Before Charlize Theron’s Lorraine got to beating up Russians with an extension cord in director David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, she was giving her debrief to MI6 in the 2012 Oni Press graphic novel, The Coldest City. Written by Antony Johnston, with art by Sam Hart and lettering by Ed Brisson, the Cold of the title is the Cold War, the city is Berlin, and by the time the story’s finished, the Berlin Wall’s come tumbling down.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. While the book and movie share different titles, their reasons for sending British spy Lorraine to Berlin are generally the same. One of MI6’s officers has been killed, and while his death is a loss to the organization, the concern that’s taken precedence is the list he was supposed to be procuring. Every intelligence officer working in the city is mentioned on that list, and that’s not the kind of information you want your enemies to obtain. Lorraine is assigned to work with another agent, Perceval (the film’s James McAvoy), to find out where the list will turn up next.
With talk of a double agent making it difficult to know who to trust, the movie has been doing decently at the box office against some staunch competition, but will it pass muster with book fans going to see it in theaters? Here are 15 occasions where the book and the movie don’t match.
— Major SPOILERS for the comic and the movie lie ahead —
15. Gender Swap: Lorraine’s French contact is a woman, not a man
Like the best gender swaps, though, the character isn’t really rewritten. Delphine Lasalle may be Pierre Lasalle in the graphic novel, but their experiences are fairly similar and unchanged. Both characters are seen following Lorraine when she arrives in Berlin. Both run into her at a bar (though where Delphine makes their second meeting a night club, Pierre invites her to his restaurant), and both end up having an affair with Lorraine that makes them a target to be killed.
Lorraine finds Pierre’s body – he was murdered, and not by Perceval – but in the movie, we’re made to see Delphine’s struggle to survive, after Perceval breaks-in to strangle her. The added kicker, that’s not in the book, is Lorraine’s right outside Delphine’s apartment. A few seconds longer and she might’ve been able to save her.
14. Atomic Blonde makes bold use of color
This isn’t a movie that shies away from bright fabrics and lighting. The graffiti subtitles are in neon spray paint. Even scenes that are more sterile, like Lorraine’s debriefing in an integration room, find contrast with Theron’s ice blonde hair, so all eyes are on her. Anyone who’s read the book first will know this isn’t something Atomic Blonde picked up from the source material.
Artist Sam Hart chose to present his art in black and white, and it fits the very different tone of the text. That’s not to say Atomic Blonde isn’t a fair adaptation, but it’s certainly less subdued. Coldest City put a priority on blending in and not drawing unnecessary attention. It’s the classic noir, where Atomic Blonde is loud and likely to make a scene if it’s possible to look cool.
13. Lorraine gets made upon her arrival in Berlin
Going along with her greater success at keeping her cover intact, Coldest City‘s Lorraine gets to meet Perceval at the airport without a scene. Except for Pierre, no one’s the wiser about her identity, and she’s able to keep it that way.
Atomic Blonde‘s Lorraine has no such luck. Tricked into getting into a car with Russians, Perceval may have been close behind when her car ride went south, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was late. As soon as Lorraine spots a gun in a jacket pocket that shouldn’t be there, she makes them regret underestimating her. It’s a car fight similar to Tulip’s on the TV show, Preacher, when she zig-zagged through a corn field with a compromised driver. Lorraine’s zig-zagging happens in a parking garage.
12. Delphine leaves an envelope of photos for Lorraine
With Lorraine’s name written on the front, there’s no mistaking who the pictures are meant for in Atomic Blonde. In The Coldest City, Pierre doesn’t specifically leave photos for anybody. Lorraine, knowing they exist, searches his apartment until they’re found in the toilet tank.
What the photos depict changes from book to movie, too. In the film, Lorraine hands them over to MI6 to prove Perceval’s the Russian double agent, Stachel. In the book, along with a photo of Perceval and the sniper who killed Spyglass (because in the novel, Perceval doesn’t kill Spyglass himself), there’s a picture of Lorraine meeting with a Communist. She was the real Stachel, but Lorraine burns the evidence, telling MI6 about the photos but forcing them to take her word for it that they ever existed.
