Three women in every James Bond film? Roald Dahl says so.

Several articles describe how it happened that famous children’s book author Roald Dahl came to write the screenplay for the fifth James Bond film You Only Live Twice. Many of these articles have a passage about a formula set forth by the producers, such as in this quote:

Screendump of article in Vulture about how Roald Dahl wrote You Only Live Twice.
One of the articles that describe the Dahl formula.

“Dahl wrote his adaptation according to a formula he was given by the producers: You include three women as love interests, kill off the first two, and end the movie with Bond in the arms of the third.” [emphasis mine]

But is that claim true? And what does such a formula mean? Let me tell you.

Hang on, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Part 1: The origin of You Only Live Twice

Now, I’ve never seen that formula associated with any of the other screenwriters after Dahl. Why is that? Was that even a formula that the producers had in mind as a standard for all the films, or just the one that Dahl was hired to write?

But let’s start before that. There are a few peculiarities with the way that You Only Live Twice was conceived and written.

The cover for the novel You Only Live Twice.
Cover for the novel You Only Live Twice.

The novel You Only Live Twice has a very different context than the film. It was published as the final part of the Blofeld trilogy: Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. As such it was intended to show how Bond was destroyed after the death of his wife, got his revenge, only to lose his memory and die.

On the other side, in the world of the James Bond films, there was no Blofeld trilogy with the same kind of continuity. For sure, Dr No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball all had SPECTRE in them, and the latter two films had Blofeld as the villain-behind-the-villain. But there was no real progression in the sense of the novels, where Bond first encounters the organisation, then meets Blofeld and loses his wife, and then is sent on an impossible mission to avenge her death. The film version of Dr No was the introduction to SPECTRE, in From Russia With Love, Bond meets the organisation, and in Thunderball, Bond again meets the organisation. There’s been no real step forward from From Russia With Love to Thunderball.

In short, in the films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service hadn’t happened yet. So Bond had no reason for revenge in the next film.

Why then choose You Only Live Twice as the next Bond film? When that is the whole point of the novel. It’s like choosing to make On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and not include the marriage with Tracy.

In 1965, when Thunderball came out, at the height of Bond mania, and the producers surely began to think about what next project to work on, these were the Bond titles that Fleming had published (bold titles signifies works that were possible to choose):

  • Casino Royale (owned by another company)
  • Live and Let Die
  • Moonraker
  • Diamonds Are Forever
  • From Russia, with Love (already done)
  • Dr. No (already done)
  • Goldfinger (already done)
  • For Your Eyes Only (short stories: “From a View to a Kill”, “For Your Eyes Only”, Quantum of Solace”, “Risico” and “The Hildebrand Rarity”)
  • Thunderball (already done)
  • The Spy Who Loved Me (banned as a source by Fleming)
  • On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
  • You Only Live Twice
  • The Man with the Golden Gun (published half a year before Thunderball was released)

It’s quite conceivable, indeed probable, that the producers also knew that Fleming’s last book, Octopussy & The Living Daylights, would come out in 1966. (It would include three short stories.)

That means that there were six novels and eight short stories to choose from.

My guess is that the producers were carefully looking for something that followed in the footsteps of the earlier, successful films. That meant that the next film would need to be adventurous, include some exotic location, and be big.

Live And Let Die would perhaps have been too political during the start of the civil rights movement. Moonraker would be big, for sure, but too fantastical and too similar to Thunderball. Diamonds Are Forever with its smuggling story too complicated and/or not adventurous enough. It’s no secret that the producers considered the short stories too short and not big enough and waited with them until they had filmed most of the novels. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was the first choice for the producers, was tricky to find shooting locations for, and also may have appeared too tragic, especially if Sean Connery didn’t return in the next film (something that was a definite possibility). Finally, The Man With The Golden Gun, which contained traces of Fleming’s illness, was not exciting enough.

So, You Only Live Twice, the story where Bond goes to Japan, an exotic country for most Westerners, would fit the bill nicely. And the story in the novel could always be rewritten. After all, there were very few castles of the type that Fleming writes about in the novel. Never mind, then, that Bond didn’t have any personal reason to go after Blofeld yet.

