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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: How ‘The King’s Man’ weaves history and fiction to tell an origin story

January 7, 2022
5 min read time

About seven years ago, for those unfamiliar with the comic book, the world was introduced to the Kingsman: a secret spy agency that quietly handles some of the world’s most vicious threats from some of the worst criminal masterminds. It started with Kingsman: The Secret Service which followed a young troublemaker recruited to be a part of the organization. It’s through this character that we learned about the agency, but not its origins.

Now, we get a glimpse into where the Kingsman started and how this agency came to be in the 1910s, when the world went to war with itself. The King’s Man, directed by Matthew Vaughn (who also co-wrote and directed the first two Kingsman films), follows Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a pacifist who must come to terms with a violent world. As politicians across the globe fail to prevent the Great War, it’s up to a select few to ensure humanity doesn’t kill themselves. Their unique fighting and spying capabilities lead to the creation of the agency.

The King’s Man stars Ralph Fiennes, Harris Dickinson, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, and Djimon Hounsou. It was written by Karl Gajdusek and Matthew Vaughn, who also directs, based on the comic book by Mark Millar.

Here are five screenwriting takeaways from The King’s Man.

1. Using history to tell a fictitious tale

The King’s Man is not real. Yet, there are plenty of points in the film that are based on true events. One such example is the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand which sparked the First World War. Where there’s a break from reality is that Orlando Oxford (Fiennes) and his son Conrad Oxford (Dickinson) are alongside him. In fact, Conrad successfully deflects the bomb from the Archduke’s car saving him, before the second, and successful, assassination attempt. While the bombing and subsequent shooting did happen, the writers created the Oxford characters for the film.

This is always a compelling way to tell a historically-based story and allows the filmmaker to creatively use historic events to drive a fictional narrative. There is research involved, so writers who want to use this device to tell their stories must be knowledgeable about these events.

Other good examples that placed fictional characters and stories into history include Forrest Gump, Inglorious Basterds, Dick and the backstory for In the Line of Fire.

2. Defining the good and the bad

One thing that’s consistent with comic book movies is the well-defined good team and bad team. There is hardly a gray area. In The King’s Man, the audience knows exactly who is good and who is not. Oxford and his team of spies are the good ones, while the cabal of villains meet in a remote location where the shadowed head proves his evilness in the first few moments we meet him—he’s the bad guy.

Then there is Rasputin (Rhys), whose darkness swirls around him in brooding eyes, black clothes, and a slow, malicious voice, who is tasked with ensuring that the Tsar of Russia obeys his commands and, in turn, makes the war more brutal.

Not all heroes and villains need to be this on-the-nose, but writers can see the model for contrasting the good and the bad. With films like Cruella, Maleficent, and Joker, villains have a backstory that explains how they became the cruel individuals we know them as. It’s unusual nowadays for villains to be mean “just because.” But the audience learns very little about the villains in The King’s Man, only that they want world domination and that they benefit from the deaths of millions.

3. Anything can happen

Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll say that there is a significant death partway through the movie. At that point, the viewer doesn’t know what to expect regarding who may live and who may die. The most famous case with this (spoiler alert) is the death of Janet Leigh in Psycho’s shower scene. At the time, Leigh was considered the star of the movie and, after Hitchcock killed her off, the audience was suddenly on their toes. (Second spoiler alert) Scream is also famous for Drew Barrymore’s death at the start of the film. Both tell the audience that anything can happen to any character, thus intrigue is gained.

The King’s Man pulls this trick on the audience well. After the character’s demise, the viewer’s expectations are changed: anything goes.

Writers can see how to rattle the audience. Although, this can be tricky. If you’re taking out a significant character, there might be some pushback from producers who don’t necessarily want to off a high-caliber actor/actress before the end of the movie (or for sequel purposes, at all).

4. The throughline

A throughline is the motivation that drives the protagonist. It’s crucial to know what this is and have it as the force that keeps the protagonist going. If you’re not sure how your protagonist would or should respond to a scenario, or even when you need guidance on where to take them, remember the throughline.

For The King’s Man, the throughline is prevalent from the very beginning. Oxford, along with his son and his wife, visit a refugee camp on behalf of the Red Cross. His wife Emily (Alexandra Maria Lara) tells his son the importance of helping others and the reasons why they do what they do.

When tragedy suddenly strikes, this notion of helping and saving others becomes the motivation behind Oxford’s throughout the film. Every decision he makes throughout the movie going forward is based on that notion: protecting others.

5. On-brand

One thing that the Kingsman series is known for is its extravagant violence. While cartoonish at times (not in a bad way), there is a certain expectation that has been set. Any series has a brand that must maintain consistency throughout. John Wick knows how to shoot a lot of people and the Fast and the Furious movies must have elaborate car chases.

The King’s Man has its fair share of close-hand combat and fight scenes with personality, which includes a battle between Rasputin and Oxford, Shola (Hounsou) and Conrad, in which Rasputin highlights his dance abilities.

Writers can look at film series and see how each individual movie stays on-brand to meet the audience's expectations.

The King’s Man is currently in theaters.

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