In 2021, James Bond movie producers released No Time to Die, the twenty-fifth film in the long-running British series. On this occasion, producers opted to end things. This James Bond would not return. Breaking with decades of convention, the producers crafted one of the most spectacular endings in recent film history—and sparked one of the greatest controversies the franchise has ever known.
For many, Bond is a character who exists outside time. In a crowded media scene, that is his calling card. He has been around seemingly forever. He never ages. He never changes. And he never dies.
The climax to No Time to Die changes all that. An aging Bond, played by Daniel Craig, labors atop villain Lyutsifer Safin’s secret lair on an island in the Sea of Japan, physically spent, with crimson creeping down his cheek. Moments earlier, Safin scratched Bond with a glass vile containing deadly nanobots—deadly not for Bond, but for his love Madeleine and their daughter Mathilde. With so much as a gentle touch, he would surely kill them, their bodies devoured from the inside—their innards gnawed to a pulp—by microscopic tech Bond is powerless to deactivate.
Sensing little hope, Bond radios Madeleine and begins to hint at a farewell. Meanwhile, missiles launched from a nearby British carrier crest in the air above him, aimed at Safin’s lair and at Bond. Despite Madeleine’s pleas, he does not race to evade the blast. Worn down and seemingly resigned—a final sacrifice will ensure his family’s safety—007, one of film history’s most iconic men of action, simply says goodbye. Then he stands and waits.
The missiles fall, with the camera catching the distinct, now slightly dim blue eyes of Craig’s character one last time. (Figure 1)
From the instant the film was released, the decision to kill off the series’ hero divided fans. Many embraced No Time to Die’s finality as fitting. How else was Craig’s story to end? His Bond was a Byronic pop culture hero, akin to novelist Ian Fleming’s original version of the character. Kingsley Amis, in his James Bond Dossier (1965), wrote admiringly of this aspect of Fleming’s Bond: he was “lonely, melancholy, of fine natural physique, which has become in some way ravaged, of similarly fine and ravaged countenance, dark and brooding in expression, of a cold or cynical veneer, above all enigmatic.” Such a pop tragic figure is deserving of a sensational, pop tragic end.
Perhaps this is what concerns Bond aficionados the most. With death and the coming rebirth, the Bond of the future just will not be the same.
Other fans were less forgiving, viewing the death of Bond as the ultimate betrayal on the part of the franchise, an insulting concession to the current era of dark heroes with eternally troubled psyches, and as a reversal of almost 70 years of storytelling which, if they have taught us anything, tell us that Bond never quits. Dissatisfaction led to reams of online fan fiction where No Time to Die’s ending was treated as an aberration—at times with facetious defiance and even a sense of pulpy absurdism.
So, is that it? Is the series over? Will it exist now only in the minds of (increasingly disenchanted) fans? Or will Bond return, as the movies have always promised?
The question answers itself. Of course the film series will return. It is just a matter of when—and, more importantly, of how. Producers are likely to reboot the series, to start again from scratch. Craig is not coming back. So, with a reboot comes the guarantee of fundamental change. Someone new will occupy the lead role. And a new world of intrigue and conspiracy will be created for the character to navigate. Perhaps this is what concerns Bond aficionados the most. With death and the coming rebirth, the Bond of the future just will not be the same.
If truth be told, this is precisely what has ensured the franchise’s considerable longevity. It has had many births and rebirths—it has undergone many significant reboots and revisions—since its inception. In 2023, the Bond franchise—an affiliated group of rightsholders and the movies, books, and comics they produce—celebrates its 70th anniversary. Very few franchises, with the exception of the Universal Classic Monsters and Godzilla series (launched in 1931 and 1954, respectively), have enjoyed such a long life in the popular media of film. Like them, the Bond franchise has seen many new beginnings that continually restart the property, that perpetually reset it, and that are bound to do so again when producers release the sequel to No Time to Die.
To commemorate the franchise’s 70th birthday, let us take a closer look at seven of the most important of these Bond beginnings. What lessons we can glean from them? What makes long-running media franchises tick?
