While adapting from one visual medium to another may seem to be a simple process, both media may rely on shorthand unique to it that can’t translate well. Today, Lost in Translation looks at that process using Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons, and Matthew Vaughan’s Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Image Comics published The Secret Service #1 in 2012. The first issue opens with celebrities having gone missing. A Secret Service mission locates and rescues Mark Hamill from the kidnappers, whose ends don’t include ransom. However, budget cuts and faulty equipment turn a 007-style chase scene tragic.
In a South London housing estate, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, a chav, is trapped by circumstances into a dead end existence, living with his mother, his younger brother, and his abusive step-father. His life revolves around hanging around with his chav friends, drinking, toking, and joyriding. Eggsy’s driving skills are more than a match for the local police, but a loose dog and Gary’s unwillingness to just run it over ends the chase. Enter Gary’s uncle, Jack. Jack is more than the Fraud Squad computer analyst he pretends to be. Jack is a super spy, one of the Secret Service, and he sees potential in Gary. He arranges for Gary to go to Gosford, the spy school.
A mass wedding in Hawaii becomes the test bed for Dr. James Arnold’s new device, leaving no survivors. Arnold is concerned about global warning and overpopulation. To save the Earth and one billion people, five billion must die. Arnold is hand picking the core of his future society, mostly notable actors and directors from science fiction and fantasy. He has managed to get people in top positions in many organizations, too. It’s how he found his bodyguard, Gazelle, a man with prosthetics below both knees.
Gary’s training progresses. He’s picking and excelling in the physical aspects of being a super spy. None of the other trainees can match him in firearms accuracy. Eggsy outdoes the trainee who stole a drug dealer’s Maserati by nicking Her Majesty’s Rolls Royce. His only problem is social; thanks to growing up in the estates, he doesn’t have the breadth of interaction or knowledge that his fellow trainees do. Frustrated, Gary wants to quit, but Jack manages to convince him to stay, promising an apprenticeship.
When Gary regains consciousness, he’s in a town in Columbia wearing his boxers and a bracelet. Jack has moved up Gary’s final exam. The goal, find his passport and airline tickets back to Britain, with the plane leaving at midnight. Gary’s solution is unorthodox; while he doesn’t make his flight, he does return to Britain in time bringing along a couple of souvenirs, a Columbian drug lord and his private jet, earning a pass and becoming Jack’s apprentice. The apprenticeship doesn’t last long. Jack seduces Arnold’s girlfriend, getting her to explain the nefarious plot. Afterwards, though, Jack is killed by Gazelle.
Gary discovers just how deep the conspiracy goes. Seeing that the top echelons cannot be trusted, he heads to the bottom of the hierarchy, his fellow trainees. They work out where Arnold’s lair is, a hollowed mountain, and come up with an assault plan, with limited time until Dr. Arnold’s cell phone signal . One of the trainees gets to take a hot air balloon up twenty-three miles to shoot down Arnold’s satellite. Two other trainees are tasked with finding the source of Arnold’s killer signal. Gary takes on tracking Arnold for himself. The satellite never appears, but the signal still goes out. The second group of trainees, instead of finding the shutdown switch, reprogrammed the signal. Gary finds Arnold and ensures that doctor cannot try again, ending the six issue story..
Vaughan wanted to make a fun spy movie after having seen a number of grim ones in recent years. He took the story in The Secret Service and adapted it as Kingsman: The Secret Service, released in 2014, becoming the movie’s co-writer and the director. With one of the original creative team on board in two key areas, it’s worth looking at the final outcome.
The film opens in 1997, with a mission in the Middle East to recover information going wrong after Galahad (Colin Firth) missing an explosive on a prisoner. If Lancelot, Eggsy’s father, hadn’t noticed and dove on the prisoner before the explosive detonated, none of the agents would have survived. As it is, Lancelot sacrifices himself. Galahad delivers the deceased agent’s Medal of Honour to the widow, Michelle (Samantha Womack) and young son, pointing out the telephone number on the back. If there is ever a problem, all either have to do is call that number and use the code, “Oxfords, not brogues.”