Another point was that the films had not established that they were continuous from film to film. Sylvia Trench was dropped after two films for that reason. All the other love interests were conveniently forgotten by the time the next film came along, unlike the novels, where they sometimes received a mention at the start of the next book. Does Bond still have the scars on his back from From Russia With Love in later films? Who cares…

Bond, M, Q and Miss Moneypenny became the few elements that survived. And that’s fine. That means that they can be seen in any order.

Part 2: Choosing a writer

Since Richard Maibaum, by that time the regular screenwriter for the Bond films, was busy working on other projects (including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), the producers looked around for other writers. And this is where things get strange.

The producers’ first choice was Harold Jack Bloom.

Harold Bloom smiling.
Harold Jack Bloom.

Bloom’s first major screenplay, The Naked Spur from 1953, was written together with Sam Rolfe, and was nominated for an Oscar (Titanic won — no, not that one…). However, after that, his other credits are mainly in television. He only had three movie credits to his name between 1953 and 1967. A few Western series, cop and detective shows, and comedies. Most of them are so obscure there’s not going to be a DVD release of them, and they’re never going to stream on Netflix.

That’s it.

That was his career at the moment. That’s who Broccoli and Saltzman chose.

To write the next screenplay for the current biggest blockbuster movie series.

Imagine the producers of the Star Wars or Marvel franchise giving their next project to one of the guest writers (not the head writer, nor even a staff writer) at one of the middle-of-the-road television shows.

I know that Hollywood and the world of television are difficult for any writer, which means that good writers are passed up for jobs they would be perfect for every day. I also understand that the Academy Award nomination, and his work with Howard Hawkes, for instance, can make it seem that Bloom was an undiscovered gem. But there were certainly plenty of other, more proven screenwriters who would have jumped at the chance of writing for James Bond.

Anyway, the producers got Bloom to come to Japan and write a draft of You Only Live Twice. This first draft apparently contained a few scenes that were good, but other than that, it needed so much work that the producers decided that Bloom’s writing wasn’t good enough, and they promptly brought in another writer.

This time, I’m sure, they used a seasoned screenwriter who could get the next Bond manuscript into shape.

Roald Dahl.
Roald Dahl.

Enter a friend of Ian Fleming’s, Roald Dahl. They had met during World War II, when they were both in the military (Dahl in RAF, Fleming in Naval Intelligence). Later they both moved in the same literary circles, and they were both hard-drinking womanizers. Dahl had published his first work in 1943, and branched into two simultaneous genres, children’s books and stories of the macabre and surprising.

But he had only worked in books (by that time he had published eight books). He had never written a filmed screenplay. A few television credits, but nothing on the big screen. In fact, his only effort was cancelled. After that he complained that screenwriting was an awful job.

And he hated Ian Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice.

Dahl said it was “Fleming’s worst book, with no plot in it which would even make a movie”, complaining that it was like a travelogue.

But Dahl needed money, so he said yes.

Naturally, the producers only gave him six weeks to finish the first draft.

That’s why I suspect that the producers gave him a quick formula that he could use.

Here, in Digital Spy, is a longer explanation of that formula:

“Girl number one is violently pro-Bond. She stays around roughly the first reel of the picture. Then, she is bumped off by the enemy, preferably in Bond’s arms. In bed or not in bed? Wherever (the writer) likes, so long as it’s in good taste.

Girl number two is anti-Bond. She works for the enemy and stays around for the middle third of the picture. She must capture Bond, and Bond must save himself by bowling her over with sheer sexual magnetism. This girl should also be bumped off, preferably in an original fashion.

Girl number three is violently pro-Bond. She occupies the final third of the picture, and she must on no account be killed. Nor must she permit Bond to take any lecherous liberties with her until the very end of the story. We’ll keep that for the fade-out.”

Dahl used that pattern in his screenplay. Aki is the ally who dies, Helga Brandt is the anti-Bond woman who dies, and Kissy Suzuki (the only one who exists in the novel) is the good woman who survives.

Part 3: The formula in other Bonds

So do the James Bond movies all follow that formula? Where and how do they diverge from the formula?

Still image from the movie The Living Daylights, where Bond meets a bikini-clad woman.
Linda, conveniently parked below the rock of Gibraltar in The Living Daylights, was not counted as a major role.

