1977 was a significant year in the world of movies. For cinema-goers, there was a change that became a lasting legacy, one that is still talked about. For one film franchise, a benchmark was set that’s never been matched since.
Some of you are ahead of me on this. Your encyclopaedic knowledge of this franchise is matched only by Trekkies.
But I also know some of you are already straying down the wrong path. Because, while 1977 saw the very first Star Wars movie hit our screens, it also saw the release of The Spy Who Loved Me.
For those of you who were already playing John Williams’ iconic theme in your heads and have just heard the needle scrape to an abrupt halt, this may have come as something of a shock. But bear with me.
Whenever the James Bond film series is mentioned, most of us have a range of attributes we associate with it: girls, gadgets, theme songs, cars, stunts, elaborate sets, the gun barrel sequence. The latter is, of course, the first thing you see when you watch a Bond movie. The second, though, is the pre-title sequence, and its significance has become part of the 007 legend. As each new movie is released, there has been, at the very least, curiosity about what they’ll do next.
And yet, if you go back and look at the early movies, you’ll realise that, although there’s a pre-title sequence in most of them (Bond-nerds, tell us the exception in the comments), they’ve been comparatively pedestrian. At best, there was a bit of a fight – though Thunderball had the added excitement of a jet-pack – but usually it just set things up for the story to be told.
It all changed in 1977, and for those of you who aren’t sure what I’m talking about (or just want to relive the moment), this is why…
I was 14 when I watched that. As Roger Moore skied over the cliff*, I swear I stopped breathing for those brief moments before the Union Jack showed up. With the benefit of 40 years of progress in the movie industry, it probably seems quite tame now. But the bar had been raised – and how!
Subsequent films saw Bond pushed out of a plane without a parachute, hanging off the side of a helicopter, bungee-jumping off a dam… The list goes on – and I’m sure some fans will complain I’ve missed out their favourites.
But my intention isn’t to provide an index of Bond pre-titles. Indeed, the bar wasn’t just set for Bond films. Others have copied, but all with the same aim: to kick the story off in a way that grabs the attention and leaves the viewer wanting more (if not Moore).
Of course, the “more” doesn’t have to involve spectacle and stunts. Not every movie is about action. If you’re telling a horror story, you might want to put some creepiness in. If it’s a mystery, you might want to leave the viewer wondering: what was that all about? If it’s crime, you may want to leave them with other questions: “Why did that happen?” or “Who did it?”
Now, much as I love films, I don’t make them. But I do write novels, and that’s just another way of telling a story, isn’t it? And, like the movies, the art of writing a good story has changed. The bar has been raised. Not necessarily in literary terms, but in the fact that the reader’s attention has to be grabbed early. With so many calls on our time in the modern world, it’s very easy to be diverted. Attention and concentration aren’t as prevalent as they were (or is that just me turning into an old fart?).
So a writer needs to grab the reader’s attention quickly and sometimes that means looking afresh at the way we write our stories. We need to give them something to make them want to read on. For me, an obvious way of doing that is to give the novel its own pre-title sequence. Hook the reader in with something tantalising. It might be dramatic (though the spectacle of skis and parachutes won’t have the same effect in print as on screen), but it should be something that leaves the reader wondering how, what or why and encourage them to read on and find the answers.
It’s an alternative way of looking at that old writer’s tool called a prologue. What do you think?
*According to Moore, he did all his own stunts – and told all his own lies as well.