Uncovering the Secret Queer Backstory of James Bond
Today it’s one of the biggest film franchises in the world, but the first time British spy James Bond appeared on the big screen, his creator, Ian Fleming, was paid only $1,000 for the screenplay. Since then, of course, the character has steadily grown in importance, transcending early critics who said he was “too British” for the movies to work. But underneath your favorite spy is a secret James Bond queer backstory, and tribute paid to the real-life queer spy who inspired him.
Though Fleming drew from many sources as inspiration for James Bond, among them was William Somerset Maugham, an author and doctor who secretly worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Maugham’s short stories, collected in Ashendon: Or the British Agent, have numerous parallels to Fleming’s later works.
And though he seldom discussed his sexuality, Maugham had relationships with men and women and once told his nephew, “I tried to persuade myself that I was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer — whereas really it was the other way around.”
Fleming was himself known to have disdain for open expressions of homosexuality. But he was friends with numerous queer people, as anyone involved in creative endeavors would have to be. Among Fleming’s friends were Noel Coward, William Plomer and Maugham.
Maugham’s homosexuality may have been subtly referenced in Quantum of Solace, a short story by Fleming about the dwindling comfort a loving relationship can provide. Perhaps Fleming had Maugham’s tumultuous relationships in mind.
Fleming certainly referenced his friend in other ways, such as giving James Bond the undercover name of “Mr. Somerset” in From Russia With Love.
Sure, Bond himself has never been canonically queer, though he’s clearly an adventurous lover, always portrayed as a stylish, swaggering companion, eager for physical pleasure.
And it was that quality which nearly derailed early efforts to bring him to the screen.
“Too blatantly sexual,” Ian Fleming was told when first trying to sell James Bond in Hollywood. There had already been one production in the form of a one-hour TV movie of Casino Royale, aired on CBS in 1954. It was relatively desexualized compared to the Bond we know today, though it retained the franchise’s trademark violence. Following the TV film, United Artists eventually agreed to finance Dr. No for $1 million, and that first big-screen James Bond film was released in 1962.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Sean Connery wasn’t the first choice for the character of James Bond — in fact, after Connery was cast, filmmakers had to bring him to high-end stores and restaurants to train him on how rich and powerful people behave.
Dr. No was an immediate hit, and From Russia With Love was quickly green-lit with double the budget. The next film, Goldfinger, took a more American twist, as the filmmakers were gradually spreading the franchise out around the world to appeal to various international markets. Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967) cemented the franchise as an ongoing force in film.
By the late ’60s, Sean Connery was growing weary of the character, prompting filmmakers to adopt the novel approach of making the character actor-agnostic. That’s led to a rotating cast of performers who have inhabited James Bond over the intervening years, always lending a new contemporary flavor to a character with storied origins.
As the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die, is on the horizon, there’s much speculation about who will be the next actor to take on the role.
Perhaps, after nearly 60 years on the big screen, it’s time James Bond reflected a less limited world. So far, the books and films have contained only fleeting references to queer life, a ridiculous omission given Bond’s adventurous nature. And thus far, only a few villains have been gay — a fleeting hint of chemistry with Silva in Skyfall‘s deleted scene, and two silly henchmen in Diamonds Are Forever.
Maybe it’s time for a canonically queer James Bond.
How much did you know about this secret James Bond queer backstory?
This article was originally published on August 31, 2020. It has since been updated.