Code words, covert operations, action: le Carré at the movies

Updated on Dec 18, 2020 07:49 PM IST

Over the decades, filmmakers, script writers and actors have found inspiration in the British novelist’s complex plots that laid bare the quintessential human condition.

In his last role before he died, Philip Seymour Hoffman played a German spy in the film adaptation of A Most Wanted Man.(DEMAREST FILMS)
In his last role before he died, Philip Seymour Hoffman played a German spy in the film adaptation of A Most Wanted Man.(DEMAREST FILMS)
Hindustan Times | ByRohan Naahar

John le Carré, the British writer of spy fiction who created an alternative to the suave James Bond with a sullen George Smiley, died on December 12. He leaves behind a rich legacy of novels that elevated espionage fiction to literary art. A series of successful film and television adaptations starting from The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (a 1965 film starring Richard Burton) to the more recent The Little Drummer Girl (a 2018 series) imprinted the rich world of espionage and its moral ambiguities into our cultural consciousness. Le Carré’s experiences as an intelligence officer in the 1950s informed his writing and lent it credibility. His contribution to Cold War literature though unmissable— Graham Greene once described le Carre’s 1963 novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold as “the best spy story I have ever read” — was bolstered by an equally eager audience on both sides of the Atlantic primed to this popular genre. Here’s a look at some of the most notable adaptations till date:

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Film, 2011)

Director Tomas Alfredson turned the 1974 novel into a film with Gary Oldman in the central role, playing George Smiley, surrounded by a cream-of-the-crop supporting cast that included Colin Firth (who played Bill Haydon, member of the British intelligence apparatus and nicknamed Tailor in an ill-fated attempt to smoke out a British mole), Benedict Cumberbatch (who played Smiley’s right hand man, Peter Guillam), and Tom Hardy (who played Ricki Tarr, a field agent whose intel kicks the plot into motion) among others. The novel was also adapted into a successful television miniseries by the BBC in 1979, with Alec Guinness as Smiley. But the 2011 film’s success lay in capturing the steely paranoia of a post-9/11 world — not quite Cold War, but a trans-national war against Terrorism, led by Big Brother America — and in fact, inspired a spate of new adaptations of other le Carré novels.

The Little Drummer Girl (Miniseries, 2018)

Based on the 1983 novel, The Little Drummer Girl has been adapted twice, too. A film version directed by George Roy Hill and starring Diane Keaton was released in 1984. In 2018, the feted South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook took a crack at it with Florence Pugh in the central role: she played Charlie, an actor recruited by the Mossad and sent to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist group. Park made bold visual choices with the costumes and sets in the six-episode miniseries — the rare le Carré yarn to feature a female protagonist— that also starred Michael Shannon, Alexander Skarsgard and Charles Dance. “I wanted to stay away from the dull, gloomy colours you would conjure up when thinking about espionage genre,” Park said in a 2018 New York Times interview. “This is a story about a civilian woman, an actress, and I wanted that vitality and life in the visual landscape,” he explained of the starkness.

Florence Pugh (left) plays the protagonist in Park Chanwook’s 2018 adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl. (AMC)
Florence Pugh (left) plays the protagonist in Park Chanwook’s 2018 adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl. (AMC)

The Constant Gardener (Film, 2005)

Synonymous as le Carré was with Cold War fiction, he was often asked what he would write about after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The Constant Gardener, a 2001 novel which tells the story of Justin Quayle, a British diplomat in Kenya trying to solve the murder of his activist wife, Tessa Abbott, became one of his most successful efforts of depicting a post Cold War world. A film version starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz (who won an Oscar for her performance), was directed by Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles in 2005. Fiennes told the Guardian in a statement after le Carré’s passing that the writer “loved what Fernando Meirelles did with the film” as it was “faithful to the central axis of the book” but gave it a “dynamic, highly cinematic, kinetic spin”.

The Night Manager (Television series, 2016)

It’s curious that three non-English speaking filmmakers – Brazilian Meirelles, South Korean Park, and the Dane Sussane Bier — are behind the most definitive adaptations of the great author’s work. Bier directed The Night Manager, a novel that le Carré wrote in 1993, about the “worst man in the world”, Richard Roper and former British soldier, Jonathan Pine, who must bring him to book. Despite being vastly different from the novel, to the point of changing the character Leonard Burr’s gender, and incorporating actor Olivia Colman’s real-life pregnancy into the plot, le Carré was impressed with Bier’s show. “What I like best of all is how Susanne Bier goes on chewing at the bone of the drama long after other directors would have given up; and how, in this back-and-forth interaction between film and book, a two-way process occurs, as I begin to spot in her film things she herself may not be aware of, just as she has spotted things in my novel that I may not have been aware of,” le Carré wrote in the Guardian in 2016.

Hugh Laurie (second from left) plays Richard Roper in The Night Manager. (AMC)
Hugh Laurie (second from left) plays Richard Roper in The Night Manager. (AMC)

A Most Wanted Man (Film, 2014)

Director Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of the rather low-key (and relatively recent) le Carré novel will always be viewed with a tinge of melancholy. It served as the final starring role of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career; the actor died the same year. In many ways, his Gunther Bachmann – a jaded German on the hunt for a Chechen terrorist – was a version of the Smiley school of spies that le Carré had perfected; plump, unkempt and unhappy. “A lot of actors act intelligent,” le Carré wrote about Hoffman in The New York Times in 2014, “but Philip was the real thing: a shining, artistic polymath with an intelligence that came at you like a pair of headlights and enveloped you from the moment he grabbed your hand, put a huge arm round your neck and shoved a cheek against yours…”

The Russia House (Film, 1990)

Decades before Vin Diesel and his Fast and Furious family would head to Cuba to shoot the first major American film there after the ‘thaw’, Sean Connery got a peek behind the Iron Curtain in The Russia House, based on le Carré’s first post-glasnost spy novel that was published in 1989. It was among the first American films to have been shot on location in the Soviet Union, and gave Connery an opportunity to trade his James Bond swagger for the stateliness of a le Carré hero. Famed film critic Roger Ebert said the movie was perfectly cast — Michelle Pfeiffer made a splendid Katya; Connery as the cynical and world weary London book publisher; Roy Scheider and John Mahoney as American Intelligence officers — but the script, written by the playwright Tom Stoppard, made “le Carre’s novel into a sort of a filmed dramatic reading” by “middle aged men”.

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