11. Perceval is part of the operation in East Berlin to help Spyglass defect
In the book, it was Lorraine’s plan to use the protests over the Berlin Wall for cover. Perceval didn’t approve of the idea and was not there when the mission went down. In the movie, the protests are his idea, and at the last minute, he springs Spyglass’ family (a wife and daughter) on Lorraine to be spirited out of the city at the same time.
The black umbrellas are a nice touch that Lorraine thinks up on her own, to prevent snipers from getting a clear shot (it doesn’t hurt that the stunt looks terrific on camera), but otherwise, Perceval was the mastermind of the plan, and the cause of its downfall, when he deliberately ensures “the package” doesn’t make it out of East Berlin alive.
10. Spyglass drowns
For what it’s worth, Lorraine is never able to save Spyglass’ life but she does manage to extend it for a few more minutes in the movie. That’s because in the book, there is an unnamed KGB sniper [Edit: Originally wrote this sniper was Bakhtin. Thanks, Mr. Johnston, for the clarification!] who takes Spyglass out right away. When Perceval shoots Spyglass in the film, he hits, but it’s not fatal, giving Lorraine a chance to scoop Spyglass out of range, while she deals with the gun toting man who try to stop her.
Getting as far as the getaway vehicle, trouble follows them around, and it’s not long before Lorraine and Spyglass are hit off road and into the water. Spyglass is unable to free himself from the car, which forces Lorraine to safe herself without him.
9. Lorraine killed Perceval
This is up for contention in the novel, whether Lorraine shot Perceval or if there was somebody else involved. The answer is a combination of the two: she was there, but another Communist killed Perceval. The story she gives MI6, though, is different. There she tells them the tale they want to hear, that she froze and stood by while Perceval was killed, unable to fire until it was too late, and her actions did nothing to safe him. Given her impressive record, they should know better than to believe her. That they do speaks to the sexism of the time.
8. Structure: In the book, you know from the beginning Perceval’s dead
Both the book and film use Lorraine’s MI6 debrief as a frame to tell the story, with her recalling what happened during her mission to Berlin. The book has an extra scene in the beginning that jumps to the end of Lorraine’s debrief, when a man, who we discover was her boss in the city, was murdered. We know who died (Perceval) for the rest of novel, but we don’t know who killed him.
In the movie, we’re not prepared for Perceval to be eliminated. James McAvoy’s not the kind of actor you want to lose early, and Lorraine is just as likely to be killed from their unwillingness to work together and trust each other. As it turns out, Perceval was right to be cautious, but being right doesn’t help him out much in the end.
7. The image of the shoe gets reappropriated
In one of the more memorable snippets from Atomic Blondes’ trailer, Lorraine takes off her heel and slams it into the chest of the passenger next to her. Perceval holds out the shoe like a white flag when he wants to approach the flipped over vehicle. The reason Lorraine’s had to fend for her life is he wasn’t there to pick her up at the airport. As a result, she mistakenly wound up accepting a ride from a group of Red strangers.
The book uses Lorraine’s heels in a more traditional sense, to say that a woman must have been present to witness Perceval’s murder. The significance of the heel is very different, but the image remains becomes iconic in its own (less injurious) way.
6. McAvoy makes for a younger (and less sexist) Perceval
Where Perceval in the movie is young and charming, there’s nothing to suggest either adjective is applicable to Perceval in the book. Stuffy and set in his ways, both Percevals are described as having gone native. Their long stints in Berlin have gotten them caught up in the double crosses of the city, and their loyalties are less sure than they used to be.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t great spies – you’d have to be to make it in the business this long – but if movie Perceval was advanced in any way, it was his stance towards woman. McAvoy lets loose one line about woman holding back progress, but most of the time, his comments to Lorraine are admiring (to mask the fact that he doesn’t trust her). If he is sexist, he’s certainly less vocal about it.
