James Bond vs. Jason Bourne: Peter Pan vs. Grown-up?

Daniel Craig as James Bond with Eva Green and Caterina Murino
Bond Keeps an Ambitious Datebook for an Octogenarian.
Let me run this idea past you. I’m going to start a movie franchise based on a spy hero played by a man in his early thirties. I’m then going to produce a few more films based on the same character over the next six or seven years, then change the central actor and do a few more. By the time we get to 22 films, it will be 46 years from now and the original actor will be in his 80s. Our hero, by contrast, will still be out there all guns blazing, and still–miraculously–no more than 45.

Unrealistic? Unbelievable? Absolutely. But that’s exactly what’s happened with Ian Fleming’s James Bond in the five decades since Sean Connery first said those three magic words in Dr No. The question is, why do we all go along with it? Quantum of Solace grossed over $500m at the box office across the world, and the concept doesn’t show any signs of dying another day.

Bond Skiing From Explosion in The World is Not Enough/ The Everett Collection
Bond Skiing From Explosion in The World is Not Enough/ The Everett Collection
So the question is why? Why do we still fall for a format that stretches the willing suspension of disbelief to breaking point and well beyond? The easy answer to the question is that it’s escapism, pure and simple. Fast cars and even faster women for the men in the audience, and for the women, a well fit and well-kitted-out bad-boy of a hero who obligingly sheds a good deal of that kit in the course of the following three hours. If Bond the man is good with gadgets, Bond the franchise is equally good at pressing all our buttons. In fact every film is an elaborate if rather obvious sequence of wish-fulfilment fantasies, all set under exotic foreign skies with plenty of sun, sex, and spectacular car/powerboat/helicopter/ski-slope chases.

I buy all that. Or rather, I did.

I can see how audiences in the sixties would have been literally and metaphorically blown away by the first few films. I’m sure most people had barely even heard of most of those exotic places back then, never mind visited one of them, and a lot of them probably thought that spook life really was rather like 007’s daily grind of cars, cocktails and casual coupling. But now?  Does anyone really think that the people running MI6 are known by letters of the alphabet? Does anyone really believe a secret service operative would go about the world announcing his real name to every Tom, Dick and Blofeld who asks for it? And – even more to the point – does anyone really think that Britain really wields that much influence in international geopolitics these days? (aside from us Brits, of course).

Roger Moore as James Bond from Moonraker
Roger Moore as James Bond from Moonraker: Can’t get any more escapist than outer space!
Much as I love Bond – and I do – I confess the template is looking a mite tired these days. Even the best Bond films always descended into farce in the last reel, as our hero homed in on the latest megalomaniac bent on world domination, holed up in his hopelessly ostentatious ‘secret’ HQ (every one of them construction projects at least as large as the London Olympic stadium, and just as laughably impossible to conceal).   But we accepted it – thirty minutes of farcical fireworks was the price you paid for the fun – and wit – that came before. But now the films are trying to incorporate more realistic modern menaces like terrorism, drugs, and energy security, but these contemporary issues sit rather oddly with a set-up that’s saddled its hero with a rather old-fashioned attitude to women (to put it kindly), and a contract that seems to require him to appear at least once in every film in a dinner jacket and black tie.

After a number of high-profile pre-production difficulties, ‘Bond 23’ looks set to hit our cinemas in late 2012, but a small part of me wonders whether those much-rumoured problems might not be a symptom of a rather deeper uncertainty with the whole 007 series. Dare I say that Bourne beats Bond on almost all fronts these days?

Matt Damon as Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne
No super-cool Bond, Matt Damon as Jason Bourne sweats in the scrum.

Based upon the Bourne series of thrillers by Robert Ludlum, the action sequences are crunchingly believable, and the plots build to heart-pounding, rather than cringe-making, conclusions.  And while Matt Damon is every bit as compelling on-screen as Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan, you can’t imagine him ordering a martini—and being fussy about how it’s made—any more than you could see him driving an invisible car. Jason Bourne may share his initials with James Bond, but the comparison doesn’t extend much further than that. The Bourne universe is an altogether more brutal place, and the Bourne hero an altogether more grown-up spy.

For further discourses 007, visit The Bond Hotline feature.

Lynn Shepherd’s ‘Jane Austen murder mystery’, Murder at Mansfield Park, is published by St Martin’s Press. Her website is www.lynn-shepherd.com, and you can friend her on Facebook or on Twitter @Lynn_Shepherd


  1. Robert K. Lewis

    GREAT post!

    And, I really think you’re onto something, and I was having a discussion with someone just the other day regarding how as society has moved forward (read: aged), heros seem to have gotten more “human”.

    I think Bourne reflects that move, and why I feel that the Bond film, Casino Royal was so refreshing to me. No crazy sets, no stupid gadgets, etc. I think Bourne’s time has come, and Bond’s has passed, unless they turn him more more INTO a Bourne/like entity.