Seventeen years later, the new Lancelot, who looks a bit like George Lazenby, Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, takes a quick side trip for a rescue mission. The rescue plays out like the one in the comic. The difference is that instead of rescuing Mark Hamill, Lancelot is rescuing Professor James Arnold, played by Mark Hamill. The scene diverges before Lancelot can lead Arnold out of the cabin. Instead, he is taken by surprise by Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) and is cut in half by her, lengthwise. Gazelle covers her mess so that her boss, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, playing against type) can enter without being violently ill. Valentine believes in the Gaia Theory, where the Earth is a living organism and global warming is a natural response by the planet to get rid of an infection, and wants Prof. Arnold to help him.
Eggsy isn’t have a good life. He gets kicked out of the housing estate he, his mother, his baby sister, and his abusive stepfather live in so the parents can have alone time. At the pub with his mates, he gets on the wrong side of his stepfather’s cronies. Eggsy decides to let things be and leaves, but only after lifting the keys for one of the gangsters’ new car. The police give chase, only catching up when Eggsy crashes to avoid a dog in the road.
At the gaol, Eggsy refuses to give up his mates and, as a result, is looking at eighteen months behind bars. Eggsy uses his one call to dial the number on the back of his father’s medal. The voice answering the call thanks him for calling the Complaints Department and tells him he has a wrong number, but Eggsy uses the code phrase and gets his complaint registered. He walks out of the gaol, wondering what happened and is met by Galahad, Harry Hart. Hart offers him a chance to turn his life around. Eggsy was doing well in many subjects – school, gymnastics, even Royal Marine training – before dropping out of each. Hart still sees the potential in Gary.
Eggsy is the last to show up at the training facility. He joins eight other candidates to become the next Lancelot. Merlin (Mark Strong), the head of the technical branch and the lead trainer, explains how the training will work; trainees will succeed in tests or wash out. The training differs from the comic; what works as a montage in sequential art doesn’t in a film. Included in the training is the training of a dog from a puppy; Eggsy takes a pug thinking it will become a bulldog.
The cinematic Kingsmen were created after World War I after noble families lost several sons in the trenches. The Kingsmen are an independant intelligence agency, separate from political pressure, and pulled from the scions of nobility. Galahad, though, nominated Gary’s father, someone not from a blue blood line, believing that it is the man, not the family that is important. Eggsy is the outsider in the group of trainees, yet he is one of the final two, the other being Roxy (Sophie Cookson), after Charlie (Edward Holcroft) breaks under pressure in a test of loyalty. Roxy ultimately wins the position of Lancelot after Eggsy is unable to shoot his dog.
Meanwhile, when not training the next Lancelot, Merlin discovers Prof. Arnold walking around on a traffic camera despite having been kidnapped. Galahad heads off to discover why Arnold is free. During the questioning, Arnold’s head explodes. Examination of the video from Galahad’s eyeglasses shows that Arnold had a subcutaneous device on his neck that caused the explosion. Further investigation leads Galahad to Valentine. Valentine is offering a SIM card that will allow people to make calls and use the Internet for no cost. However, nothing comes for free. The SIM card is set to carry a wave that will trigger rage in the device’s owner.
Valentine’s test location is a hate group, the South Gate Mission Church, instead of the mass wedding. Galahad heads there to see what Valentine has in mind. Instead, he is caught up in the SIM card’s wave and gets involved in the fighting. There is only one survivor, Hart. Valentine, flanked by Gazelle and a couple of mooks, greets Galahad before shooting him in the head.
Eggsy returns to the Kingsman Tailor Shop to speak with the head of the Kingsmen, Arthur (Michael Caine). While talking about Galahad, Eggsy notices a scar on Arthur’s neck, much like the one Prof. Arnold had pre-explosion. Arthur, who had nominated Charlie, is very much a believer in maintaining class distinctions and sees Eggsy as a pretender. He tries to poison Eggsy, but the younger man sees it coming and switches the glasses around. Once Arthur is dead, Eggsy removes the chip in his neck and brings it to Merlin.
Merlin works his magic and determines what the chip does. First, it nullifies the carrier wave Valentine uses to turn people into unthinking, raging beasts. Second, it can get hot enough to superheat the implantees brain, leading to an explosion. With the countdown to the launch fo Valentine’s free cell network, capable of carrying the rage enducing carrier wave, started, there isn’t time to recall Kingsman agents in the field. Merlin has Roxy and Eggsy, the latter not officially an agent, to stop Valentine.
