So, I saw No Time to Die. And I have a lot of thoughts, not necessarily good, about the script. It made some errors which are so incredibly basic – and so easily fixable! – that I haven’t been able to stop rewriting it in my head. Let’s do some script doctoring.
Spoilers below for the whole movie.
Problem 1: From beginning to end, this is a romance. The whole story revolves around the audience’s investment in James and Madeleine’s relationship. It’s the thing that’s supposed to tie this story together and make it compelling. But we never see anything that makes us care about them as a match. Following on from this, we don’t care that he has a daughter, because none of the characters care (except Rami Malek’s villain Safin, who cares immensely).
Problem 2: James clearly has PTSD, trust issues and suicidal tendencies as the result of his spywork, and this is his biggest flaw, causing him to self-sabotage his relationship with Madeleine and isolate him from all his friends for 5+ years. But is never addressed by the plot. It should be his downfall.
Problem 3: His death is not a tragedy, it is an inescapable torment. The director said, of the ending: “I think the important thing was that we all try to create a situation of tragedy. The idea that there’s an insurmountable problem, there’s a greater force at play, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”
That is not the definition of a tragedy! That’s just a depressing, grim, dark finale. A ‘tragedy’ means there is a way out, but due to the characters’ personalities, they can’t let themselves take it. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the teenagers could easily have left Verona and lived happily. But by nature of their melodramatic personalities, they killed themselves instead. So it is a tragic ending, not an inescapable one.
Different characters would have made different choices; they drive the plot and have agency in what takes place. Their deaths were not prophesised because the universe is a cruel place, but created by their own doing. In James’ universe, fate is cruel. But all the jigsaw pieces are in place that could allow him to cause his own downfall, we just need to assemble them. By all means, kill James Bond. But for gods sake, do it with some meaning.
I’m going to fix all of those problems by adding three scenes to the already staggeringly long 2hr 45min movie. (We can cut the useless, milquetoast scenes with Ana de Armas instead.)
Scene 1: Honeymoon Phase
Firstly, I’d add an addition during Madeleine and James’ romantic holiday prologue, which ends with James attempting to commit suicide by refusing to defend them both against an assassination attempt in a car. He then breaks up with Madeleine because his trust issues convince him she is working against him.
We need a scene here which shows why these two people are together. It will establish early on that James struggles to trust Madeleine despite how well he knows her. This scene could be about almost anything, but frankly, both characters also need an injection of more personality. They’re entirely blank canvases in the current movie, so much so that I have to assume it’s partially intentional.
Changing this won’t take much (it’s a low bar to cross). I don’t have much to go on, personality-wise, beyond the fact that James likes fishing and Madeleine is a psychiatrist. But here’s my pitch.
Madeleine and James are gathered around a desk of papers, with a map of the coast of the Mediterranean littered with pen marks. They're both in high spirits. James: - and if we sail along the coastline, we can drop anchor in this cove on the evening of the 29th - Madeleine: The 29th? There's a meteor shower that night. If I bring my telescope, we can watch the stars! James: (mock dismay) You want me to stay up 'til 1? I was going to get up at 5 to go fishing. Madeleine: As if you don't stay up until the small hours watching videos on how to make fly fish lures anyway. James: Oh, that reminds me, don't throw out the leftover salmon, I can - Madeleine: It's already boxed up with your fishing kit. Do you think if we dock here for long enough, we could 'Pavlov's Dog' the fish into turning up at noon each day for feeding, before you cast out your line? James: I tried that once in Peru on a prison guard. Convinced him he needed the bathroom whenever I coughed. Escaped after only three days. Madeleine: That's all it took? I wonder if that works even with an open Placebo. Could you condition me even if I knew you were doing it? James: Let's find out! Madeleine: (teasing) Just don't manipulate me into getting rid of the telescope. I need that - it's secretly a rifle grenade. James looks over at the telescope, assessing it. Madeleine: (laughing) James! She stops laughing and realises he's serious. Madeleine: You've seen me use that telescope I don't know how many times over the last five years. James: (embarrassed) I know it's not a weapon. But my brain just . . . niggles, sometimes.
This scene could be about nearly anything. But the key things to establish here are that:
- These people have activities they enjoy doing together (besides sex). They have fun together! Their lives apart would be pale imitations of their life together.
- They know each other’s routines and interests intimately and take the time to do small, specific kindnesses they know the other will appreciate.
