John le Carré’s novels, from writing to screen

“Like any novelist, I fantasize about movies. Novelists are not equipped to make films ”, declared John Le Carré. The converse was true as cinema and series continue to take hold of its a priori tailor-made universe: bestsellers with labyrinthine intrigues, traitors galore and the promise of discovering the real mysteries of espionage. In 1965, filmmaker Martin Ritt hot-adapted Le Carré’s third novel (1963), the spy who came from the cold, with Richard Burton as an agent thrown in to feed in a war of disinformation between Britain and East Germany. Superb bitterness (“I reserve the right to be ignorant, that’s how we live in the West”), the actor gives a bureaucratic, dispassionate vision of the genre, filled with doubts about the legitimacy of the “good” camp. Burton will say of Le Carré that he “Writes like an angel, understands his victims very well and has a wonderful ear for ordinary language.” We are light years away from a James Bond then at the height of his popularity: the definitive anti-007 born by Le Carré remains his George Smiley, a binocular spy master ruminating on his manipulations behind his desk.

Read also John le Carré, sacred agent

It is on television, better able to preserve the scale of the intrigues that Smiley finds his final incarnation in the guise of Alec Guinness in a series (1979) for the BBC adapted from the mole (1974). An instant classic across the Channel – with its sequel smiley people tour in 1982, where we will watch and taste a memorable appearance by Michael Lonsdale as a maneuvered Russian diplomat. The aesthetics and setting of Le Carré’s seventies novels still make our contemporaries dream. Has the large screen version, but in the form of an interior decoration catalog, the mole (2011) by Tomas Alfredson, we prefer the series (2018) adapted from The Little Drummer Girl (1979) where an inspired Park Chan-wook sublimates the mise en abyme of the game of pretenses of intelligence and thwarts the fake reconstruction with an assumed sense of artifice: a leftist actress (the excellent Florence Pugh) infiltrates a group Palestinian terrorists under pressure from a Mossad spy (the dreaded Michael Shannon).

“We are spies”

Le Carré himself took part in his adaptations, notably co-producing and co-writing the deliciously cynical the Panama Tailor (1999) by John Boorman. Spying ? “It’s dark, lonely work, like oral sex, but someone has to do it”, sums up Pierce Brosnan as a liar barbouze, responsible for a crisis around the Panama Canal. The carnivorous smile, Brosnan destroys with pleasure his image of Bond: the original 007, Sean Connery, had previously also thrown, in more cushy mode, in Le Carré and a version of Russia house (1990) by Fred Schepisi. While geopolitics recomposed the ills of the world, the end of the Cold War in no way damaged the verve or the need for his pen, for him as for the screens: it is the pharmaceutical companies in The Constant Gardener, passed under the filter of Fernando Mereilles’ tourist trip in 2005. They are the arms dealers in the BBC version of The Night Manager by Susanne Bier in 2016, with a sexy smart business class visual, with Tom Hiddleston as night hotel manager. It is of course Islamist terrorism in A very wanted man (2014), where former clipper Anton Corbijn has as his main asset Philip Seymour Hoffman, the paunchy German successor of Smiley in his last role before his death. “We are spies”, he throws coldly, casually, during a boring meeting, in a tone that doesn’t make you want to aim for this career at all.

Ultimately, the visual powder of the eyes can only fade in front of the tortuous humanity of the characters of the writer. We can dream of what three filmmakers who were interested for a time in adapting Le Carré: Stanley Kubrick for A perfect spy, Fritz Lang for Black candles or Francis Ford Coppola for Our game. We can assume that they would have preserved his sharp sense of detail: to help Alec Guinness prepare the role of Smiley, Le Carré tells in his memoirs the pigeon tunnel having organized a three-way lunch with Maurice Oldfield, the former director of the British secret service. Guinness will be inspired by him onscreen in the way he holds an umbrella, as if to clear the way in front of him, and in his wearing of suede, crepe-soled boots. “Are these boots for discreet walking?” Guinness asked Le Carré. “I think it’s more to be comfortable, Alec. The crepe squeaks. “

Léo Soesanto


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