Monday, 23 November 2015

Invisible cars, torture scenes and plot holes

Purvis & Wade: Bond writers in residence (1999 to present)

[I wrote most of this post pre-Spectre. See my review for my thoughts on that]

I have been trying to figure out how to write a post about these guys for ages, but I could never figure out the framework. There will be a fair amount of conjecture here because what interviews I have read with Purvis & Wade are not as illuminating on the points I want to cover as I would like.

Effectively the Bond writers in residence, they have had a hand in every Bond picture since The World Is Not Enough. In terms of longevity, they have taken the place of Richard Maibaum, the screenwriter who had a hand in most of the scripts made between 1962 and 1989. As the most crucial members of the key creative team, it is ultimately their take on Bond that has basically set the template for the character for the last 15 years.

I am going to break down this post as something of an auteur study. This will be somewhat vague, since it is hard to tell exactly which ideas are Purvis & Wade's. Their scripts have been the beneficiaries and the victims of the work of other writers, so judging their contributions will be difficult without access to the men in question. However, based on interviews with the writers, and a look at their work on the series, several recurring ideas and themes become apparent, as do their weaknesses.   

What do they bring

Purvis and Wade are on record as being big fans of Ian Fleming's original novels and have made a concerted effort to pull the films closer in line with the macabre, somewhat more sinister tone of the author's work.

Starting with TWINE, they add torture sequences and sleuthing as part of Bond's character. While not always successful, this desire to return to Fleming means there is an attempt at fleshing out Bond's character. There is also the adaptation of Fleming in ways that are more direct. While Casino Royale is a straight adaptation, this is not the first time they have adapted one of Fleming's plots. Die Another Day adapts the premise of Fleming's Moonraker while Bond's 'death' and rehabilitation at the beginning of Skyfall (including his fishmonger girlfriend) are taken fromYou Only Live Twice.

This fidelity to Fleming extends to specific sequences and even locations, such as Silva's island hideout, which was taken from Blofeld's castle in You Only Live Twice; and even the climax, much criticised though it was, is very much in line with the source material: many of Fleming's books end on a sequence in which Bond is isolated and has to protect a woman from multiple enemies with limited resources.

While all of these inspirations have not been carried off as well as could be, they are welcome to a series which has spent too much time sticking to the established formula and ignoring its origins.


The presence of other writers on most of their scripts does complicate a proper analysis of Purvis and Wade's work -- The World Is Not Enough involved at least two other writers, and Quantum's script was left unfinished by the 2007-2008 Writers Strike, and had been heavily re-written by Paul Haggis (although he did not have enough time to polish his work).

This is conjecture but based on the evidence of the one Bond film they wrote alone, Die Another Day,  certain elements do stand out. First and foremost, they do not do fantasy Bond well. With all of their other entries (to varying degrees), the more outlandish material is avoided in favour of more thriller/Fleming-like elements, and DAD suffers from a creative team out of its depth.

However, even their other work betrays certain recurring problems. One thing that has come under consistent criticism is their plots. The films Purvis and Wade have worked on feature over-complicated plots involving so many double crosses and subterfuge that it is often difficult to follow and become invested in what is going on (see World Is Not Enough and Quantum of Solace for examples). Even certain parts of Skyfall, particularly in the second half of the film, make little sense and end up padding out the running time (e.g. the number of variables surrounding Silva's escape and arrival at M's government hearing is ridiculous).

Their one unqualified success, Casino Royale, works so well because Fleming's plot is so simple -- it just revolves around a card game at a single location. This allows the other elements of the story, particularly the relationships between the characters, to breathe. The fact that the contest between Bond and his nemesis is so intimate also raises the stakes.

Wade and Purvis have consistently professed their indebtedness to Fleming -- one hopes that they will take note of what worked about their one direct Fleming adaptation and use it in a future instalment.  

They are also guilty of repeating the same plot beats over and over again. Where past adventures, would start Bond being given an assignment and going out on a mission, Purvis & Wade have become locked into an increasingly tired pattern of having Bond go rogue. In attempting to avoid the Bond formula, Purvis & Wade have merely created a new one -- and just like the old formula, this one has had its day.

While it is always a good idea to strip Bond of his gizmos and force him to rely on his wits, with Purvis & Wade this can only work if Bond is on the outs with his superiors. This plot point has been over-used and needs to be dropped. Either go back to missions or find something new and different to make Bond vulnerable.

Final thoughts
While blame can be spread around (you can blame Lee Tamahori for DAD's invisible car), it is not far from the truth to state that Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have been inconsistent custodians of the Bond franchise. Most of their work is either bad or incredibly flawed, and Spectre did not shift that perception. The Bond franchise has not had a consistently strong voice in the script department since Richard Maibaum's death, and a change of the guard in this respect is probably needed for the series to continue.  It is easy to write to a formula, but it is difficult to do it well. The task for the Bond producers is to find writers who can juggle both tasks. While all eyes will be on the person who will next pick up Bond's Walther, it is the person or persons writing his adventures who deserve the most scrutiny. 

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