For all the writers whose works have been destroyed by Hollywood, there’s one author who has found relatively consistent success with the studios – John le Carré. The master of the morally ambiguous, cerebral spy novel, le Carré could have easily seen his works transformed into Bondian and sub-Bondian action-thrillers, but most of these adaptations seem to respect his slow and intimate tone. This week, the latest le Carré adaptation, A Most Wanted Man, hits DVD/Blu-Ray, and it continues this tradition, while also being one of the best movies so far in 2014.
Formerly with MI5 and MI6, the octogenarian John le Carré (real name David John Moore Cornwell) has been publishing for well over 50 years. His third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) immediately became a Cold War classic and is still heralded as among the best of espionage fiction. Two years later, it was released as a movie starring Richard Burton in the lead role of Alec Leamas, a British spy approaching burnout who is “recruited” by The Circus (as the British Secret Intelligence Service is commonly referred) to hit rock bottom so he’ll be recruited by East Germany as a double agent.
Despite coming from the same era, Cold stands in marked contrast to the 007 movies (1965 also saw the release of Bond’s fourth outing, Thunderball). Leamas doesn’t go on ritzy, globetrotting missions; he’s forced into poverty and then into the cold of East Germany. He’s not a superhero, he’s a man pushed to his emotional breaking point and then beyond. His love interest Nan Perry (Claire Bloom, probably best known today as the mysterious Gallifreyian woman The Tenth Doctor stares wistfully at in The End of Time) is not an exotic beauty, but an idealistic student who bonds with him over their shared loneliness. And instead of being the man who saves the world, Leamas ends up being little more than a pawn being used by both sides in a game that only exacerbates his overall insignificance.
With its stark black-and-white cinematography and the Berlin Wall ominously looming over many important scenes to highlight how cut off Leamas is, the film does a fantastic job of presenting its main character as the inhabitant of a cold, dark, and mostly hopeless world. A multiple BAFTA-winner, Cold also earned Burton an Academy Award nomination for Best Lead Actor. (And it is currently streaming for free on Amazon Instant Video if you Amazon Prime, so there’s really no excuse for not watching it.)
Two other le Carré adaptations were released to theaters in the ‘60s (1966’s The Deadly Affair, based on his first novel Call for the Dead and 1969’s The Looking Glass War, based on the 1965 book) before the BBC made a miniseries out of what would become arguably his most identifiable work – 1979’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (based on the 1974 book). This seven part miniseries was followed three years later by the six-part sequel, 1982’s Smiley’s People, for which le Carré also wrote the teleplay.
Tinker and People comprise the bookends of a trilogy (the middle portion, The Honorable Schoolboy (1977) wasn’t adapted due to costs) about quasi-retired British intelligence officer George Smiley’s quest to stop his Russian counterpart, codenamed Karla. The first one is about his attempt to uncover a mole within The Circus while the second is about finally stopping Karla. Despite the films having the restraints of low 1970s/1980s BBC budgets (as any aficionado of the original run of Doctor Who can attest to), they are still good watches thanks to the quiet intensity and presence that Alec Guinness brings to the lead role. Though perhaps the most notable feature of the miniseries is that Karla is played by a long-before-TNG Patrick Stewart. In other words, Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Jean-Luc Picard. Now at the very least you probably have a new piece of esoteric geek trivia.
Following film adaptations of 1984’s The Little Drummer Girl (based on the 1983 book) and 1990’s The Russia House (based on the 1989 book) and a 1987 miniseries of A Perfect Spy (based on the 1986 book), live action le Carré disappeared for nearly a decade before re-emerging in 2001 with director John Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama (based on the 1996 book). It stars Pierce Brosnan as MI6 screw-up Andy Osnard who is exiled to Panama and suckered by ex-con/tailor Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush) into buying misinformation regarding Panamanian rebels and almost forcing a US invasion of the Central American nation. The film has more of a comic sentimentality than le Carré’s other works and at times plays satirically with how everyone is so ready to buy into what they want to hear and then has to scramble to cover their own mistakes while still trying for one last score. Although not as good as Burn After Reading, it’s definitely a spiritual sister to the Coen Brothers’ 2008 feature.
Released a year before his final spin in Die Another Day, Panama also has Brosnan giving his best “anti-Bond” performance. Movies like The November Man and The Matador have shown Brosnan willing to give a darker spin on the iconic role, but Panama features him at his most decadent. The devil-may-care attitude that makes 007 so alluring also makes Osnard disgusting and annoying. Brosnan seems to relish playing up the womanizing, smarminess, alcoholism, and uncaring nature of the archetypical super spy in a world that shuns these qualities.
Although 2005’s The Constant Gardener won Rachel Weisz a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, it was the next le Carré film that became the definitive piece of this oeuvre – 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Gary Oldman in the George Smiley role. Nominated for three Oscars (including Oldman for Best Actor), Tinker 2011 easily ranks among the greatest spy films of all time.
With so many espionage films devolving into pure action or unnecessary twists, director Tomas Alfredson creates one of the flat-out classiest films in recent memory…plus it has the greatest UK cast this side of a Harry Potter film. His slow (yet never plodding), methodological direction is bolstered by a great deal of subtlety and strangely hypnotic set design that captures the early 1970’s. With the majority of The Circus approaching retirement, the film also contains a wistful, “end of an era” quality that is suitably dreary without being overbearingly depressing.
Although trying to shove a overall complicated story previously told in seven hours into a two hour running time is inherently problematic, Tinker 2011 manages to avoid many of the pitfalls that could come with such a task. Due to excellent performances and an intelligently crafted screenplay (by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan), many of the nuances remain and the film doesn’t feel rushed. It gets richer upon rewatches to the point where it could easily become a “comfort film” – one of those movies you can watch or leave on at any time and for any reason.
Which brings us to this year and A Most Wanted Man. Based on the 2008 novel, it was directed by Anton Corbijn (Control, The American) who excels in bringing a sense of loneliness, personal tragedy, and intricate pacing to his movies. Moving from the Cold War to the War on Terror, this film involves a German intelligence agent Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) trying to “recruit” unwitting illegal Chechen immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) and his immigration attorney Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) to get information on a possible financier of terrorist activities in order to use him to get to higher-ups in a chain that (we get the uncomfortable sense) continues into infinity. While this focus on a pawn gambit is similar to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, it never feels derivative of the movie from a half-century earlier.
Predictably, Hoffman’s performance as Bachmann, which was overshadowed by his death, is the movie’s highlight. A veteran of the intelligence community, Bachmann has been in the game so long that he seems bored by how repetitive and redundant it is. But when he finally has someone to turn, he seems to take a kind of comic amusement in watching his team use the hackneyed tricks he has seen countless times before to confuse and manipulate their marks. More straightforward than Tinker, it’s a terrific film that simultaneously showcases the monotony of espionage work while having the signing of a piece of paper being as edge-of-your-seat intense as any shootout.
Over the next several years, we’ll be getting more le Carré adaptations. In 2015, David Farr (MI-5, Hanna) will be converting 1993’s The Night Manager into a miniseries for BBC/AMC starring Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston. Also that year, 2010’s Our Kind of Traitor will be adapted by director Susanna White (Parade’s End, Generation Kill) and writer Hossein Amini (Drive, The Wings of the Dove). Until then, there’s always Cold, Panama, Tinker 2011, and Most Wanted. For those wanting something in the espionage genre other than gunplay and gadgets, these are excellent alternatives with nary a traditional action sequence to be seen and a total number of kills you could probably count on two hands.