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Could James Bond Be Black? - How To Make Your Drunk Uncle Shut Up Using Adaptation Theory

7 December 2018

… Also works with racist tweets.

You can read this article on Medium too.

In case you live under a rock — or more exactly: under a rock lost at the bottom of an uncharted cave in a galaxy far far away — yes, there is a debate on whether or not James Bond could be played by a Black actor, namely: Idris Elba. People are at each others’ throat on Twitter everytime the subject comes up, with on the right side: the “non-racists” who want a Black James Bond — because… Well, why not?—and on the wrong side, the “He is a cultural figure that can’t be changed” team. It almost feels like there’s a war coming and I’m the only one who can stop it, using my top-notch Adaptation Theory knowledge and my licence to write… Ha ha. Lame.

At this rate, we have no idea if it will ever happen. Every time things seem to get real, like with this tweet from the actor himself:

Some producer pops up out of nowhere to calm things down, almost like a “Don’t worry James Bond will stay white” said to the racist audience.

Oh cause yes, racism does play an important role in this whole story, but I will try to leave that aside and focus only on Adaptation Theory as much as possible.

So. Very often, when people go see a movie that’s based on a book, they complain about how it changed some parts of said book. Just look at Harry Potter for example. The problem is that when you start arguing about an adaptation’s “fidelity” to the “original” you’re implying that an adaptation SHOULD BE faithful to the original AND that there is an original. Let me explain.

I’ll start with the notion of “original”, an ancient myth that just won’t die. According to the legend, an original creation is supposed to be made out of thin air by an artist that would create without being influenced by any other work. I call that the Deified Artist.

Besides God, this ability to create stuff from nothing, to make a stew with no ingredient, is usually attributed to writers of “The Literary Canon” who wrote what’s called “The classics”. I call them “The Dead Guys”. Cause yes, if we assume that any artist can create an “original” then I truly wonder why, for some reason, the works we consider as such are mostly stuff written by people who’ve died hundreds of years ago. The theory is very optimistic, as it grants artists a superhuman strength, but the outcome is very pessimistic, saying that nobody can do that anymore. “Real” creation seems to have disappeared a while ago according to this, or at least heavily slowed down.

But that theory is garbage. Like, objectively… Here’s why.

One of the main “dead writers”, who wrote most of the classic-er of “the classics” is undoubtedly Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello… Blabla. These are the keystones of British Literature, which they represent in the eye of Brits themselves but even for the whole world. Romeo and Juliet is obviously the most popular one and just like James Bond, it has been adapted a LOT in novels and all kinds of movies. Also, just like James Bond, some people seem to worship these fictional characters . In Shakespeare’s case, there’s even a word for it: Bardolatry, AKA “the idolatry or excessive admiration of William Shakespeare”. These literature hooligans are the first ones to react when a new movie is released, arguing that whatever tiny element is not “faithful” to the “original” just to prove their knowledge of the play, quite similarly to James Bond’s fans, or super-hero heads.

But here’s the thing: Romeo and Juliet IS AN ADAPTATION !!!

The famous British drama is actually very similar to an old italian poem that was translated by Arthur Brooke and published in 1562 — Shakespeare’s version only came out in 1597 — and by “very similar” I actually mean “almost identical”. In fact the title speaks for itself: The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. Yes, I’m serious. The only way Shakespeare could have made it more suspicious would be if he had called his play “Romeo and Juliet: A not-Italian story”. Anyway. The story is almost the same and only a few elements have been changed by The Bard, but it would too long to detail. So you can either fact-check that here or just take my word.

There are no “original” creation.Ever.

All of them are inspired by others, and some scholars even consider that there is only ONE story, that writers keep modifying and adaptating to their world and era. Romeo and Juliet is nothing but an old Italian poem adapted into a play for the British audience by a writer who needed to fill his theater. The Death of the Author was announced in 1967 by Roland Barthes, so why do we still worship the classics and hate on adaptations? Their fidelity to previous texts makes no sense, especially when you see that Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet ending was criticized for not being “faithful” to Shakespeare’s book, but it is actually closer to the Italian version’s ending, which seems like the “original”. Luhrmann is more faithful to the story than Shakespeare, and at least he admits his work is an adaptation without taking all the credit for himself.

To me, the real question should be: what exactly are we adapting?

Let’s face it: Romeo and Juliet, just like James Bond, are known by most of us only thanks to previous movie adaptations. And in both cases, these movies have such a strong identity that they have created their own genres: The Teen-Shakespeare movies, and the James Bond movies. For this reason, when we go see a James Bond movie, we expect to see some James Bond movie stereotypes. We want big explosions, gun fights in slow-motion… And spoiler alert: there’s no slow-mo in a novel. So when a James Bond movie comes out, it’s actually an adaptation of the book as much as an adaptation of the previous movies, meaning that said movies exist on their own. They’re based off books, yes, but they are completely independent. They’re grown-ups. So even if we assumed that questioning fidelity made sense — which is not the case — linking movies to books still doesn’t work ! They’re different types of James Bonds, played by different guys, in stories written by different writing teams… The books have influenced the movies as much as William Turner influenced Claude Monet… And Monet did start an art movement almost on his own. So if the esthetics of the story can be modified in movies, why not the actors? I mean we have had quite a few already… So why not Idris Elba?

