
As a writer of spy novels, and a lifelong fan of the Bond novels and films, I thought I’d chime in and offer my view on the subject.
So, the question is, should Idris Elba be cast in the role of James Bond?
My answer is no, but the answer has nothing to do with the color of Elba’s skin.
Do I think Idris Elba is capable of playing Bond? Absolutely. At least if we’re talking about one version of Bond.
Let me explain that last statement.
James Bond has always been among my favorite fictional characters. He’s right up there on the list along with Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Captain Kirk, Batman, and Indiana Jones. But Bond is different from all those others. 007, you see, would probably appear twice on the list if there really was an official list. Yes, sometimes you do live twice. I love the literary Bond, and I love the cinematic Bond, and those two are no longer really the same character.
Ian Fleming’s Bond novels were all written in the 1950s and 60s. That Bond is a World War II veteran turned British agent, very much a Cold War character. The movies, however, really only featured Fleming’s Bond for the first fifth or so of the film franchise’s history. The early Sean Connery movies came pretty damn close to being faithful adaptations of the books. But then, something changed. James Bond became a cinematic archetype and began to adapt and change according to the time in which each individual movie was produced. The Bond of the Roger Moore era was very different than that of Connery (and George Lazenby), and he underwent yet another metamorphosis when Timothy Dalton (the great, underrated, truly awesome Bond) took over the role, and shifted personality and attitude again when the part fell to Pierce Brosnan. Then, in the early 2000s, the current Bond, Daniel Craig, started his term of office and the series underwent a complete reboot, starting over with a fresh continuity. So we have, on one hand, the set-in-stone original James Bond, loved by those who have read the novels, and forever preserved in words as his creator, Ian Fleming, intended. And then, on the other hand, we have the cultural phenomena of the Bond film franchise, experienced by far more people than have ever read the books, immensely successful for half a century, and capable of adapting to the changing times without losing (most of the time) the essential elements of what made the character so popular to begin with.
I happen to be a big fan of the novels’ James Bond, and also of the movies’ Bond, and, honestly, I’m unwilling to commit to liking one more than the other.
Now here’s the key to the question of whether or not Idris Elba could play James Bond. If we were talking about straight adaptations of Fleming’s novels, period pieces set in the 50s and 60s, there’s no way Elba could portray the character. The social and political conditions of the world at that time would not have made it possible for a black man to do the things that Bond had to do in those books. In that time, his interactions with the other characters would have been totally altered by his race. He could not have gone to the same places, dealt with situations in the same way, or done his job the same way a white agent could have. Sad, perhaps, but history nonetheless.
But we’re not talking about the Bond movies being period pieces. They never really have been and they probably never will be again, which is fine, because, as I said earlier, Movie Bond is not Book Bond. He’s grown into something else, a franchise of his own. And the world now is different than it was in the 50s and 60s, in mostly good ways. Could a man with the skills to be a competent British secret agent do his job well in the 21st century regardless of whether he’s a black Englishman or a white Englishman? Yes.
I think Idris Elba would make a fantastic James Bond. He’s an amazing actor. I’ve binge-watched all of LUTHER and enjoyed everything else I’ve seen Elba in and I think he’s one of the best actors working today. I don’t care what color he is, I can absolutely imagine him walking into M’s office after a quick, “Hello, Moneypenny,” and standing in front of his supervisor listening to the details of his latest mission while inserting the occasional wisecrack into the conversation, then flying off to some exotic city to face a nasty megalomaniac villain, seduce a few beautiful women, and fire a few dozen rounds of ammunition and cause a handful of explosions before the movie ends.
So why, then, did I just say I don’t think Idris Elba should be cast as Bond?
It’s simple. The clock is ticking and it can’t be reversed.
The next Bond movie, SPECTRE, is being made right now. It’s not coming out for a year. From everything I’ve heard or read, Daniel Craig is going to do at least one more after that. That will take three years. If Craig quit after that one and another actor (hypothetically, Idris Elba) was cast in the part, it would probably be three more years before that actor’s first Bond movie was released. So, best case scenario, we’re talking about 7 years before we’d see Idris Elba acquire his license to kill.
Elba is 42 right now. In 7 years he’ll be 49. Do the math. He’d be pushing 50 when he became Bond. Sorry, but that just doesn’t work.
How old should James Bond be? Old enough, I think, to have been a military officer, lived some life, gained some scars, and learned how to best use his specific skills, yet young enough to be physically capable of the dangerous grind of risking his life over and over again (not to mention “keeping the British end up,” as Roger Moore quipped in one of his finer moments). His is not an easy or safe job. Maturity and fitness is the necessary combination to make a successful Double-O agent. I’d say that means at least in his thirties but not far past fifty. With that in mind, thinking of the actors who have portrayed Bond, we have this: Connery and Craig both started in their thirties. Dalton and Brosnan were in their early forties. Roger Moore, the latest starter, was 45 (and stayed too long, into his late fifties). Brosnan left the role at 50. Connery came back for one last movie at 53, but the story included the theme of him being an older agent who had to prove he still had what it took to do his job. An actor still playing Bond at 49 is okay if he can still make it work, but 49 is no age to do your first Bond movie. I don’t want a talented actor who would be so good in the part just coming into it when he’s on the edge of being too old for it.
I also don’t want to wait those 7 years now that I’ve had to think about Elba in such a role!
So I say we forget him as Bond and come up with something better than sitting around waiting for the Daniel Craig era to end so Elba can take his place behind the wheel of the Astin-Martin, because thinking that way is an insult to both actors.
Hollywood, if you’re listening, let Idris Elba have his own espionage/action franchise now. I mean, right now, while he’s in his prime and at the peak of his career and the height of his popularity. If it’s written right, it’ll be as good as Bond. Maybe it will be better than Bond. And there’s no reason we can’t have multiple successful spy franchises running at the same time. Bond is not the only spy in town, and hasn’t been for a long time. We’ve got Mission: Impossible, the Bourne Franchise, and Liam Neeson’s TAKEN movies, all of which are very, very successful.
So, no, I don’t think Idris Ebla should play James Bond. He’d be great, but the timing’s not good. He’s the right age now, but somebody else is standing in the famous gun barrel at the moment. So, rather than wait for a chance that may or may not come half a decade or more down the road, somebody please give this fine actor his own spy game to play? I’m pretty sure he’ll win.
And if anyone reading this wants to check out my take on the spy genre, here’s a link to my novel NOBODY DIES FOR FREE.