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Opinion: James Bond has many faces – is he a psychopath?

Erik G

AFTER AN 18-MONTH delay due to Covid-19, next week will see the much-anticipated release of No Time To Die.

This is Daniel Craig’s fifth (and most likely last) outing as James Bond and stars Rami Malek as Safin, the villain in this latest instalment. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the film also stars Ralph Fiennes as M, Ben Whishaw as Q and Naomie Harris as Miss Moneypenny, while we see the return of Léa Seydoux as Dr Madeleine Swann, Bond’s love interest who also happens to be a psychiatrist.

So, has she spotted the evidence that Bond may be a psychopath?

The research

A psychopath is a manipulative person who fundamentally lacks a conscience and has a lifelong history of engaging in a wide range of irresponsible, unethical or criminal activities for personal gain. He lacks empathy or any sense of remorse and if confronted, tends to blame others for his unscrupulous activities.

He is often overtly likeable (at least, initially) because of the attention he pays to making a good impression on those he thinks will be of use to him in his pursuits. This superficial charm may revert to glibness, but with narcissistic or even grandiose overtones.

Promiscuous sexual behaviour, many short-term marriages or relationships, adultery and so forth are common.

The psychopath lies pathologically to cover up his actions or more often for the sheer hell of it, even when lying is totally unnecessary. The psychopath gets bored easily, is impulsive and has a constant need for excitement. He lacks any realistic long-term goals.

Most psychopaths are not serial killers. Indeed, not all are convicted prisoners, even if this is a more likely outcome than for the average person. Conservatively, there are an estimated thirty million psychopaths in the world – at least one in 200 of us, possibly more. Many function perfectly well – to a degree – in everyday life, even if the people around them soon learn to dislike them.

Some psychopaths use their manipulative skills to carve out impressive careers as CEOs, lawyers, police officers, politicians, advertising executives, estate agents, soldiers, surgeons and so forth. And it is important to state that psychopathy is not mental illness. More specifically, psychopathy has nothing to do with psychosis – even though the two words share a first syllable and are phonetically quite similar.

Does Bond fit the bill?

So, how could James Bond be a psychopath? Researchers such as Jonason and colleagues refer to ‘James Bond psychology’ in describing ‘The Dark Triad’ of Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. In many ways, James Bond may be the perfect example of a non-criminal psychopath – one who is charming, persuasive, daring and ruthless.

But not everyone agrees that psychopaths make good action heroes. David Cox, professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, studied British bomb-disposal experts during the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ some decades ago.

At the outset, the researchers anticipated that psychopaths would possess both a need for excitement and the requisite fearlessness in the face of adversity that would combine to make them ideal for the job.

Instead, they found that most soldiers viewed their psychopathic colleagues as unreliable and impulsive with insufficient attention to detail to allow them to practice safely. The few who made it through training did not last much longer thereafter.

In the real world, James Bond (or at least most versions of him) ought to make a dreadful spy. Dashingly handsome, he is anything but inconspicuous, while he destroys almost every location he visits, he drinks so much that he must be constantly inebriated or hungover, and – let’s face it – he relies mostly on pure luck for his triumphs. The traits that make him exciting and likeable as a fictional character are the very reasons he would never last long in the real world of espionage. But is he a psychopath?

It is hard to judge because he is not simply one character; he is an entire genre that has evolved over decades and seems to undergo a fresh revival every few years. Even if we confine ourselves to the better-known incarnations, we are left with Fleming’s original literary character in his twelve novels, the variations in novels by Robert Markham, Sebastian Faulks, William Boyd and Anthony Horowitz and the very-visible on-screen portrayals in twenty-five Eon Productions films by six different actors.

Not all Bonds are especially psychopathic. Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan have a softer edge perhaps. But literary Bond, Sean Connery and Daniel Craig are all quite psychopathic in their respective portrayals of a ruthless assassin, replete with superficial charm, glib one-liners, grandiosity, the tendency to manipulate, shallowness, callousness, lack of remorse, irresponsibility, a parasitic lifestyle, impulsivity, the need for excitement and, of course, constant one-night stands.

All of the above are features of the Psychopathy Checklist – the gold standard assessment of psychopathy developed by the Canadian psychologist, Professor Robert D. Hare.

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Enduring appeal

So, if Bond is a psychopath, why do we like him? The truth is that he has many redeeming features. Superficial as he is, his charm is nonetheless seductive. He is ready with a quip in the face of danger, while his image is that of a stoic gentleman, chivalrous (albeit misogynistic), well-spoken, well-educated and well-connected.

Equally, he is never boring. His constant need for stimulation provides excitement for the reader and viewer alike.

Portrayed as handsome in a cruel sort of way, Bond also has many admirable talents and skills. He is a naval commander, a competent deep-sea diver, a daring parachutist, an accurate marksman, a lethal combat fighter, a whizz at high-speed car chases, a better golfer than Goldfinger, a smooth skier, an even smoother dancer, and a better poker player than almost anyone.

Meanwhile, Bond’s victims make him look good. They tend to be megalomaniacs bent on world destruction.

Often, they are physically unattractive, many with some sort of disfigurement – missing limbs (Dr No), weeping tear ducts (Le Chiffre), facial scarring (Alec Trevelyan) and third nipples (Francisco Scaramanga). All are psychopaths in their own right with no redeeming features and it is easy to forgive Bond for his own shortcomings as he rids the world of far worse offenders.

Equally, in the original Fleming novels and most of the early films, the setting is the Cold War. One expects a level of ruthlessness during times of war and we accept that the end sometimes justifies the means, especially if it ensures we can all sleep safer in our beds. As such, the backdrop adds to his appeal.

Alas, James Bond has been a popular icon for nearly seventy years, revived regularly with great success. No Time To Die promises to be no different. Fleming’s masterpiece is a cultural genre in its own right, showcasing perhaps the ultimate fictional antihero – the ruthless psychopath we cannot help but admire.

Dr Stephen McWilliams is Associate Clinical Professor at UCD and a consultant psychiatrist at Saint John of God Hospital, Dublin. His book, Psychopath? Why We are Charmed by the Anti-hero, is published by Mercier Press.

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