001. Fleming purchases Glidrose Productions, Ltd.
To understand the origins of any franchise, look first to rights—who owns the intellectual property, how it is managed, and where the revenue generated from its exploitation is set to flow.
In February 1952, Ian Fleming (1908-1964), a former Naval Intelligence officer and manager of the foreign desk of the Kemsley newspaper group (including The Sunday Times), writes the first in a series of spy novels. He cribs the central character’s name from a 1936 book entitled The Birds of the West Indies. Its author: James Bond. But who the fictional character James Bond would become, what international schemes he would solve, and what kind of life he would lead are not the only matters occupying Fleming’s thoughts. He wants his novels to sell, quickly, and for his young family to reap the financial rewards.
For that, he will need to carefully manage his new property. In September 1952, the United Nations passes the Universal Copyright Convention which decrees that any work which carries the symbol © will retain copyright control in all contracted states. In response to the Convention, Fleming moves swiftly to incorporate himself. He purchases a small theatrical production firm, Glidrose Productions, Ltd., and turns over all rights to his works.
This is where the Bond franchise truly begins. Even before the appearance of the first novel, Bond is fashioned into an intellectual property to be exploited by Fleming and his heirs. Over time, additional parties will stake their claim on Bond, but the legal and financial conditions created with the acquisition of Glidrose prepare the way for all the changes to come—for James Bond to emerge as a valuable commodity to control, market, license, and begin anew in various media.
002. Fleming publishes Casino Royale
“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” This sentence—the opener to the 1953 novel Casino Royale—marks the fictional beginning of James Bond, drawing us into an unsettled but thrilling world of class, exoticism, masculinity, high-stakes wagers, and bodies and passions pushed to extremes. Critic Paul Johnson famously declared that Fleming’s novels reduce to “sex, sadism, and snobbery.” They stitch these lowly enticements—fantasies of sexual violence, prolonged torture of bodies, strains of the spy game (Bond swigs Benzedrine and follows hot showers with a cold rinse to liven his deadening senses)—onto Cold War plots which dramatize political and ideological perils from within and from without. Communist nations and proxies are fashioned into fictional threats to British and Western order. And the presence in our midst of deformities, disabilities, racialized and ethnic “others,” and sexual deviancies are sensationalized as signs of a quiet but escalating corruption of “our” culture, marked in the body. Only White hetero-masculine James Bond 007 stands in their way.
Fleming’s fictional world is designed to shock and titillate. The novels also build a serial narrative that pulls the reader along. Fleming keeps his chapters brief, one hooking firmly into the next; the technique becomes known as the Fleming Sweep. He ends novels by creating anticipation for the sequel. Casino Royale builds to a dangling cause: “Here was a target for him, right to hand. He would take on SMERSH and hunt it down.” All we know is that Bond is about to embark on a course of revenge against SMERSH, the Soviet intelligence agency that drove his first love, Vesper Lynd, to suicide. But how and when will he gain satisfaction? The reader must read on.
Critic Paul Johnson famously declared that Fleming’s novels reduce to “sex, sadism, and snobbery.” They stitch these lowly enticements—fantasies of sexual violence, prolonged torture of bodies, strains of the spy game—onto Cold War plots which dramatize political and ideological perils from within and from without. Communist nations and proxies are fashioned into fictional threats to British and Western order.
Likewise, From Russia, with Love (1957), Fleming’s fifth novel, and one of President John F. Kennedy’s favorite reads, ends with a classic cliffhanger. SMERSH’s Rosa Klebb jabs Bond with a poisoned blade hidden in her shoe. “Bond pivoted slowly on his heel and crashed headlong onto the wine red floor.” Is this the end?
No Time to Die is not the first Bond story to narrate the character’s demise. In fact, Fleming, increasingly weary of the pace of production (he was writing a novel a year), hoped that From Russia, with Love would release him from the taxing creative schedule. But new opportunities were on the horizon. So Bond returned—in more forms than one.