That’s the first argument people used on Twitter: fidelity to books I doubt we’ve all read. Now the second argument I saw a lot was that James Bond’s character itself was based on Ian Fleming’s own life, from him being a spy, to Bond’s own taste. That is very true. It make his work very peculiar… But that’s where it stops. It does not make it more logical to have a white actor portray the hero. Or more exactly: it does, if you assume that white people are all the same, which is both racist and self-discriminatory, somehow. I mean in that case I could play Bond too, even with my super heavy French accent, right? If not, then why would Daniel Craig be allowed to more than me? How is he more similar to Fleming? Was he a spy too? No! And that’s fine. That’s my point. Pretending you’re someone else is the exact definition of the word “actor”.

In a Twitter fight, this second step is usually the moment your opponents start losing their calm, throw a few insults, and show you their real problem in an almost desperate last attempt to convince you:

“BUT IDRIS ELBA IS BLAAaaaAaaAaACK!!”

Needless to say that argument didn’t work on me, but I did find interesting the miseducated honesty that lies in such a message. Why? Well because it’s the heart of all the arguments mentionned above. They’re only formed to justify an underlying racism. Yeah, racist people usually don’t know they’re racist… And they’re right on one point: there’s no real reason to have a black James Bond—besides a form progress in the movie industry. But there also isn’t a reason NOT TO have a black James Bond. So why getting so mad over it?

Because James Bond symbolizes British culture and British people, in a way. That’s why many don’t want him to change, but actually… It’s exactly why it SHOULD. I get that symbols are hard to change, that it might be scary for some, but everything needs to be put in context. If James Bond is becoming way less sexist than he used to be—which was socially acceptable when Fleming created this saga — then why not adapting it to the era even more?

You see, James Bond adaptations are mostly time-related. They just bring the hero into a world that echoes ours. Recently, we have seen the themes of terrorism and inside threats get the upper hand on the former war-time context which is to me a far bigger change than the color of the actor. So if you’re ready to accept the first why is the second so crazy? I mean, if you adapt the book to our era, then you must adapt race too, and a black James Bond would represent the UK just as well as a white one. I’m a French guy who just spent a year in the UK, so I can tell you these two things:

  1. Yes there are black people in the UK who ARE British.
  2. Here are a few examples of people I think of when I think about the UK as a foreigner: their Queen , Skepta, Richard Branson, Jamal Edwards and Benedict Cumberbatch. Two of them are black.

British does not mean white.

Yeah, British people are not only white anymore, despite Trevor Noah’s joke on the matter, a black person in Britain wouldn’t be shocking at all. In fact, being multicultural IS what makes London or Leicester so amazing to live in. It has become part of the British identity now, whether racist people like it or not.

“No but it’s not about the color, the problem is changing the color of a literary hero everybody knows about ! It would be the same the other way around”

This is essentially the last argument I heard, telling me that no, people aren’t racist, it’s the fact that colors are changing that’s a problem… But it would be the same if a black character became white. Well bad news: that would also be racist, for the same reasons. But such debates don’t exist, cause discriminations are very rare that way, and more importantly: they have no consequences given that white people still hold the power positions in our racist society—which is why reverse racism is bullshit by the way. Discrimination and racism are different. Anyway.

Ever read Wuthering Heights? You know, the main character’s named Heathcliff? Well if you haven’t read it, it doesn’t matter. Just know that this main character has always been portrayed as white in movies and illustrations until 2011. Only problem: The book clearly describes his skin as “dark” numerous times, and links his arrival in the UK to slave trade. You can see more on this here, and search for the symbolism behind the gifts the father brings at the beginning of the story. So yeah, the character is definitely black, but the actors were white. Did that shock anybody? No dice. In fact, when Andrea Arnold decided to make a more accurate depiction of the story in 2011, starring a black Heathcliff, everybody seemed flabbergasted. As if the UK discovered their hero did not only have dark thoughts, but also skin—confirming that movie adaptations can influence our understanding of a story more than the works that inspired them. Just sayin’.

Neeeeext !

The argument is thus void, and proves that color matters only when the character is supposed to be white.

So yeah. To be honest, I get the fact that people want a British James Bond. Although we could imagine having an actor that’s not from the UK who would imitate the accent, I sort of understand that the public wants to see a British one. Not because it makes sense, but because of the affection of Brits for their hero. But his color? I mean, his colour?* It does not matter to me. I wish it didn’t matter to anyone. All I want is a dope-ass seductive British spy saving the world. Black or not. And Elba is British AF by the way.

I honestly can’t think of anybody who would make a better James Bond than Idris Elba… And yet it might not happen for a while. You know what, I think I kind of have found a reason to pick a black actor for the next movie: pissing off racists all over the world.

Most of what I used in this article was taught to me by Dr Hila Shachar from De Montfort University, and Ms Dominique Smith from Université du Havre… And since I’m no Shakespeare I always share my sources. 😉

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