Matthew Vaughn’s mysterious Argylle novel is here – what does it tell us about the movie?

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A new novel, Argylle, claims to be the inspiration behind Matthew Vaughn’s upcoming film of the same name. But is it quite what is claimed? We’ve had a closer look.

Published today is a new novel called Argylle. The marketing tells us that it’s ‘The Explosive Spy Thriller That Inspired the new Matthew Vaughn film starring Henry Cavill and Bryce Dallas Howard’ but I don’t believe a word of that.

Contrarily, I think the film came first. That the film is the reason the book exists at all – and not in the Alan Dean Foster or Target Books sense of being a novelisation.

The lead character of Argylle, as played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is novelist Elly Conway. This is also the very same author the new real-world book has been credited to. The key to what’s really going on here seems to be the Author’s Note, or as they cheekily call it, the Author’s Note for New Edition, as if there were any kind of prior edition.

This note is where ‘Elly Conway’ explains the origin of her novel.

“Not too long ago,” she begins, “I suffered a terrible accident that completely shattered my life.” She goes on to explain how, while recuperating from this mysterious accident, her mother gave her a book of photos to look through. On seeing a photograph of a certain mountain in southern Poland, she “felt a tug of something and, that night, Aubrey Argylle came to me, fully formed, in a febrile dream, with his Nehru jacket and flat-top hair and buried sadness and his need to put right what the world keeps getting wrong.”

What we seem to have here is less Romancing The Stone fantasy-turned-adventure and more The Long Kiss Goodnight spy-with-buried-memories.

So while this might be the book inspired by the movie, and ostensibly the book that we’ll see in the movie, I think it’s also going to serve as a prequel to the movie.This, I think, will be the adventure that Elly Conway, diner waitress turned novellist, experienced in her past life of espionage and adventure.

A lot of the fun, then, is looking to see which character in the book is Conway’s analogue. If she experienced all of this, surely she must have been there?

It makes the most sense to me if Conway herself is Argylle, reimagined as a man in her pages. Aubrey is a gender non-specific name, of course, and Argylle could be a codename – it’s very close to Argyle, so maybe there’s a string of textiles-related aliases.

I don’t want to spoil where the book goes in detail, and it’s very much just one box of puzzle pieces which will only really make total sense when the film comes out (if at all) but the world of the film is very much established: international espionage, Russian villains, American spies, and focus on the Amber Room, a 19th century Prussian room-sized treasure that was looted by the Nazis during the Second World War. That room has a lot of importance in this novel. A lot.

Curiously, the early scenes in the trailer that seem to be direct visualisations of sections from Conway’s novel – Henry Cavill dancing with Dua Lipa and the subsequent car chase escape – don’t appear directly in the book’s text. The characters do – he’s Argylle, she seems to be Quinn, while John Cena appears to be Wyatt.

Henry Cavill and Dua Lipa in Argylle. Credit: Universal Pictures/Apple.

The scenes as written and filmed have similarities – the gold dress isn’t a coincidence – but also major differences. I can’t quite fathom why this would be. It seems to take too much air out of the metatextual fun, rendering this book as Conway’s novel in spirit and intent but not down to the fine detail.

So, the book only really encouraged my suspicion that this is all a Long Kiss Goodnight variant, something I first started thinking as soon as the trailer came out.

But had I actually read the description of the film published in Film Stories Magazine before the book, or before seeing the trailer, then I think I’d have been spoiled quite comprehensively. According to our own Mark Harrison, what seems to have been the first logline for the film contains an incredible SPOILER.

Here comes the probable SPOILER, in the back end of this pargraph, so look away now if you don’t want to see. Because the original logline seems to have been something like ‘a spy suffering from amnesia is tricked into believing he is a best-selling spy novelist. But after his memories and lethal skills return, he goes down a path of revenge against shadowy organisation ‘The Division’ that he used to work for.’

All of which, if sites such as SneakPeek.Ca have had it right all along, confirms that the relationship between the book and the film are pretty much what they seem to be, albeit now with a gender-flipping protagonist between page and reality. Oh, and I should probably point out that there is a reference to a Special Activities Division in the book, not The Division as such. Possibly because there’s a lot of The Division in pop culture these days?

Looking at the book in isolation… well, it’s certainly a quick read. Surprisingly so.

More surprising still is that it didn’t really match the tone of Vaughn’s movies at all. The films are much more sprightly and playful and the trailer for Argylle seems more in step with that. The book feels quite dry in comparison, or at least more straightfaced.

I’m hoping the book retroactively comes to life after I’ve seen the movie, and that its details take on extra meaning in that new context. Indeed, I’m hoping I somehow enjoy the film a lot more for having taken a chase through the book first – that outcome would probably be the best reason for the book to exist in the first place, rather than being a half-baked, imprecise hype tool that doesn’t really pay off.

But let’s see. Either way, I’ll find out next month.

Argylle is out in UK cinemas on the 2nd February.

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