    For me? My favorite Bonds are the first five. They were fresh, and just when they were about to go around the bend, Connery left, and kudos to him for that. The rest of the films are fun… some good, most bad, only a couple great, Casino Royale being one of those.

    But the Bourne trilogy? I watch ALL THREE, back to back, quite a bit, as I just LOVE them. You feel for Bourne in ways you could NEVER feel for Bond. Even when they tried to humanize Bond (The Living Daylights, Casino Royale, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service come to mind), the effort only works to a point. Why?

    Because Bond is NOT SUPPOSED TO BE human. That’s not his thing.

    I think Bourne works because society needs a more human and real type of movie hero at this point. Bourne is that guy. I was disappointed to learn that Matt Damon wasn’t going to be in the 4th Bourne (if they’re really doing it). He’s perfect, and owns the role as much as Connery owns the Bond roll.

    And that f’n fight scene in The Bourne Ultimatum, between Bourne and Desh? The Holy Grail of fight scenes! Oh man! Defending yourself from a razor with nothing but a towel???? YES!! And that fight scene is very much a call back to the gritty fight scene between Connery and the great Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love.

    Bourne rules. Sad to say, but I really think Bond’s time is done.

  2. Heather Waters (redline_)

    Team Bourne! Though I do love Daniel Craig as Bond.

  3. Lynn Shepherd, author

    I agree that they’ve made a lot of effort to ‘update’ Bond in the last few films, and I think they’ve succeeded up to a point. But the first time I saw the Bourne films it was like a jolt to the system – it suddenly became obvious what real modern-day espionage is all about. OK, I know that nothing on screen is ever ‘real’ in a literal sense, but the Bourne version is far more believable. My favourite scene? When he blows up a house using only a toaster. Just masterful….

  4. Amanda

    The first Chief of the Secret Service was Sir Mansfield Cumming, better known as “C”, and MI6 was known as “C’s Company” within the government for years, even after his death (this from “The Secret History of MI6” by Keith Jeffery). So M is not entirely fiction. And Mythbusters kinda busted the idea that Bourne could blow up a house with a gas leak, a toaster, and a magazine. But I agree totally that Bourne feels more real than Bond, although I think Daniel Craig has done an excellent job of returning Bond to reality.

  5. Ian Collings

    Totally agree with the stance.
    Bourne is why Craig was hired as Bond.
    Look at Casino Royale and Quantum and try to keep a straight face when you tell me they weren’t radically overhauled in the wake of Bourne.
    Bourne is the Bond for this generation.
    You still get the passports and espionage and chases.
    But no Aston Martin. A red, second-hand Mini is what Bourne uses.

    Great article.

  6. Lynn Shepherd, author

    Thanks Ian! And Amanda you have a great point about the origins of Mi6 but perhaps the problem now is that the new films are still using the old scaffolding, and it’s starting to creak a bit!

  7. lovesjaneausten

    Lynn- LOVE your Bourne vs. Bond well done!
    My two cents on the subject:
    I do believe that Bond was supposed to feel like a make believe spy vs. Bourne’s gritty, much more realistic spy in this darker, terriorists infested world.

    In my school days when I would describe my father to my friends I would always say that he was James Bond w/ a dash of Benny Hill. My father being an Englishman (living in the USA) seemed to love Ian Fleming’s Bond books for many reasons. This is not to imply my dad ran around with lots of women, he was/is as faithful to my mom as Bond was to his country. My dad has always been a handsome, clever, witty man that looked great in a suit along with the twist of silliness like having a big brother who teases you frequently, hence the Benny Hill addition in my description. Forgive me as I digress….

    When Sean Connery brought Bond to life on film, it was back when movies were for entertainment, escapism, etc…. The romantic idea of spies doing everything for country gave feelings of patriotism along with glamourized images of martinis, dinner jackets and of course countless beautiful women at every port of call made him appealing to our ideas of an exciting lifestyle. The handful of actors that have played Bond since Connery have had their work cut out for them. I do not even recall the actors Niven & Lazenby portraying Bond or what movie they were in so I can not comment about how they did with the Bond character. However, when I was in High School, Roger Moore was 007 and he was much more like a spoof of Bond. Tongue in cheek humor, corny lines and characters like Jaws created a comedy like Bond…the subtle clever wit went out the door w/ Connery. sigh. Dalton, Brosnan tried to be more like the original Bond aka Connery and we were entertained however, no one can ever equal Connery’s Bond, no one. Rather than trying to find a new Connery/Bond the franchise was clever to just change it up with Daniel Craig. No comparisons needed…they are very different Bonds and Craig does his own unique up to date Bond well. Maybe a little more like a real spy but not quite.

    I am not sure if Britain has seen the american series “24” with Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland) where he plays a CTU (Counter Terriorist Unit) agent. The series reminded me of Bourne with a dash of Bond…Realistic spy with lots of gadgets….it was a great show and a movie is coming soon to theatres…Go and see it-You will get your fill of a spy with grit, great memorable quotes and some cool gadgets with a pretty girl thrown in for good measure. 🙂

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