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BBC America’s Fleming and the trouble with author biopics

The many similar faces of Ian Fleming. Sky Atlantic

BBC America’s Fleming and the trouble with author biopics

The first episode of mini-series Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond is a very glamorised account of the life of James Bond’s creator, and it is certainly entertaining. But should we lament its deviations from biographical accuracy, its endeavours to frame Fleming the author in terms of Bond the character? Or should we just accept it as another layer of the Bond story, and sit back and enjoy the show?

One reviewer, writing for Wired, takes the former attitude, seeing the series as epitomising the problems of recent biopics. While they used to be previously “a mix of entertainment, education and guilt-free voyeurism”, they have become, he argues:

A contradictory mix of hagiography and revisionism, lionising their subjects while somehow managing to diminish them in comparison to the products of their imaginations.

Understanding any individual book, film, or programme requires an awareness of its place in the media landscape. And any new production is, of course, going to be heavily determined by what has gone before. So it is inevitable that programmes or films that return or respond to a franchise as significant as that of Bond will attempt to place themselves within the wider narrative.

Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond.

Such disappointment when the new biopic exaggerates parallels between Fleming and his creation is surprising. The show’s title, even, says it will do so. The Bond franchise in particular carries so much cultural heft, so many familiar motifs, that this addition was never going to unfold any other way.

Each episode of Fleming merges a variety of Bond-in-the-making references with moments where that expectation is comically subverted, for example when the unimpressed bartender plonks down a bottle of beer in response to Fleming’s detailed request for a Martini.

Likewise, Becoming Jane, the 2007 Austen biopic, was less concerned with scrupulous fidelity to the author’s life story than with bending its basic materials to align the central character to her most famous heroine. Austen, as realised by Anne Hathaway, became more like Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet; a template for whom we were already well-disposed. Had she shown a hint of the milksop Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, or the dozy Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey, we wouldn’t have liked her half as much.

Becoming Jane.

I don’t think we should lament the supposed drift from a golden age of educationally sound renderings to a slick but sadly traduced “cult of character”. The biopic has always tweaked the past. Facts and strict chronology rarely stand in the way of the need for a film or television programme to be exciting, coherent, the right length, and saleable.

Author biopics are especially problematic since their makers are assumed to have a double duty. There is the expectation of some kind of fidelity to the person’s life-events; an implicit truth-claim in the choice of subject. And there is the less direct but equally powerful anticipation that the account will somehow connect with stories for which the author is already known. Those are, after all, why we’re interested in the first place.

In instances where writers have clearly drawn on personal experience, Hemingway for example, or Fleming, the matter is ripe for a biopic. When they haven’t, when there’s a gulf between the products of their imagination and the circumstances of their production, why should we care?

J.R.R. Tolkein may have created Middle-earth, but his life writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings from suburban Oxford was by comparison inevitably quotidian. A Tolkein biopic has in fact been mooted but will probably have to look to his First World War experiences and subsequent code-breaking work for much in the way of narrative grist.

At the height of auteur theory in the 1960s, films were in danger of being scrutinised solely for what they revealed about their makers. Each film was reduced to little more than an additional symptom to be reviewed in order to discern the elusive “truth of the author”.

But this wheel may have come full circle. Now, even as it is the authors who become the ostensible subject, they are de-centred by their characters, their life-stories bent into consonance with the fiction franchises they unleashed. And in the case of Fleming and his proto-Bond screen incarnation in Dominic Cooper, viewers should recall that Bond had already changed in his transit from page to screen.

Ian Fleming. Ahmet Baran/AP

The screen Bond most of us know is not wholly the character Fleming created. There are many similarities, of course, but key aspects of the Bond on the page – the incorrigible reading of racial ancestry when presented with a “foreign” face, the sustained and astonishingly pernickety interest in food – never made it to the screen 50 years ago.

The Fleming of this biopic is clearly – predictably - brought into alignment with James Bond, but that character had long since ceased to be his, and this expected result shouldn’t be something we waste our time bewailing. Once you accept that it’s significantly disconnected from historical reality, there’s much to enjoy in this biopic.

Bond movie aficionados will relish the many references to such recurring motifs as the tropical underwater sequence, the obligatory casino scene, the training exercise, and the skiing sequence. Viewers with a deeper knowledge of the author may also appreciate that, for all the Fleming-as-Bond glamour, it doesn’t shy away from some unpleasant truths either – there’s a whispered reference to youthful gonorrhea. The dimension that it really plays best is the fraught relationship with his controlling mother. Lesley Manville as Eve Fleming stalks her son and his romantic interests with malevolent aplomb.

But the author biopic I really want? One that poses the most awkward questions. The story with a real “life” vs “works” dilemma: Woody Allen. I’m not holding my breath.

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