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Arts & Culture

A Fan's Tribute To John Le Carré

Richard Burton starred in perhaps the most iconic film adaptation of John Le Carré 's books, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" (1965).
Paramount Pictures
Richard Burton starred in perhaps the most iconic film adaptation of John Le Carré 's books, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" (1965).

Remembering acclaimed spy novelist who died late last year

Acclaimed novelist John Le Carré died Dec. 12, 2020. Gary Dexter, my guest on Cinema Junkie's trio of spy podcasts in October, was a fan of the author and of the espionage genre. Here's his tribute to Le Carré's books and the best film and TV adaptations of his work.

Author John Le Carré dead at 89

On Dec. 12, making an already miserable year, so much worse, John Le Carré passed away after a brief battle with pneumonia. Born David Cornwell in Poole, Dorset in 1931, he adopted the pen name John Le Carré on publication of his first novel to circumvent a ban on civil servants publishing books under their own name (he was a serving Secret Intelligence Service (SIS aka MI6 officer at the time). Though for many years he denied having been a spy, Le Carré’s career as an Intelligence officer was one of many that was ended by Kim Philby’s treachery, later the inspiration for "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

Early life

His father, Ronnie Cornwell, was a noted conman and philanderer, exposing Le Carré to lying and deception, tools of the espionage trade, from a young age. In 1937, when his mother Olive ran away with an estate agent (realtor), five-year-old David was told that she had died. It was not until years later when he tracked her down that they met at a railway station in Ipswich, at which time he learned that she was unimpressed by his novels.

His books were carefully researched and exquisitely written and in common with Len Deighton, whose "Ipcress File" was published a year after Le Carré’s first novel, he focused on if not realism per se, then apparent authenticity. He presented the world of espionage as pedestrian, morally ambiguous and above all, unglamorous. His recurring character, retired spy George Smiley is a quietly spoken, deliberate man, living in a loveless marriage to a woman who openly cheats on him. He is, in almost every way, the anti-Bond. Shane Whaley, founder of the excellent Spybrary podcast, made the following astute and amusing comparison (paraphrased from memory) “when I read Fleming, I want to be a secret agent, but when I read Le Carré, I want to be an accountant.”

Sir Alec Guinness played spy George Smiley in the BBC mini-series "Smiley's People" (1982).
Sir Alec Guinness played spy George Smiley in the BBC mini-series "Smiley's People" (1982).

Early work and the character of George Smiley

His first novel, "Call for the Dead" (1961) introduced George Smiley and Le Carré’s fictionalized version of the SIS, “The Circus” (so named because of its location in London’s Cambridge Circus) and is as much a murder mystery as espionage novel, centering around the death of a civil servant following a routine security check by George Smiley. His follow-up, "A Murder of Quality" (1962) again featuring George Smiley is his only work of fiction set outside the world of espionage, being a traditional, though characteristically well-crafted whodunnit. Both books received modest reviews and sold modestly, but that would all change with the publication of his third book, "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" (1963).

It was the success of "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," that enabled Le Carré to transition to writing full-time. The book and its celluloid adaptation are among my personal favorites, written at the height of the Cold War, it challenges the perception that dirty tricks were only used by the Soviet bloc and that The West was above such things. George Smiley is relegated to a supporting (though important) role, the book instead centering around disillusioned spy Alec Leamas, played to perfection by Richard Burton in the 1965 black and white film. The complex plot deals with a disinformation operation against a Stasi officer and its tragic consequences. I reread this book regularly and likewise re-watch its celluloid sibling. Aside from being one of the most faithful book-to-film adaptations ever, both capture the gray ambiguity, selective disclosure and soul-taxing grind that anybody exposed to Intelligence work experiences. The events of this book were reexamined through a contemporary lens in 2015 in Le Carré’s penultimate novel, "Legacy of Spies."

This breakthrough work, was followed by "The Looking Glass War" (1965), cited by Le Carré as his most realistic portrayal of espionage, the reason to which he also attributed its low sales and "A Small Town in Germany," a cautionary tale about the dangers of a resurgence in extreme right-wing politics, sadly as relevant today as it was in 1968.

