With the sad news of John le Carré’s (1931-2020) passing this weekend, a retrospective of some of the finest screen adaptations in the writer’s canon.
For many aficionados of the genre, le Carré was the unrivalled king of the spy novel, who maintained a remarkably consistent output – his final novel (the satire Agent Running in the Field) was only published just over a year ago.
We’ll be looking primarily at movie adaptations, but I’ll also briefly take in the storied history of Le Carré on the small screen.
This of course includes the magnificent 1979 adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (more on this later) as well as the two recent BBC1 big budget series, the sumptuous Night Manager (2016) and the rather more demanding Little Drummer Girl (2018).
A Perfect Spy (1987) and A Murder of Quality (1991) are minor works, but still well worth checking out.
Some (unfairly) have accused le Carré of lacking humour; if this ever needs refuting, I refer readers to the scene in Smiley’s People (1982) where Alec Guinness (incongruously dressed in a long leather trench coat) spends an interesting evening chasing leads in a sleazy Hamburg sex club, accompanied by grinding porno-rock music.
Returning to the movies, here’s a smorgasbord of some of the best of le Carré on the silver screen.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) – Amazon Prime
Being both his first novel and feature film, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is regarded by many as the best adaptation of any le Carré novel.
This downbeat defector thriller draws a great performance from Richard Burton as Alec Leamas, an apparently washed-up former spy ripe for recruitment by the East German Stasi.
Martin Ritt directs with an eye to the drab reality of the spy world, famously forcing Burton to tone down his theatrics for the role of the forlorn Leamas.
TSWCIFTC is apparently due to be remade for the BBC, as a follow up to The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl.
The Deadly Affair (1967) – Amazon Rent/But
Another le Carré movie that’s unlikely to have you punching the air at its end is Sidney Lumet’s Ritt-like take on Call for the Dead, with the always good value James Mason as Charles Dobbs – in fact George Smiley, but with the name changed due to studio rights issues.
A drab story of betrayal on a political and personal scale, The Deadly Affair does reveal a violent side to Smiley when riled, as seen in the final scene where he demonstrates the capability to kill with his bare hands. Not something you could easily see Alec Guinness accomplishing.
The Russia House (1990) – Amazon Rent/Buy
The late Sean Connery stars as the oddly-monikered publisher Barley Blair in this meandering romantic spy thriller, which draws a fine performance from the actor who displays a tender side as an unlikely knight errant to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Soviet damsel-in-distress Katya Orlova.
If you’re in the mood for knife-booted assassins, underwater lairs, steel-toothed henchmen and invisible cars, The Russia House is not the spy movie for you, but director Fred Schepisi helms with a sure hand, assembling a knockout cast that also includes Roy ‘Jaws’ Scheider, James Fox, John ‘Frasier’ Mahoney, Michael Kitchen, J. T. Walsh, David Threlfall and the great Klaus Maria Brandauer (Mephisto).
The Tailor of Panama (2001) – Amazon Rent/Buy
Le Carré riffs on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in this satirical tale of shenanigans surrounding possible regime change in the strategically vital Central American state – itself an artificial creation brought into being by the US in 1903 in order to construct and control the Panama Canal.
John Boorman directs Pierce Brosnan as dodgy MI6 spy Andy Osnard, and Geoffrey Rush as compromised emigre English tailor Harry Pendel.
As Osnard, Brosnan plays a corrupt twin to his James Bond, a trick he successfully attempted again a few years later in the cult movie The Matador (2005).
The Constant Gardener (2005) – Amazon Prime
Some may regard Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener as the apogee of Le Carré in Social Justice Warrior mode, but the picture has much to recommend it, including the prescient (to some) plot about drug trials conducted by a powerful pharmaceutical company.
Told in flashbacks, the story follows diplomat Justin Quayle’s (Ralph Fiennes) quest to find out why his activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) was murdered.
As with many le Carré pictures, the acting company is first rate, with Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Gerard McSorley and Pete Postlethwaite amongst the cast.
Meirelles also directed the Netflix’s critical hit The Two Popes (2019).
Shot in the Kenyan slums of Kibera and Loiyangalani, the crushing poverty of the area prompted the film crew to establish The Constant Gardener Trust to help provide educational facilities for the local children (le Carré was a patron).
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) – Amazon Prime
Tomas Alfredson’s movie version of the story received le Carre’s stamp of approval (together with a cameo from the author) and critical praise, but to my mind it’s distinctly inferior to the classic BBC1 series.
The acting and the mise-en-scène is pretty good, but despite being a solitary film, it tends to drag compared to the 7-part TV version, which has the space to ratchet up the tension.
Truth be told, I also prefer the performances of much of the original cast to the motion picture, especially that of Hywel Bennett (Ricki Tarr), Michael Jayston (Peter Guillam) and Ian Bannen (Jim Prideaux) versus their celluloid counterparts Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and the ubiquitous Mark Strong.
A Most Wanted Man (2014) – Amazon Rent/Buy
Anton Corbijn followed his similarly-themed George Clooney assassin thriller The American (2010) with this convoluted tale about the attempted ‘turning’ of suspected Islamic terrorists and the many grey areas in the seemingly never ending ‘War On Terror’.
A Most Wanted Man provided a worthy final leading role for Philip Seymour Hoffman as the surprisingly righteous German govt agent Günther Bachmann.
Our Kind of Traitor (2016) – Amazon Prime
Admittedly a lesser-known piece, but this most recent le Carré screen adaptation has a fair few pleasures, including some great locations (including Finland, Bern, Paris, the French Alps and Marrakech) and strong work from a cast that includes a more-engaged-than-usual Ewan McGregor,together with Stellan Skarsgård, Naomie Harris, and Damian Lewis.
The plot may seem very unlikely if you think about it too much, but this story of innocents drawn into the world of the Russian mob is a satisfying Sunday evening movie and an enjoyable companion piece to watch with BBC1’s later McMafia (2018).
Both The Looking Glass War (1970) and George Roy Hill’s take on The Little Drummer Girl (1984) were poorly received by critics and at the box office, but le Carré completists may wish to give them a chance.
The Looking Glass War, at least in my opinion, is not quite as bad as has been painted, but Diane Keaton at 38 is a wee bit long in the tooth for the role of the actress Charlie (26 in the novel) in The Little Drummer Girl. Florence Pugh was 22 years old when she played the character in the 2018 series version.