5. The list was a watch
In the graphic novel, the list doesn’t exist, and even when it was supposed to exist, there was no mention of it being contained or engraved inside of a watch. There is one unrelated scene involving watches where Lorraine meets her East Berlin contact, Merkel. He’s posing as a pedlar and tries to sell Pierre a Rolex, but it’s a bit of an assumption to think Atomic Blonde was thinking of that Coldest City scene when they chose to make the list real.
Perceval procures it first, then Lorraine, and it’s through talking to a watchmaker (who does more than his job title implies) that Lorraine and Merkel are set-up. At least that’s what it looks like at first. Atomic Blonde makes a few switcheroos that could claim Merkel and Lorraine knew each other before Berlin and only pretended to be strangers.
4. Lorraine had a relationship with Gascoine
In one of the more unnecessary changes Atomic Blonde made from the book, Lorraine knows Gascoine and had a relationship with him. As a refresher, Gascoine is the agent in Berlin who was set to procure the list, before he was killed. Lorraine uses retrieving his body as a reason to visit the city but, in the graphic novel, they didn’t know each other at all, and there was nothing wrong with that.
It would be one thing if this were a revenge movie – Lorraine ready to make those who killed her ex-boyfriend pay – but their relationship never rises above inconsequential. There’s the theme of the spy life taking its toll, as everyone around Lorraine ends up dead, but her relationship with Delphine does much more to progress that story.
3. Lorraine is revealed to be a triple agent
Sure, the book ends with the reveal that Lorraine was Stachel all along, the Russian double agent posing as MI6, but the film goes one step further. Lorraine is a triple agent, working for the CIA. It’s a twist that feels a little flashy and out of nowhere, but if the idea is to set up a sequel, the decision makes more sense.
Last seen boarding an airplane back home (home being America), Lorraine is ready to retire. Anyone remotely familiar with the genre knows retirement goes wrong more often than not. There’s a sequel graphic novel, The Coldest Winter, that came out at the end of last year by Antony Johnston and new artist Steven Perkins, but it’s a prequel that focuses on Perceval, not Lorraine. Depending on whether the intention is to continue the franchise with Theron (which seems VERY likely), or provide McAvoy with a standalone film, the series has two viable options.
2. Kurzfeld is Lorraine’s American handler
In the book, Kurzfeld is an American associate of Perceval’s who blows up at Lorraine when Spyglass is killed, because Langley might give him some flack. They meet in the park a few times, and at first he seems decent, agreeing with Lorraine when Perceval gets upset that she corrects him about how to feed the ducks. When Perceval dies, though, Kurzfeld is overly eager to nail her as responsible.
As comes with casting John Goodman, his role becomes more important in the film, even if it only registers in the last few minutes. Walking away with the watch that has the list, their antagonism during the debrief was an act (or at least so much an act as Lorraine used it to call him names under the pretense of keeping her cover).
1. Atomic Blonde is action-packed
Movies have a tendency to increase the action sequences anyway, but that’s nothing to how much calmer The Coldest City is in comparison to Atomic Blonde. Actually, calmer is the wrong word, because everyone’s wound up tight, expecting something to go wrong, but violence is a last resort in the book. Characters are capable of it, but they also know that it shows their hand.
In the graphic novel, there’s one fight, and that’s the one in the stairwell, but it’s Lorraine against a single guy, not a bunch of human terminators who refuse to stay down. That’s it. Atomic Blonde is littered with combat, from the movie theater, to Gascoine’s apartment, and Lorraine is willing to fight dirty. A favorite panel in the book has Lorraine kneeing the sniper in the crotch, but really, the comic is much more toned down.
Which way do you prefer your spy stories, restrained like The Coldest City, or aggressive like Atomic Blonde? Share your thoughts on the film and graphic novel in the comments!
Atomic Blonde is in theaters now. The Coldest City is available from Oni Press.
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