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James Bond: The world's favorite spy

By Simon Hooper
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(CNN) -- In 1962 a low-budget adaptation of a paperback thriller by a former British intelligence officer enjoyed a modest reception from critics and cinema audiences in the UK and the U.S.

Starring a relatively unknown Scottish actor, "Dr. No" had been largely forgotten by the time the following year's Academy Awards came around, when another British film, the 18th-century romp "Tom Jones," took best picture honors.

Forty-four years later, the 21st official film in the second most lucrative movie franchise in history (after "Star Wars") has made its London premiere.

The series spawned by Ian Fleming's novels has outlasted the character's creator and his books, five lead actors and the era of Cold War paranoia in which the British secret agent was cast as the last barrier between Western civilisation and both Soviet domination and the psychopathic ambitions of assorted crazed megalomaniacs. (Watch Bond go back to basics -- 2:45 Video)

While "Dr. No" may have introduced Bond to the big screen, it was the spiraling success of Sean Connery's subsequent films "From Russia With Love," "Goldfinger," and "Thunderball" -- each tapping into the mid-'60s appetite for taut espionage-themed thrillers -- that transformed him into a universally recognized icon of popular culture.

Bond films have rarely deviated too far from the stock script: A set-piece pre-credit stunt sequence; a villain as cunning, ruthless and stylish as the hero; a succession of beautiful, amoral women with ambiguous motives; gadget-packed cars, vodka martinis and secret island bases.

Yet, with Daniel Craig becoming the latest actor to don the 007 tuxedo in "Casino Royale," Bond appears to be in no danger of having his licence to kill revoked any time soon.

Bond expert Simon Winder, author of "The Man Who Saved Britain," said that even approaching the 50th anniversary of his screen debut, the character still had a "ruthless ability to regenerate himself" for contemporary audiences.

"He's left over from an earlier era yet somehow, like Superman, he's been consistently reinvented," Winder told CNN. "Sometimes he's taken a disastrous wrong turn -- like in some of the later Roger Moore movies -- but somehow the strength of the character has always pulled him through."

In fact the new film, more than just introducing a new lead man, represents a regeneration of the series, taking Bond back to the start of his career as an agent.

"Casino Royale" was Fleming's first story and the film features a harder, grittier character than the one portrayed by Pierce Brosnan in 2002's "Die Another Day," a special effects-laden commercial success but critical flop.

Although the basis for Bond's first-ever screen appearance, a 1954 American television adaptation starring Barry Nelson, and an ill-conceived 1967 spoof featuring Peter Sellers, David Niven, Orson Welles and Woody Allen, the novel has never previously formed part of the official screen canon. (A 1983 Connery film, "Never Say Never Again" -- a remake of "Thunderball" -- was made by a different studio and production company.)

Winder said returning to Fleming's original Bond storylines was a smart move, adding that Bond's longevity as a character -- as other action heroes have gone in and out of fashion -- was largely due to the tight plotting of the original novels.

"They'd been floundering -- though not financially -- and 'Die Another Day' left such a bad taste in the mouth because it was so poor. The new one is miles better," he said.

"Bonds movies slough off their skin and come up fresh again, whereas 'Mission: Impossible' without Tom Cruise is inconceivable. Even the less successful Bonds like [George] Lazenby and [Timothy] Dalton have not been total disasters. They may not have a place in people hearts but they've been perfectly satisfactory."

While Bond may once have battled to save the world from Communism, a new threat to global security from terrorism may also have given Bond a new lease of life, said Winder: "The war on terror has provided a fresh backdrop. We're half a century into Bond and I think we are only in the foothills of the experience."

With Craig already signed up for two more Bond outings, Winder said "Casino Royale" had created a "great opportunity" to re-make some of the earlier stories for another age.

First up for a makeover, should Winder's vision be realized, would be Fleming's second novel, "Live and Let Die," initially made in 1973 in Moore's first appearance in the lead role -- something that would likely only raise eyebrows among Moore connoisseurs and fans of the original's epic Wings title track.

"I would just go through each book in turn. They can remake them all. They've got a fantastic new Bond in Daniel Craig who I think does it fantastically well. Embarrassingly I'd say he's almost better than Connery -- I never thought I'd say it ... but he is incredibly good."


The changing face of Bond: Sean Connery first played the spy on the big screen.


Can actor Daniel Craig become the greatest "James Bond" ever?
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