A Tale of Two Illyas: Character Changes in The Man from UNCLE

SEPT / OCT 2016: BY RACHEL KOVACINY

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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.

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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.

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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

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7 Replies to “A Tale of Two Illyas: Character Changes in The Man from UNCLE”

  1. I love this article!! Isn’t it fascinating to watch the “fashions” in heroes/heroines change over time? And I definitely agree with you that they probably changed his character as a way of ensuring he’d still be a fresh, new type, like he was originally. Freshness is important, if you want your story to be really memorable . . .

    Although I have to say, I don’t think I would necessarily find Movie-Illya all that appealing, just in a personal sense; while TV-Illya sounds like somebody I would absolutely looooooooooooooooooooooooooooove.

    Different folk have different tastes, I guess . . . 🙂

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    1. My mother 100% agrees with you. She has loved TV-Illya since she was a teen, and was quite annoyed by Movie-Illya because “he’s just all wrong.” She likes the enigma. I like the damage. One for each of us!

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  2. Ohhh….really enjoyed reading this! I’ve never seen the movie (although now I kinda wish I could 😉 ) but from what I’ve read from your review, I think I’d prefer the TV Illya. Just personal preference 😉

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    1. BC, it’s a very fun rump of a movie, and with remarkably few bad words or iffy parts — a service like VidAngel or ClearPlay would clean it up easily, and you’d still have a fun film left.

      And don’t get me wrong — TV Illya IS one cool cat. I just happen to like Movie Illya better… but I do like TV Illya a lot too.

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  3. I haven’t seen the television show, but I loved the movie. It’s so fascinating to read that there was a fangirl-dom around the tv Illya. Not knowing much about the original version, Armie Hammer’s version felt like it had a decent amount of backstory and his performance was action-packed but layered too. If I catch up to the original, I look forward to seeing the differences between the two Illyas.

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    1. Katy, yes, Illya Mania was a pretty big deal — even though this was before the internet and Twitter and all that stuff, writers still knew Illya was In Demand, and changed the show accordingly to contain more and more Illya. It’s pretty fun to read about, or hear my mom talk about.

      Movie Illya had WAY more backstory than TV Illya, who had none, really. In fact, it became kind of a Thing that his past was 100% mysterious! I hope you can catch an ep or two some time, as it’s a fun (if often silly) show.

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