John le Carré’s novels and their adaptations have been in dialogue with Ian Fleming’s James Bond books and films ever since le Carré and Fleming began writing in the 1950s. Both authors drew from their respective careers in British intelligence, though to different effect. For decades, their fiction has lived at opposite poles of the imagined spy world. Le Carré’s stories are grounded in a tragic realism; the Bond films, in escapist fantasy. But in 2006 when Daniel Craig became the latest actor to take over the James Bond role, he introduced into Bond’s narrative bones tragedy and reflection on real world events. Ever since, James Bond has evoked le Carré.
It is ironic that Craig’s last performance as Bond in the franchise’s most recent film, No Time to Die, and le Carré’s last finished novel since his death in 2020, Silverview, were released in early October within a week of each other. Both Silverview and No Time to Die come with the emotional baggage of ending narrative eras—Silverview was an unpublished manuscript that le Carré’s son uncovered after his father’s death. But while the plot twists of Silverview are standard fare for le Carré—moles in the intelligence service; betrayed families; a bittersweet ending elevating core principles above national loyalty—those within No Time to Die are exceptionally unconventional for a James Bond film. These themes even converge with the former not just in tone, but also in the telling of British bureaucratic mistakes and sins, the battering of families by global events, and aptly—reflections on time and finality. Two years in to a global pandemic, with record low levels of trust in governments and institutions, bureaucratic ineptitude daily visible on an international scale, and increasing prominence of politics in private life, we might wonder whether the Bond franchise’s move toward the world of le Carré is a symptom of our times, or more a reminder of why themes of family, love, courage, and honor persist in dark times. Either way, the public appetite for mature themes in popular entertainment is crystal clear, considering that No Time to Die is the highest grossing film produced by Hollywood this year.
If you do plan on embracing the surprises of the latest Bond film, please do not read any further and simply view it first—there are spoilers ahead.
As the ending note of Daniel Craig’s five film arc as James Bond, No Time to Die not only labors at tying together the overabundance of plot across his particular several films, but also to give a fitting finale to a beloved, iconic British character. The stakes are high: Bond’s intertwining with British nationalism is so extreme that not only has everything in the movies from parachutes to hot air balloons been emblazoned with the Union Jack, but also, in a memorable scene of the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony, Queen Elizabeth herself “parachuted” into the Olympic stadium alongside James Bond (Daniel Craig, in character) synchronized to the character’s famous theme song.
Whereas the glitz and glamor of Bond have always been meant to reflect a certain aspiration (at the least) of British life, the novels of le Carré have always been infused with the actual anti-glamor of post-WWII England. The realism is demonstrated in everything from dowdy protagonists, most famously George Smiley, to a British Intelligence Service that is constantly falling victim to leaks. Le Carré’s British government is a far cry from the MI6 of the Bond films that is constantly saving the world. However, the conflicts within both No Time to Die and Silverview find relevance in depicting the mistakes and overreach of the British government.
British intelligence services in both works consider implementing campaigns of state sponsored assassination, due to a fear of unforeseen threats as much as to the challenge of pursuing covert action in a world of greater oversight. The stakes of these mistakes are vastly different in the two works. In the Bond film, humanity’s fate ends up in the balance; in the le Carré novel, a broken family is the main result. This skepticism of authority and injection of current events has been a hallmark of le Carré’s work. It is relatively new for the Bond series.
In contrast to the madmen of the earlier Bond films who control fantastic weapons of mass destruction, Daniel Craig’s Bond films have focused on the conflict between principled public servants and corrupt systems. The villains’ plots during the Craig era have included financing terrorism, extorting water rights in developing nations, and manipulating a mass surveillance state. Throughout these conflicts, Bond and his allies have also had to combat the passivity or active collusion of the British government. It is debatable whether audiences right now are in greater need of escapism or a mirror to our own challenges, but No Time to Die arguably does the best job out of all the Craig Bond films in blending classic Bond plot elements (including a farfetched science fiction threat) with contemporary anxieties.