Aging spy George Smiley then reemerged in what is now referred to as "The Karla Trilogy" after its Soviet adversary, head of Moscow Center in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," "The Honorable Schoolboy," and "Smiley’s People." The first instalment of this trilogy has been memorably adapted by the BBC with the late, great Sir Alec Guinness portraying George Smiley and later with the equally great Gary Oldman as George Smiley in the criminally underrated and (British) star-studded cinematic version. In 1982 the BBC again engaged Sir Alec Guinness to portray Smiley in their adaptation of "Smiley’s People," opposite future "Star Trek" captain, Patrick Stewart as Karla.

Florence Pugh starred in the AMC limited series "The Little Drummer Girl" (2018) based on Le Carré's 1983 novel using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as its backdrop.
Florence Pugh starred in the AMC limited series "The Little Drummer Girl" (2018) based on Le Carré's 1983 novel using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as its backdrop.

Moving past the Cold War

A writer who at that time, was very much associated with the Cold War, in 1983 turned his attentions to the Israel/Palestine conflict, perhaps in response to the perceived weakening of the Soviet bloc, that would some nine years later result in its collapse. This culminated in the novel "The Little Drummer Girl," adapted with limited success into the 1984 Diane Keaton vehicle and later into the more faithful, though perhaps too-realistic/slow-paced-for-the-casual-viewer BBC/AMC co-production starring Florence Pugh.

In 1987, Le Carré’s "A Perfect Spy" was published, ostensibly the story of British Intelligence officer and Czech double agent Magnus Pym and his relationship with his charlatan father Rick Pym, it is equally a semi-autobiographical account/processing of his relationship with his own con-man father, Ronnie Cornwell. In 1987 this too was adapted by the BBC into a too-little seen and therefore underappreciated seven-part adaptation starring Peter Egan.

Interestingly at about this time, after years of (understandable from their perspective) ostracization from the Soviet Union, Le Carré was granted a two-week visa to visit Russia as a guest of the Soviet Writer’s Union, it is alleged that Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, being a fan of Le Carré’s work, was instrumental in facilitating this.

Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer star in "Russia House," a 1990 adaptation of John Le Carré's novel.
Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer star in "Russia House," a 1990 adaptation of John Le Carré's novel.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, many expected Le Carré’s star to wane, however it was not to be. In 1989 his novel "The Russia House" was published, adapted into a movie a year later starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer. In (necessarily) brief, the plot centers around the apparent unwitting recruitment of a publisher into a plot to further the spread of democracy in the Soviet bloc. The novel is, at least in part, a treatise on the duplicitous funding and furthering of the military-industrial complex by perpetuation of the arms-race.

In 1993 Le Carré’s first true post-Cold War novel was published, "The Night Manager," dealing with the injustice, hypocrisy and corruption behind international arms trading. In 2015, The Ink Factory adapted it into an exceptional and successful six-part mini-series for the BBC, starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie.

His 1997 novel, "The Tailor of Panama" is a pseudo-farce inspired by Graham Greene’s masterpiece, "Our Man in Havana," dealing with a US invasion of Panama resulting from a corrupt MI6 agent’s attempts to exploit a reformed con (now tailor) in the eponymous city. The publication of this novel, indirectly resulted in a long-running feud between Le Carré and Salman Rushdie, following Le Carré’s letter to The Times objecting to voices in the U.S. branding him anti-Semitic for his portrayal of a character in the novel. Rushdie responded to the effect that he wished he had expressed similar sentiments when Rushdie had himself been subjected to a Fatwa following publication of "The Satanic Verses." In 2001, John Boorman (of "Zardoz" fame) made a reasonably faithful cinematic adaptation, starring Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush.

Le Carré continued to defy critics’ expectations of him becoming irrelevant in a post-Cold War world, with the publication of this novel "The Constant Gardener," dealing with big Pharma’s exploitation of Africa’s poor, again adapted into a faithful and harrowing film, starring Rachel Weisz and Raph Fiennes.

Gary Oldman took on the role of George Smiley in the 2011 film "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."
Focus Features
Gary Oldman took on the role of George Smiley in the 2011 film "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."

