Why do John Le Carré’s novels translate so well to TV and Film media?
John Le Carré has been a pioneer of the literary espionage genre for more than 50 years, from his debut novel, Call for the Dead through to 2017s A Legacy of Spies. He found fame at the height of the Cold War and his work has obviously dealt with the work of spies; the world of espionage as well as the drugs trade, arms deals and counter-terrorism. He is frequently seeking new stories to tell, particularly in the post-Cold War period.
One of the most intriguing things I have found about his work is the sheer scale of adaptations based on his novels, especially in recent years where his lesser known novels have been frequently adapted in both film and television. Notably with the adaption of The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie in 2016 and The Little Drummer Girl, starring Florence Pugh, Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgård, which is currently on BBC One. Le Carré adaptations are by no means new, with his breakout hit The Spy Who Came in from the Cold having been turned into a major 1965 film starring Richard Burton. The BBC in the 1970s and 80s, which starred Alec Guinness, adapted two-thirds of his magnum opus Smiley Versus Karla.
Le Carré seems to thrive in having seemingly ordinary individuals thrust into the espionage game or, in the case of Jonathon Pine in The Night Manager, the arms trade. This is a common theme throughout his work; be it in The Honourable Schoolboy, The Constant Gardner or Our Kind of Traitor. The lead characters in these novels are all individuals thrust out of their comfort zone and perhaps offer some sort of connection to both a literary and cinema audience. His novels are often layered and nuanced, requiring multiple readings and viewings for their respective adaptations, drawing us into a murky world of espionage that is far less glamorous than the one presented by Ian Fleming in the James Bond novels and films.
Le Carré seems to thrive in having seemingly ordinary individuals thrust into the espionage game
There is always a feeling of substantial depth with Le Carre’s work. He builds his words so clearly and with such conviction that it is hard not be sucked in. The sheer attention to detail that’s gone into building his Cambridge Circus spy network, which is front and centre of the Smiley novels, is astonishing, and this largely translates across to the various adaptations with both Gary Oldman and Alec Guinness. The 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation stands as one of the most well received to date, receiving numerous Oscar nominations including a first for Oldman, and boasts one of the best ensemble film casts in the history of British cinema, with several actors appearing prior to becoming in-demand leading actors (Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch). The film stars the likes of Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones and Stephen Graham. There is talk of a follow-up based on the third part of the Smiley Versus Karla series Smiley’s People, which I’m sure most Le Carré purists would welcome.
The Night Manager was one of the television events of 2016, leading many to label Tom Hiddleston as a front-runner to replace Daniel Craig as 007. It once again boasted a stellar cast with Olivia Coleman and Tom Hollander in supporting roles. This is perhaps a Le Carré adaptation that transcends its literary roots, with the novel – whilst enjoyable – being nowhere near as gripping as the adaptation, and the changes made to the ending proving intelligent and not detracting from the source material. It boasts luscious cinematography and stellar lead and supporting performances and gives me hope, along with the Little Drummer Girl, that the BBC and Le Carré can forge a lengthy partnership giving some of his lesser-known gems the attention they deserve.
This is perhaps a le carré adaptation that transcends its literary roots
Moving onto the Little Drummer Girl, this is a harder one to judge based on its first 3 episodes. It is once again well-acted and contains some of the best cinematography work I have seen in any BBC production. This is television on a truly cinematic scale. The shots at the end of the first episode of Athens’s Acropolis are truly breath-taking; as are the long takes of Charlie driving a red Mercedes which open episode 3. The costume design is perfect, giving a feel for the late 70s, and Florence Pugh gets to wear some astonishing yellow, green, blue and red dresses that really catch the eye. The one drawback of this adaptation thus far is its snail-like pace. Whilst I expect this to pick up later in the series, it may prove frustrating to viewers expecting another adaptation in the style of The Night Manager.