003. Bond is reinvented in comics
From the get-go, Fleming had grand plans. He knew that his books would only sell if he could spread the Bond tale to other media. He wanted movies, but a deal was proving difficult to come by. He turned to television—and licensed American broadcaster CBS to adapt Casino Royale as a live anthology drama in 1954—but the network did not follow through on a proposed series. His licensing strategy only started to pay off when he somewhat reluctantly granted rights to Lord Beaverbrook, owner and publisher of the Daily Express (circulation in 1956: 4 million), to serialize his novels. But Beaverbrook wanted more—an illustrated Bond.
The decision did not come easily. Fleming feared that a daily comic strip would tarnish his creation. Express editor Edward Pickering quelled his concerns, guaranteeing a classy handling and granting Fleming approval over all creative decisions. The deal was struck, and the newspaper strip debuted on July 7, 1958. (Figure 2)
The comic instantly transformed Bond. No longer a literary figure known to a few tens of thousands, he was suddenly a pop culture hero who entertained millions. It was a new beginning, make no mistake. The Daily Express presented Bond as a hardened hero à la Fleming—artist John McLusky gives Bond a firm, Gary Cooper-like visage, with an unruly curled lock of dark hair and a scar below his right eye—but its writers strategically simplified the Fleming stories, playing up their mass audience-friendly cliffhangers and playing down some of the darker politics and psychology of Fleming’s prose.
This softening effect drew more eyes to the property, and to Fleming. Month after month, the Express worked its way through the author’s novels. With each new strip, sales of Fleming’s books, current and past, rose. Five years or so into the franchise, Fleming finally found success, using cross-promotion—a series of comics with titles, characters, and plots that updated his creation—to generate new readers for his literary series.
Fleming keeps his chapters brief, one hooking firmly into the next; the technique becomes known as the Fleming Sweep. He ends novels by creating anticipation for the sequel.
In the mid-1960s, the Express acquired the rights to take its line of comics in a new direction: it would now tell original Bond stories. The comic strip, amazingly, continued its run until 1983, inventing an entirely unique Bond world found in no other medium—different from the Fleming original and from the movies. Speaking of movies …
004. Fleming loses a part of Bond to film producer Kevin McClory
In the late 1950s, Fleming became increasingly desperate. He wanted a movie deal above all. The result? Over the coming years, Fleming took significant risks which, to his chagrin, divided the rights to the Bond property. He lost control over his invention, setting conditions for the continual rebirth of Bond in movies.
One of his earliest film deals signed away long-term rights to Casino Royale to producer George Ratoff and later Charles K. Feldman and Columbia Pictures—but the production stalled, eventually resulting only in a somewhat wonky spoof starring David Niven in 1967. Fleming made several attempts at writing Bond scripts himself, all failures. He finally elected to partner with producer Kevin McClory and screenwriter Jack Whittingham to pen an entirely original screen Bond—one that would redesign his character for the silver screen.
McClory was convinced that film should give James Bond a new face. The novels were “steeped in sadism,” he wrote at the time. Fleming concurred. His stories centered on Bond’s rivalry with Communist Russia, and that would have to go: “It would be unwise to point directly at Russia as the enemy,” he told his new partners. “Since the film will take about two years to produce, and peace might conceivably break out in the meantime, this should be avoided.”
Fleming made several attempts at writing Bond scripts himself, all failures. He finally elected to partner with producer Kevin McClory and screenwriter Jack Whittingham to pen an entirely original screen Bond—one that would redesign his character for the silver screen.
Bond had to be toned down for mainstream filmgoers—sadism replaced with playful action, Cold War politics with colorful international conspiracies. The resulting script, titled “James Bond of the Secret Service,” pitted Bond against an international terrorist group of Fleming’s invention. He called it SPECTRE—initially short for “Special Executive for Terrorism, Revolution, Espionage” and later changed to “Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Revenge, Extortion.” The tensions between Bond and SPECTRE would drive the first film—and if it proved to be a success, an entire series of films.