Entering a new millennium

In 2003, Le Carré joined several writers denouncing the U.S. led invasion of Iraq and the following year his underrated novel "Absolute Friends" was published, dealing with a pair of radicals from 1960s America coming to terms with aging. It is likely that this triumvirate of "The Tailor of Panama," the letter of denunciation and the themes of "Absolute Friends" are the basis for allegations that he was anti-American. However, considering his writing in the broader context, he is anti-cruelty and anti-stupidity rather than anti any single nation.

His twentieth novel in 2006, "Mission Song," continued to defy critics’ expectations, dealing as it does with developed nations’ exploitation of African nations, in this case, East Congo.

"A Most Wanted Man" (2008), adapted into a bleak and highly relevant film starring the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, brought a nuanced view of the impact of post 9/11 government policies on Muslims.

In 2010, "Our Kind of Traitor" was published, adapted into a movie in 2016 starring Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris and Stellan Skarsgard, and managed the daunting feat of humanizing a Russian mobster in a tale of defection.

"A Delicate Truth," published in 2013, written in his mid-80s, deals with the cover-up and consequences of a special forces’ operation undertaken on the basis of faulty and inadequate Intelligence. This is an underrated novel in my opinion and a personal favorite which I hope is adapted for film or television sometime soon.

As mentioned previously "A Legacy of Spies" (2017) is a contemporary reexamination (Monday morning quarterbacking as it were) of the events and consequences of "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" and features the welcome “return” of Alec Leamus, Peter Guillam and (albeit all-too briefly) George Smiley himself. I was extremely privileged to attend Le Carré’s signing and lecture during the launch of this book and given his seeming (despite his advanced years) premature departure, will always count my blessings at having made the trip.

His final novel, barring any posthumous publications, was 2019’s "Agent Running in the Field," an entertaining excoriation (justified in my opinion) of the short sightedness of Britain’s BREXIT decision. It is a final demonstration of Le Carré’s extraordinary ability to use his fiction as a vehicle by which to examine the folly of ignorant governmental policies and their human cost.

Although the elegance of Le Carré’s writing enabled him to bridge the gulf between popular and literary fiction, he was habitually self-effacing, consistently declining honors. He declined a nomination for the Booker Prize in 2011 and maintained that he would never become Sir David Cornwell.

Perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the impact of his life and work, is the fact that many of the terms that he utilized to give his books a sense of authenticity, have subsequently entered the vernacular of the intelligence community. For example, prior to Le Carré coining the term “mole,” the accepted term was “penetration agent.”

Any article about a writer of Le Carré’s talent and career longevity is inevitably only a potted history, for those wanting to learn more, I recommend Le Carré’s memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life” published in 2017.

Best Le Carré Film Adaptations

"The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" (1965)

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy" (TV, 1979)

"Smiley’s People" (1982)

"A Perfect Spy" (1987)

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (Film, 2011)

"A Most Wanted Man" (2014)

"The Night Manager" (2016)

"The Little Drummer Girl" (2018)

Tom Hiddleston starred in the 2016 BBC adaptation of John Le Carre's "The Night Manager."
Tom Hiddleston starred in the 2016 BBC adaptation of John Le Carre's "The Night Manager."

Film and TV adaptations

Having focused on many of my favorite Le Carré books and this being a film-centric blog, check out my list of what I consider to be, the most successful celluloid adaptations.

Lastly, for anyone wanting to learn more about Le Carré’s life, works or adaptations or indeed spy fiction in general, as mentioned earlier, I recommend Shane Whaley’s excellent Spybrary podcast and Jeff Quest’s Spywrite blog, I am indebted to both for background material, not to mention friendship and reading recommendations.

-- Gary Dexter is a film aficionado with a particular geeky affection for spies, "Star Wars" and "Dr. Who" (he has been seen cosplaying as the 9th Doctor).

Listen to Cinema Junkie Episode 218 where Dexter joins the discussion about John Le Carré's real world spies, as well as to his contribution to the podcasts on Bond. James Bond Part One and Two. Enjoy Geeky Gourmet videos about spy themed food and drinks.

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