There are two steps to the plan to stop Valentine. The first is to shoot down one of Valentine’s satellites, giving more time to execute the second part, which is shutting down the signal at the source. Roxy is given the first part, going up with the aid of hot air balloons with a missile launcher. Meanwhile, Merlin flies Eggsy to Valentine’s mountain lair to use Arthur’s invitation to infiltrate and access a laptop, giving the technical branch head access to Valentine’s computer network.
Eggsy, now in his bespoke suit, purchased by Hart before dying, easily fits in with the crowd. He wanders through the main lounge and finds the Swedish Prime Minister on a laptop. A quick knockout dart, and Eggsy gets the laptop and Merlin on to the network. Unfortunately, Eggsy is discovered by Charlie, in the lair with the rest of his family. Valentine speeds up the countdown, but Roxy takes out his satellite.
Trying to escape, Eggsy is led back to the plane by Merlin. Unknown to Eggsy, Valentine borrows time from another satellite to re-establish his cell network, and the countdown is on again. The signal is sent through the network, causing mass riots around the world. Eggsy is sent back out, armed appropriately, to get Valentine’s hand off the computer. Back in the main lounge, Eggsy has to fight Gazelle before getting to Valentine and ending the threat once and for all.
For the most part, the movie follows the comic beat for beat, though some beats are moved around. The differences come up due to the differences in media. Comics, being a sequence of still pictures, have their own language. The reader is expected to fill in the gaps between panels. Movies can’t do that; being motion pictures, the film has to fill in those gaps. What can be a two page fight becomes a ten minute scene. Let’s take a look at some of the differences.
First up, characters. James Arnold went from main villain to villain’s henchman, replaced by billionaire philanthropist Richmond Valentine. Valentine, though, keep the motive, saving the Earth and one billion people by culling five billion. The method is the same, causing people to become raging monsters who kill each other. Even the lair remains more or less as seen in the comic. Eggsy is still the same, though his younger brother becomes a baby sister and his mother’s name changes from Sharon to Michelle. Minor change, really, one that doesn’t affect the storyline. Eggsy’s Uncle Jack, though, does change in a major way. Jack becomes Harry Hart, not related to Gary or his mother at all. The change came about because Vaughan saw issues with the My Fair Lady approach the movie plays with. If Jack remained, questions would come up why he didn’t do anything sooner. These questions get answered in the comic, but there isn’t time in the movie.
Time is another factor. The film runs 129 minutes. The same story ran six issues, giving the comic more space to expand ideas. Visual shorthands can make up for time, like letting Eggsy show what he can do instead of just hinting at it. But time in a film is still finite; audiences will only sit for so long before getting restless. Related to time is cast. Budgets can only go so far. The nature of training in the movie eliminated trainees, leaving just Roxy and Eggsy to deal with Valentine. In the comic, Eggsy leads ten trainees in an assault on Arnold’s lair, with another trainee, who isn’t Roxy, off to try to shoot down the satellite. Roxy doesn’t even get named in the comic, though there is a trainee who could pass as her.
Speaking of cast, the comic had artistic renderings of famous people who had been kidnapped by Arnold to restart society after his culling. Cameos, though, get complicated when using real people. The only person who appeared in both the comic and the movie was Mark Hamill, and he played a character other than himself in the film. Hamill’s first scene was much like his cameo in the comic, though his character survived the experience in the movie.
One other problem comes from a cultural difference. Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons, and Matthew Vaughan are all British. The comic and the movie have roots in the different classes in British society. These don’t always translate well to something that North American audiences can understand, though TV series like Doctor Who, Coronation Street, and Eastenders have helped introduce the concepts. Chavs and housing estates have equivalents in American culture, but the matching isn’t one-to-one. The movie had to make sure the concepts in use could be understood by an American audience without dumbing them down too much that the themes get watered down.
The end result, though, is that the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service is very much the comic, despite the differences. The story matches, though scenes differ. The clash of classes, the over-the-top villainous plan, the maturation and the understanding of what makes a gentleman, all of that remains. A Kingsman is a Kingsman, no matter the path taken.