John Le Carré Movie Adaptations Ranked, 2021

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

There is a lot of John Le Carré out there. The author wrote prodigiously, starting while he was still working as a spy for MI5 and MI6 in the late 1950s and only really stopped when he died, in December 2020. There are nine novels featuring his most famous creation, the retired master spy George Smiley, and another 17 or so (depending on how you count) other novels, plus short stories, essays, memoirs, articles written for newspapers (denouncing the war in Iraq, for instance) and screenplays (always adaptations of his own novels). But there’s no getting round it, if you want a John Le Carré experience, the movies are probably the worst way … Read more

The Deadly Affair

Charles Dobbs on the phone

1966’s The Deadly Affair repeats the formula of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – John Le Carré story, top British and European cast, London locations, great US director, ace British cinematographer, soundtrack by a big name – and if it isn’t quite up there with the 1965 film, it’s still one of the very best Le Carré adaptations. It takes Le Carré’s first novel, A Call for the Dead, slaps a less sombre, more bums-on-seats title on it and also renames Le Carré’s masterspy George Smiley, as Charles Dobbs (Paramount, who had made The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, “owned” the Smiley name). Though in all important respects this is … Read more

A Murder of Quality

Denholm Elliott as George Smiley

Written by John Le Carré, a master spy storyteller, and featuring a masterspy, George Smiley, you’d expect A Murder of Quality to be, well, a story about spying. In fact it’s a bare-bones whodunit with not a spook to be seen. Both Le Carré and Smiley are here essentially moonlighting. The grisly murder of a woman at a private school is what sets it off, retired George being called in by old agency chum Ailsa Brimley to look into it as a favour for her. Strictly off the books, hush hush etc. This is a murder pure and simple. One for the police. Smiley is there as an outsider with no official involvement. … Read more

The Little Drummer Girl

Charlie training with the Palestinians

Is the 1984 flop The Little Drummer Girl really a spy thriller, as it says on the tin, or an existential drama about a woman losing her mind because she believed in nothing to start with? Diane Keaton stars in this adaptation of a semi-successful John Le Carré novel (attempts have been made to re-appraise it since the author’s death), playing an actress recruited by the Israeli secret service to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist network. Le Carré (real name David Cornwell) based “Charlie” on his half sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell, who around this time was suing a UK newspaper for suggesting her “bum is too big”. She won, on the grounds that … Read more

The Looking Glass War

Anthony Hopkins with Christopher Jones

The third of John Le Carré’s spy thrillers to be adapted for the big screen, 1970’s The Looking Glass War is an odd and pretty much entirely unsuccessful spy thriller that’s taken a big conceptual decision only for it not to pay off at all. The first two adaptations were the big success The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (Richard Burton starred) and the underrated The Deadly Game (a reworking of Le Carré’s novel Call for the Dead, with James Mason as a version of George Smiley). There’s no sign of Smiley here, though he was in this film’s original novel. That said, there is some justification for removing him since … Read more

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 17 – The Wringer

Patrick Macnee and Peter Sallis

  Peter Sallis hasn’t yet developed the voice that would make him the ideal Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit fame) in his outing as an amnesiac spook on the run in The Wringer, an episode in which a string of spies have been killed and Steed has been brought in to find out why, which prompts Sallis to then dob Steed in as the one doing the killing.   It’s one of the best stories in this series, perhaps because The Avengers had long ago given up all pretence that Mrs Gale is an amateur helping Steed out – she’s now as clued in as he is – or that Steed is essentially the … Read more

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

    Based on the breakthrough novel by former spy John Le Carré, shot in black and white to suggest that espionage is unglamorous, dirty work and starring a hollowed out Richard Burton, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is as far from James Bond as it’s possible to get – further, even than Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer of the Ipcress File. Telling the story of a jaded spy who is busted to a desk job in London and then recruited by East German intelligence – or that’s what they think – it’s a bleak marvel, as redolent of the drab side of the 1960s as the smell of a wet duffel … Read more

The Tailor of Panama

Pierce Brosnan and Jamie Lee Curtis in The Tailor of Panama

      Between Bond movies The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, busy Pierce Brosnan managed to fit in two other projects. One of them was this adaptation of a John Le Carre story about a downmarket spy (Brosnan) in Central America who uses a sweatily nervous tailor (the unimpeachable Geoffrey Rush) to gain access to the local generals, his object: to sell them all manner of dodgy information designed to destabilise the country. It may say Le Carre on the tin but there’s the definite feeling we’re in Graham Greene country here, the atmopshere of mosquito netting, insanitary plumbing and lousy tea all being typical Greene touches. Adding suitably … Read more