- They spark each other’s imagination, intellect and good humour.
- They have the kind of private rapport and inside jokes that come with long familiarity.
- They are particularly well-suited together. They make each other better people.
It has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get us through the next two acts. Ultimately, this scene needs to convince us of the thing that the movie tries desperately to tell us, without ever showing us: that if we want James to be happy, we want him to be with Madeleine.
The James that opens this movie has to be so different from any version of him we’ve seen before that it’s almost visceral. We have to realise, as an audience, that this is the first (and last) time we’ve ever seen him genuinely content and happy. Finally, of course, this scene needs to firmly establish the key element of James’ personality that will be his downfall: his inability to trust due to his trauma.
Scene 2: Baby Daddy
In the movie, when James finally finds out Mathilde is his five-year-old daughter, it’s from Rami Malek’s villain, and he doesn’t visibly react. He never sees either Madeleine or his daughter again. There is no element of emotion, surprise or catharsis to any part of this storyline: it’s glossed over mid- villain monologue.
Madeleine lies to James about the paternity, for no reason that makes sense to her motivations (what are her motivations? ever? why did she ever keep her history with Safin secret from James at all?). We have no indication that Madeleine cares, or James, or Mathilde. So why are we supposed to care when they inevitably lose each other?
Instead, we need to see Madeleine tell James the news herself – and crucially, for him not to believe her. This needs to come at a moment when they are tentatively finding their way to their old rapport, in the scene after they put Mathilde to bed in Madeleine’s childhood home in Norway.
James: It's nice here. Private. Defensible. Madeleine: I can see you're itching to install some high-security locks. James: It might be nice to get some high hedges. More enclosed, for the little one. Madeleine: You always did give good hedge. James idly plays with one of Mathilde's toys - a mini telescope that twists into a gun. James: Did you get her this to make me think she is my daughter? Madeleine: (stating the obvious) She is. James: (taken aback) You'd have come to me if she were. For money, or help, or - it makes no sense, strategically, to keep this a secret. You have no chance of winning that way. Madeleine: This is real life, James. There's nothing to 'win'. You told me to leave. I left. James looks back towards Mathilde's room, doubtful. Madeleine: You wouldn't even believe a paternity test, would you? You'd think someone in the lab had doctored the results. James: It's happened before. Twice. Madeleine: You're still struggling, then. After all this time. James: I don't know what you mean. Madeleine: You're analysing every move I make. I can see it. Sometimes a yawn is just a yawn. I'm not lying to you. James: They always say that. You know I'd give anything for her to be mine. But it's better for all of us if she's not.
Scene 3 – Time to Die
Finally, the big one. James’ death needs to come at a moment where Madeleine has the opportunity to save him during the fight with Safin. If James can simply trust her to [activate the missile/fire a final gunshot/some other Bond-esque plot mechanism], then he can get to safety and survive the final battle. Perhaps it relies on her using a telescope to mark the path of the missile, to bring things full circle.
Madeleine: James, I love you. I want our daughter to have a father. What reason would I possibly have to betray you? Let me do this. James: I love you too. It doesn't mean I can trust you. Madeleine: (furious) They did this to you. Their training broke you down to nothing and built you up into a one-man army. James: You have no idea what I've been through. What I see at night when I try to sleep. I'm broken, Madeleine. Madeleine: (in tears) No one is ever broken. And no one has to die today. Please, James, just look into my eyes. Can't you see I'm telling the truth? I'm on your side. He stares desperately into her eyes as the missiles get closer. He wants to believe her. He looks away. James: I can't. I'm sorry. I could never live with myself if I judged this wrong. Madeleine: You can't live with yourself either way.
James fights against his trust issues and loses, choosing to die in order to guarantee the mission is completed. Tragedy, in its simplest form: perfectly escapable, if only he could change his entire personality.
- create rounded characters and relationships we can invest in
- give your plot reveals the weight of the emotional payoffs they deserve
- follow through on established character flaws
- create moments of catharsis for the audience
- make it bittersweet, not grimdark
- let actions have consequences
- give your characters agency in the plot instead of being driven by outside forces
Three scenes! This was such an easy fix! It’s killing me that such a high quality movie, with such incredible production value, failed by such a minor dramatical element.
James Bond producers, I am available to you and anyone else for editorial critiques at any time. Just putting that out there.