My partner is a cartoonist. So we take a particular interest in movies that are based on comics. For example, no sooner did we see The Death of Stalin, then she was on the phone to France, asking a friend to pick her up a copy of the French comic book it was based on.
But this post is about another comic book turned movie: The Coldest City (2012), which became the movie Atomic Blonde (2017). I saw the movie, unaware that it was based on a “graphic novel,” as we now call square-bound comics of some length. Since then, we’ve picked up said graphic novel and watched the movie together.
The premise of the graphic novel is that it’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is about to fall, and a crisis has hit British Intelligence (MI-6). There’s a list afoot which contains the names of every spy in Berlin. MI-6 dispatches agent Lorraine Broughton to get that list. Her contact in Berlin is the chief British agent there, Perceval, who’s thought to have “gone native.” Berlin turns out to be a snake pit of intelligence operatives, none of whom can be fully trusted . . . not even Broughton, as it turns out.
Surprisingly, given the known proclivities of the director and the star’s role as a producer, the movie actually adheres fairly well to the novel in terms of atmosphere and general shape of the plot. Oh, there are twists: neither Broughton nor the list turn out to be quite what they were in the novel. And, given the track record of the director, it is no wonder there is much more physical action in the movie than in the novel. Still, one can trace the influence of the novel on the film very clearly.
The movie did only modestly well, although the are plans for a sequel. I suspect it’s because the plot in some respects is even more byzantine than in the novel. There’s a key plot point in the movie when the CIA agent passes a newspaper to Broughton. Understanding what Broughton learns from this is key to interpreting her motivation for her actions for the rest of the movie. But you don’t learn that until the very end of the movie. Even the graphic novel only hints at the issues, because this is one of the points at which the novel and movie diverge. In many ways, the movie is plotted more like an old Agatha Christie murder mystery, in which anything might be a clue, and your job as a viewer is to figure out which ones are significant. Fail, and the movie is in many ways unintelligible.
The acid test for understanding the movie is this question: can you figure out Broughton’s motivations in wanting to save Spyglass once Satchel’s cover is blown? If you can, the movie makes sense. Otherwise, you’ll wonder if the screenwriters were too clever by half.
Given all this, which is better? Once I could answer the question above, my answer is the movie. The movie’s plot is more unified than the novel’s. And the soundtrack, for someone who lived through the 1980s as I did, is gorgeous. On the other hand, I have to admit that the novel is more intelligible at first read, and can help in understanding the movie. And it does not pander to Hollywood conventions about glamorous women and happy endings, as the movie does.