Two caveats before the results:

  1. It’s very easy to see patterns once you’re looking for it. This phenomenon is called pareidolia. How can you be sure the formula is real and not just something you imagine, because you want it to be true (or vice versa, you wish for it not to be true, for instance, because it makes something you like seem formulaic)? Because of this, I have taken two steps, that should at least lessen any problems: a) I have only included major roles within the Bond films. What is a major role? I have arbitrarily drawn a line if the woman has several lines, and is present in more than one scene. Characters like the woman on the phone in the pre-title sequence of The Living Daylights I consider an extra. In other words, this is not the full list of women that Bond takes to bed, nor has Bond taken everyone mentioned here to bed, and b) I have also noted where there are characters who do not easily can be counted into this pattern.
  2. I have not counted the female M, from GoldenEye onwards, played by Dame Judi Dench, even though she has a major role in several films and dies at the end of Skyfall. I haven’t counted Miss Moneypenny either in the earlier films.

Enough preamble. Here are the results:

Green — fits the formula
Yellow — is not killed
Red — does not fit the formula (introduced in wrong order or at wrong time, is not on Bond’s side, or does not end up with Bond)

(You may, naturally, argue with where I have placed certain names, or which colour I have given them, but I don’t think any changes you may make would alter the results radically. However, I am open for debate on this topic.)

As you can see, You Only Live Twice is the only James Bond film that (at least neatly) follows the Dahl formula. Most of them use variations, which is what you would expect if the formula wasn’t really there, or if the formula was merely a suggestion.

As I wrote before, I haven’t seen that formula mentioned with any other Bond screenwriter. Granted, Richard Maibaum was back for the next film and could guide any new co-writer they decided to bring in after that. Later on, Michael G. Wilson would write and/or produce every Bond film until present day, and could have had the same role as Maibaum. Maybe the formula was taught in-house.

Many of the women are introduced at the wrong point in the story or are left alive in contrast to the formula, but there are also plenty of examples of women crossing over from the bad side to the good side, as in the case of Pussy Galore, May Day or Camille Montes, or vice versa, in the case of Elektra King or Vesper Lynd. The most changes comes probably from Tiffany Case who starts as anti-Bond, changes to seemingly being pro-Bond, only to betray him, and then go back to his side at the climax. This also makes the pro-Bond, anti-Bond, pro-Bond formula harder to claim.

Ten films lack at least one major female role in the formula, and this new pattern seem to increase in strength as time goes on, with the last five films lack one of the major female roles from this formula. This may be due to an effort to use the major female characters in more scenes, in order to deepen their character or to use the character through more plot points. Compare, for instance, at what point Anya Amasova, the major love interest of The Spy Who Loved Me, enter the story (first third of the story, about 4 minutes in), to when Honey Ryder, the major love interest of Dr No, comes out of the ocean (final third of the story, about 50 minutes in).

Part 4: Is this all there is?

A final note on this topic: it’s quite easy to make fun of a formula such as this. As Digital Spy’s Joe Anderton says:

“These quotes are worth bringing up because a) it’s kind of crazy there were actual rules and b) it does make you think about how far the series has (or hasn’t) come along regarding women.”

This criticism of the Bond films is partly true, but you should also note that many other action films, and indeed many films over all, put women in one box: the love interest to the hero. This means that there is only one major role reserved for women in each film, and the rest are bit parts or extras. This was true in almost all the Fleming novels, but in the Bond films, they have actually tried to make the female role a bit more diverse: first the sacrificial lamb (a negative trope, for sure), then the female villain, at least in some sense (also a negative trope), and finally the genuine love interest. It’s only marginally better, but it is better, and it leads to more possibilities, story-wise.

The three-woman formula is a bait-and-switch plot, that serve to hold the attention of the audience, and certainly it’s part of the exotic elements that the Bond films use to evoke the imagination; to meet a wild child (Honey Ryder), a vengeful Greek woman (Melina Havelock), a tough female CIA pilot (Pam Bouvier), or a martial arts expert (Wai Lin), or an intelligent and sophisticated Treasury Agent (Vesper Lynd), and that is after meeting one other interesting person you liked but who died, and then stumbling on another who definitely seemed to have it in for you. Those type of things any audience member may dream about, male or not, heterosexual or not.

And, for sure, the formula may have been a simple recipe for a writer-for-hire on a short deadline. So maybe don’t put too much stock into it.

Writer, reader and writing coach. @aliasHannibal on Twitter. Also runs the @BondWriting account on Twitter.

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