But by 1961, Fleming was losing confidence in McClory. Sensing that little would come of their project, Fleming returned to writing novels. Working in haste, he based his next book, 1961’s Thunderball, on McClory’s and Whittingham’s screenplay—without their consent. Feeling betrayed, McClory brought a suit against Fleming, and won.
The courtroom loss was a costly one for Fleming, in more ways than one. His health declined precipitately. On August 12, 1964, nine months after the trial, Fleming suffered the last in a series of heart attacks. This one took his life.
What is more, the December 31, 1963 court ruling gave McClory exclusive rights to all film scripts related to Fleming’s Thunderball as well as the right to produce films or television shows based on these materials. It would take time, but McClory finally released his film. Never Say Never Again hit screens on October 7, 1983. Much to McClory’s dismay, it was not the first silver screen Bond.
005. Eon (at last) produces a Bond film series
Despite these many setbacks, Fleming lived long enough to see the fruits of his ambitions: a major film series. The Bond films produced by his new partners, Eon Productions, were huge successes. The third film, 1964’s Goldfinger, and the fourth, 1965’s Thunderball, lit up the global box office, earning $2.37 billion (adjusted) a decade before films like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) are said to have launched the blockbuster era.
On the heels of this success, the British press heralded Fleming as a franchising genius (Figure 3.) The three-digit designation 0-0-7 became iconic, penetrating all of the West and reaching as far as the Middle East, Japan, India, and South America. Sales of Fleming’s novels soared to unprecedented levels. Glidrose and Eon capitalized, signing an exclusive deal with the Licensing Corporation of America (LCA) which earned stakeholders $100 million in sales in 1965-1966 alone—from toys, trading cards, board games, and branded apparel.
Just as Fleming had hoped, the movie series lifted the entire franchise to high profits. But the movies were also another new beginning. When the first Bond film premiered in London on October 10, 1962, filmgoers experienced something entirely different from the literary and comic series. A loose adaptation of Fleming’s 1959 novel of the same name, Dr. No, further softened and “mainstreamed” James Bond. Gone was the hardened figure of Fleming’s stories and the comics, replaced by the effortlessly cool and debonair image of megastar-in-the-making Sean Connery. The movie also depoliticized the fictional world, purging the story of all references to communism. The film’s eponymous villain was instead associated with SPECTRE—just as Fleming had envisioned for the new era of Soviet-Western détente.
A loose adaptation of Fleming’s 1959 novel of the same name, Dr. No, further softened and “mainstreamed” James Bond. Gone was the hardened figure of Fleming’s stories and the comics, replaced by the effortlessly cool and debonair image of megastar-in-the-making Sean Connery. The movie also depoliticized the fictional world, purging the story of all references to communism.
Perhaps most importantly, the film, budgeted at $1.1 million (in 1962 USD), upscaled the Bond property. Using exotic locations; elaborate set pieces; an emphasis on fine dining, fine art, and posh production design; and a script that all but de-psychologizes 007, removing his darker edge, Eon created an A-list icon that fundamentally redefined how filmgoers perceived James Bond. Bond was no longer just a sensational spy. Through movies, he became a lifestyle—an image—to admire, desire, and emulate.
006. Amazon purchases Bond (well, partially)
Two final beginnings bring us up to the present day and shed light on where the property might be headed tomorrow.
In May 2021, tech giant Amazon purchased a stake in the Bond property. It acquired MGM Studios, Inc., and with it, exclusive worldwide distribution rights to the Bond film and television series. Legally, this gives Amazon and its streaming firm, Prime Video, considerable clout. It can now steer the cinematic version of one of the world’s most lucrative media properties.
But Amazon’s control is not absolute. After decades of success, Eon now maintains a firm hold on the franchise. Since the early 2000s, Eon’s parent company Danjaq has been the exclusive international copyright holder of “James Bond” and “007.” In 2013, Danjaq consolidated all of McClory’s Thunderball rights as well. Even Fleming’s Glidrose, now called Ian Fleming Publications, Ltd. (IFP), is required to license elements of the property from Danjaq for its own corner of the franchise, the ongoing literary series.
