I don’t normally do this: compare books and their adaptations, preferring to enjoy one and forget about the other. This isn’t because I get upset when things are changed – they’re different art forms so they make different demands – but because I feel like I already know what’s going to happen so there’s not much to discover.
However, having watched the TV drama Killing Eve I was interested in reading Codename Villanelle, the book that inspired it, for two reasons – firstly because, after a promising start I didn’t love Killing Eve as much as I expected to (and as much as everyone else apparently does) and secondly because Codename Villanelle was a self-publishing success story before it was picked up by a traditional publisher.
Both Codename Villanelle and Killing Eve introduce us to Villanelle, a clever and ruthless assassin who targets high-profile victims worldwide, at the request of an agent called Konstantin. Villanelle is not only a gifted killer, she is also an accomplished actor, liar and charmer. In the book she has great insight. She knows that she doesn’t think or feel like others do, but she watches them carefully and mimics them. The book is beautifully written with understated wit.
In the drama Villanelle is a more overtly comic character. The dark humour has an uneasy edge to it because we’re never quite sure whether she understands the joke she is making.
In Killing Eve, we meet Eve Polastri, a junior MI5 operative, quite early on and we follow her as she learns what she can about Villanelle. In contrast, in Codename Villanelle we know Villanelle’s backstory almost from the beginning, and the organisation that employs her – if not the individuals who make it up. In both, Eve is recruited to head up an ad hoc team to pursue Villanelle. Oddly, in the TV drama, there is a much larger cast around Eve – it’s normally the other way round as characters in books don’t require payment – and perhaps the character development suffers.
What I love about both is the contrast between the two characters – Villanelle with her international luxury lifestyle and flamboyant promiscuity and Eve with her engagingly eccentric husband and her functional clothing and down-at-heel flat. I’m glad that the drama didn’t attempt to glam up Eve, but instead played on the the differences. The acting is brilliant in the drama, particularly the two leads. (Sandra Oh, who played my favourite character, Cristina Yang, in Grey’s Anatomy is Eve and Jodie Comer is Villanelle). Both are nominated for the BAFTA 2019 TV leading actress award.
For me, the book is the more coherent thriller. In the drama, I felt that the first two episodes brilliantly set up the premise, and the whole series looks gorgeous, but the later episodes were more like a series of set pieces, played more for laughs. I didn’t feel like the mutual fascination of Villanelle and Eve was sufficiently grounded and there are some big intuitive leaps in the plot that don’t make sense (and an over-reliance on the deus ex machina of a hacker who can find the answer to any question in minutes).
The characters in the book (even the minor ones) behave in a more believable and intriguing way. It’s a stylised, high-concept thriller and so you don’t necessarily expect the events to be realistic, but it’s more satisfying when the psychology is.
Verdict – Definitely the book. What about you?
I received a copy of Codename Villanelle from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Codename Villanelle on Goodreads
Fascinating post, Kate. Thanks
I may be in the minority in preferring the book – we’ll see!
I’ve not gone back to read the book – and felt even more sure that the premise wouldn’t appeal on the page, once I’d begun to watch (and was taking such delight in the episodes – although I do agree about the elements of plot convenience) – so I particularly enjoyed your thoughts on the comparison! After your review tomorrow, you might convince me!
From hints online, I think the book and TV series will diverge even more as time goes on, so fans of one might not appreciate the other.