Silverview is told through the alternating perspectives of a British counterintelligence operative and a young bookstore owner in a small British vacation town. Their experiences are used to relate the story of the book’s actual protagonist—the character who le Carré clearly associates with—a retired British intelligence operative named Edward Avon. Avon spies on his strategist wife’s top-secret intelligence work, and shares information with nebulous contacts in the Middle East. Avon’s motivations are rooted in a sense of disgust at allied government passivity in the face of genocide during his time serving undercover during the 1990s Balkan conflicts. He is depicted alternately as a savvy idealogue or as a sincere buffoon who is in over his head. In an abrupt ending, Avon ultimately escapes the counterintelligence investigation closing in on him, with the help of his daughter and the bookseller. While le Carré earlier novels often ended in cynical tragedy, Avon’s escape shows the author’s sympathies lying with those who betray all they know, even if they come off as fools in the process. Whereas le Carré’s earlier reoccurring protagonist Smiley hunted down the traitors to England, Avon is depicted as a hero because he betrays England.
For almost their entire run, Bond films have existed in an eternal present with no lovers and few friends continuing from movie to movie. The mission is all that exists in the stories. Le Carré’s novels, meanwhile, have been deeply infused with the past, often consisting of book length investigations into old intelligence operations or serving as meditations on family legacy. Le Carré’s plots serve his characters.
Unexpectedly, James Bond has a family in No Time to Die, including a daughter and a sincere romantic love. Avon’s closest relationship in Silverview is with his daughter and a surrogate son. Ultimately, Bond’s familial bliss is short lived because incompatible with the callings of service. For Avon, his marriage has always been a shell, and his dying wife ultimately refers him to investigators with the unknowing complicity of his daughter. Despite globetrotting plot accoutrements, high stakes, and mystery, the greatest moments of drama in each work derives from the conflicting pulls of family, service, and patriotism.
James Bond dies at the end of No Time to Die. After saving the world, as the character has done across many storylines, reality finally catches up with him: Bond is fatally shot. He then sacrifices himself to protect his family, being blown up along with the villain’s lair. For the film franchise that invented the trope of a hero escaping threats and saving the world to the pace of a counting clock, its main protagonist’s death comes as a shock. However, by finally allowing the character to have a noble ending, No Time to Die achieves a level of narrative stakes and cohesiveness that past Bond stories have avoided. It highlights Bond’s heroism not just through his talent as an “action movie hero” but also through his sacrifice for his family. This seems a fitting close to Daniel Craig’s arc as James Bond: Since Craig took on the role in 2006’s Casino Royale, the film series has repositioned the character to be more realistic, and to reflect better the grounded tenor of pop culture following 9/11. Bond’s character has repeatedly been wounded, and has bled, been heartbroken, washed-up, betrayed, and even mourned. In this film, Bond moves beyond being just an aspirational archetype to finally being a fully relatable hero, because he displays a courage that we all must eventually summon—courage in the face of certain death.
If le Carré had published Silverview before he died, it would be viewed as one of his minor works. In comparison to other of his past books, the characters are thin. However, even a lesser le Carré novel arguably carries more humanity than most contemporary fiction. When viewed alongside his previous two final novels, A Legacy of Spies and Agent Running in the Field, (which also focus on legacy and the passing of generations), the three stories take on greater value as a semi-epitaph. In each of the three works, old men make sacrifices and entrust the next generation with values-driven battles that are even more challenging than those of the Cold War. Each of the protagonists may have only a limited lifespan remaining to them, but they use it wisely in the name of what they believe in and whom they care for. The same can be said of John le Carré, whose moral voice endured via his prose and public activism through his last days.
Following James Bond’s death in No Time to Die, his colleagues toast him with a Jack London quote: “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” John le Carré certainly used his time, transforming literature and embracing a role as both an entertaining storyteller and a conscience for western liberalism for over fifty years. As for James Bond, as they have done since the initial film in 1962, the credits for No Time to Die end with the words, “James Bond will return.”
Hopefully, whatever shape the character takes going forward will retain the relevance and humanity that le Carré introduced into spy fiction and that Daniel Craig’s James Bond adopted.
Mike Fox, co-chair of American Purpose’s Circle of Friends, is a foreign policy and politics professional with experience in the U.S. government, NGO sector, and electoral politics focusing on impact investing and human rights.
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