SEPT / OCT 2016: BY RACHEL KOVACINY
Anyone who has seen the ‘60s spy show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the 2015 film version will tell you that, although the film is faithful to the show, there’s one major difference between the two. They both take place in the ‘60s during the Cold War. They both involve a Soviet spy named Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum in the original; Armie Hammer in the film) teaming up with an American spy named Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn first; Henry Cavill now). Both involve wild and somewhat madcap adventures, pretty girls, handsome men, shiny cars, spy gadgets, and a middle-aged British gent named Mr. Waverly who runs the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
There are some smaller differences, such as the fact that Solo and Kuryakin are pretty good at spying in the film, but inept on the show. Also, they are always working together on the show, but don’t team up until midway through the film, making it a prequel more than a reboot. But while both versions of Napoleon Solo are handsome and charming serial womanizers, the two Illya Kuryakins could not be more different, at least on the surface.
The original Illya was short, slight, quiet, cool, and enigmatic, with a backstory never divulged beyond his Russian ancestry. It was that mysteriousness, combined with actor McCallum’s boyish cuteness, that gave rise to what’s often termed “Illya mania.” Young teen girls in the mid-1960s idolized Illya Kuryakin the way a more recent crop of girls swooned over One Direction. The writers divulged nothing about Illya’s past beyond a few tantalizing hints, so viewers never learned how he became a calm, mild-mannered spy who killed without flinching and avoided romantic entanglements as avidly as Napoleon Solo sought them.
Movie Illya is tall, athletic, loud, angry, and emotionally disturbed. He’s given to “episodes” of rage-fueled outbursts. Not long into the film, we learn his whole back story: father fallen out of favor with Soviet officials and sent to the Gulag, mother with a reputation for being “easy,” and Illya distancing himself from both parents by becoming the KGB’s youngest agent ever and rising in the ranks to become their best. And he gradually falls clumsily in love.
Movie Illya is lonely; TV Illya would rather be alone. Movie Illya falls in love easily; TV Illya has no time or need for love. Movie Illya is relentless and obsessive; TV Illya is bored by just about everything. Movie Illya can’t dance and doesn’t care for American music; TV Illya is a jazz aficionado.
The filmmakers changed Illya so deliberately, while keeping Solo so much the same, that I’m convinced they had a specific reason for doing so. I suspect it’s because quiet-and-enigmatic is no longer a fresh and intriguing type of character. When the show aired in the 1960s, Illya was very different from the typical heroes of the time who tended to be tall, dark, handsome, and brash—think of Sean Connery’s James Bond, of John Wayne and Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda. Those were heroes, big and manly and in control. TV Illya was their opposite, which made him new and interesting.
But what about now? James Bond today is lonely, quiet, tortured. So is Jason Bourne. From Harry Potter to Edward Cullen to Peeta Mellark, pop culture is glutted with heroes who are shy, slight, and quiet. TV Illya would fit right in, instead of standing out.
I think the filmmakers wanted Illya Kuryakin to still have an aura of “otherness.” So they made him outwardly the opposite of TV Illya because he would be outwardly the opposite of the plethora of teen heartthrob heroes we have today. They made him emotionally disturbed instead of remote because audiences today would find him more interesting that way. They gave him a sad back story to help us sympathize with him, but cast an actor whose physical size alone would assure viewers he’s more than capable of fending for himself. And by making him obviously a novice when it comes to love and romance, they enhanced his “otherness” for an audience who assumes that everyone has had multiple romances and sexual encounters by their mid-twenties.
Many TV series fans were put off by changes made to Illya Kuryakin for the movie. I myself find Movie Illya far more alluring than TV Illya because he is troubled and needs other people while TV Illya doesn’t interest me much because I have no sense of who he is inside. Is this partly because I’m not a teenager? Is it because I saw the movie before I saw the show? Is it because I was already a fan of Armie Hammer before the movie was released? Those things probably play into it. I hope anyone who objected to this film “because Illya is just so different” will take the time to ponder why he’s different, and come to realize that, if the filmmakers didn’t change the other characters, they must have had a good reason for changing him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s story “The Man on the Buckskin Horse” appears in the Five Magic Spindles anthology now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com