Though the Bond rights picture is a convoluted one, Amazon’s influence is sure to bring about change. The company’s many divisions—in sales, marketing, and programming—are probably at work as we speak on fresh strategies for reimagining and relaunching 007. Speculation is that Amazon wants to produce a fictional television series based on Bond, which would see 007’s return to the small screen for the first time in decades. For now, Eon seems staunchly committed to its film series, but that, too, is changing. Recently, Eon agreed to collaborate with Prime Video on the production of 007’s Road to a Million, an Amazing Race-style reality show with a “cinematic format” set in the locations of the films where contestants’ intelligence and endurance will be tested.
007’s Road to a Million’s late 2023 release on Prime Video will bring Bond to 240 countries worldwide. Bond is about to enter the streaming age—and a new level of visibility in the global media market. Recent developments in other corners of the franchise suggest that these changes may already be causing some ripples.
007. Fleming gets a makeover
In the wake of the Amazon acquisition, and in celebration of the 70th anniversary of 007, the property’s other parent company, IFP, announced that all of the James Bond books would appear for the first time under IFP’s own imprint. No longer would IFP rely on licensed partners for literary publication. All of Fleming’s 007 releases would be reissued—under IFP’s direct control.
But alongside this increased control, IFP is also facing increased pressure—to change. Its publication strategies increasingly respond to a media scene undergoing a tectonic shift. Properties like Bond cannot just appeal to White men—they must court more women, more young people, and more people of color to remain viable.
In 2022, IFP published the first in a trilogy of novels, Double or Nothing, by Kim Sherwood, only the second woman author ever to write for the Bond literary series. In May 2023, IFP released yet another story, On His Majesty’s Secret Service, by Charlie Higson. Set in 2023, the novel follows Bond’s investigation of a plot to disrupt the coronation of King Charles III. This new 007 lives in a digital world of PowerPoint presentations, algorithms, and, as we read in the novel, secret service “tech heads,” “constantly scouring the Internet, searching for any photographs of Mister James Bond and removing them” to preserve his secret agent status. In numerous ways, IFP is modernizing Bond.
Perhaps IFP’s most controversial decision relates to its plans for the Fleming novels. Like a growing number of literary properties loosely or directly tied to major tech and streaming firms—since 2014, RLJ Entertainment, a subsidiary of AMC Networks, has been partial owner of Agatha Christie Ltd, and since 2021, Netflix has been sole owner of the Roald Dahl Story Company—IFP is giving the original Bond stories a good scrub. IFP announced in February 2023 that new editions of Fleming would remove all words that “would certainly be considered deeply offensive now by the vast majority of readers.” Racist language above all would be excised—especially from Live and Let Die (1954), a novel partially set in Harlem. These redacted versions, IFP claims, will “extend their pleasure to new audiences.”
“Extend their pleasures to new audiences.” That is the goal of any media franchise, is it not? The long-running ones do it well. The Bond franchise, as we have seen, has consistently cultivated new audiences for 70 years. It has done so through a series of new beginnings—relaunches on TV, reimaginings in comics, reboots in film, and makeovers in literature.
This new 007 lives in a digital world of PowerPoint presentations, algorithms, and, as we read in the novel, secret service “tech heads,” “constantly scouring the Internet, searching for any photographs of Mister James Bond and removing them” to preserve his secret agent status. In numerous ways, IFP is modernizing Bond.
A media franchise is an engine of two things: pleasures and profits. Franchises take intellectual property and transform it into mass-produced, widely distributed fictional experiences spread out across media. This spreading, if successful, increases the property’s visibility in the market, produces new readers and viewers, sustains old ones, diversifies the property’s pleasures, and generates multiple revenue streams.
For a franchise to endure, it cannot stand still. It cannot just repeat the same pleasures over and over. Characters like Bond must die (or come close to it) from time to time to keep things fresh. Their worlds must also be softened, updated, upscaled, and remodeled—must perpetually begin anew.
James Bond will return, then—and will continue to do so as long as the franchise poises itself carefully between death and rebirth, and mixes appealing forms of stability with strategic forms of change.