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 to get one. The books are by far the best, because they give Le Carré space to lay out his worldview and spin his intricate webs. For the same reason – space – the TV miniseries also works well, with 1979’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Alec Guinness, probably unbeatable as the definitive screen Le Carré, though there’s also a lot to be said for 2016’s The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston. After TV, the audio versions are the way to go, particularly the BBC’s excellent The Complete Smiley, featuring Simon Russell Beale as a very Alec Guinness-tinged George Smiley.

And after all that, the film versions. Le Carré is all about intricate plotting and texture, and the two-hours-ish running times of most big- or small-screen movies simply isn’t enough for the magic to exert itself. However, some pull it off, others don’t.

For the purposes of this rundown I’m including all the standalone Le Carrés, whether made for cinema or TV. They’re a mixed bunch, ranging from the exceptional to the diabolical.

I’ve watched them all (bar one) and here’s how I rank them, from worst to best, and why.

The End of the Line

A BBC standalone Le Carré made in 1970 as part of the Armchair Theatre TV strand. The Germans would remake it three years later as Endstation – both are two-handers about a clergyman and an older gent sharing a train carriage on a journey from Edinburgh to London. Both men are spies but neither is saying so. Ian Holm and Robert Harris take the leads in the British version, Hans Schweikart and Peter Striebeck in the German one. I’ve seen neither, so won’t comment.

The Little Drummer Girl

Like Florence Pugh, decades later in the TV adaptation, Diane Keaton was undone in 1984 by a confusing story about an actress being recruited by the Israeli secret service to undermine the Palestinian cause she so vehemently champions. How? Why? It’s probably best not to ask. Le Carré has tied himself in knots trying (and failing) to work his Cold War modus operandi into a new theatre of operations, the Middle East. It’s nicely, unfussily directed, by George Roy Hill, and there’s a chance to see a relatively restrained Klaus Kinski do his thing, as an Israeli version of George Smiley.

A Murder of Quality

George Smiley moonlights as a private detective in a straightforward 1991 TV movie whodunit that looks as if it’s made for Sunday evening audiences in need of reassurance. A young Christian Bale joins troupers like Glenda Jackson, Joss Ackland and Billie Whitelaw and though it’s a bland and unsurprising Le Carré, Denholm Elliott does manage to cut through as Smiley – lighter and fruitier than Alec Guinness’s, in a tale that all comes down to the fine distinctions between various castes of hidebound Brits.

The Looking Glass War

Ralph Richardson and Anthony Hopkins turn up in this 1970 Le Carré adaptation but it’s the relatively obscure Christopher Jones who’s the star, as the handsome sailor recruited to go behind the Iron Curtain to winkle out secrets. Jones is fine, even though his long-haired, Warren Beatty-esque character is patently absurd, a sign that the film is playing to the countercultural youth of the day, a decision which kills any chance of the film being a success.

A Most Wanted Man

John Le Carré’s stories are often about the dull plod of everyday spying. A film’s problem is to render that on the screen and yet keep some excitement there. Director Anton Corbijn drenches his 2014 Le Carré outing with stylistic flourishes similar to the ones he brought to The American – this is a very cool film – and he has a cast of spectacular international dimension (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, Rainer Bock, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe). But in the same way that Le Carré’s novels often struggled in the post 9/11 world, Corbijn struggles here in his attempt to inject a spark into a film that is in most other respects brilliant.

The Tailor of Panama

A real mix of the fine and the not so much in this 2001 adaptation of Le Carré’s excursion into Graham Greene territory – a central America full of sweaty generals and downmarket spies. Pierce Brosnan – between 1999’s The World Is Not Enough and 2002’s Die Another Day – shows there’s more than one spy in his acting arsenal, and the rest of the cast is genuinely interesting and includes Geoffrey Rush, the largely superfluous Jamie Lee Curtis and playwright Harold Pinter (in a rare screen role). As for Brendan Gleeson as a Panamanian freedom fighter – not his finest hour.

Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor in Our Kind of Traitor
Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor in Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor

Blameless prof Ewan McGregor and lawyer wife Naomie Harris get caught up in the money-laundering machinations of Russian oligarch Stellan Skarsgård in Marrakech in a textbook “Le Carré on the big screen” movie. It looks great, it’s sexy enough and the cast (including the excellent Damian Lewis) is great. With McGregor once rumoured as “the next James Bond” and with Harris (the current Miss Moneypenny) in the cast, it’s clearly aiming for a bit of 007 lustre. But there just isn’t enough air in there to let Le Carré’s textures interweave and so the full weight of the betrayal/loyalty theme is never quite felt.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

What played out over nearly 400 pages in print and nearly five hours on the TV suffers from being condensed to the point where the intricacies of what is surely John Le Carré’s most finely plotted story start to get lost. Still, there’s always Tomas Alfredson’s direction to admire, and the sheer 1970s look of the 2011 movie is probably unsurpassed – reel-to-reel tape recorders, nicotine-coloured ceilings, the full analogue world. Tom Hardy’s 21st-century speech patterns are a problem, but it’s a dependable cast – John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch.

The Russia House

For this doubter, both Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer are surprisingly effective in this 1990 adaptation whose USP was that it was shot in Moscow as Gorbachev’s Glasnost made it possible for lickspittle running dogs of capitalism to film there for the first time in decades. Connery is a tweedy, boozy publisher recruited by the British secret service, Pfeiffer the Russian he’s targeting. It packs a lot in, and director Fred Schepisi sometimes forgets that he’s making a spy thriller. But it’s a looker, in every sense.

The Constant Gardener

This 2005 adaptation of Le Carré’s “Big Pharma” novel still bears all the hallmarks of his spying oeuvre – duplicity, grinding bureaucracy, the personal cost of loyalty to an idea – and features a methodical, very Le Carré character at its centre. Ralph Fiennes plays the plodding diplomat kicked into life by the death of his activist wife (Rachel Weisz) in an Africa where Aids and corporate colonialism stalk the continent.

The Deadly Affair

Paramount owned the name George Smiley and so James Mason goes by Charles Dobbs in this excellent 1967 adaptation of Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead. It’s directed at pace by Sidney Lumet, is photographed in appropriately stygian gloom by the great Freddie Young and its superb cast includes Simone Signoret, Harriet Anderson, Harry Andrews and Maximilian Schell.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

The first and the best of the Le Carré adaptations, largely because it sticks closely to what Le Carré was all about – compromised people in compromised situations. Richard Burton’s performance – as a drunk and broken man given another chance at redemption by playing a “defecting” spy sowing misinformation in East Berlin – is a great one, and of a piece with director Martin Ritt’s film making spying look about as unglamorous as it could get.

Almost all the screen Le Carré adaptations can be found on this Amazon page

Highly recommended: The Complete George Smiley radio dramas – also at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

5 September 2016-09-05

Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins

Out in the UK this week

Florence Foster Jenkins (Pathe, cert PG)

Tackled recently in the French film Marguerite, the story of Florence Foster Jenkins – the tone-deaf 1930s New York socialite who insisted she could sing – gets another trot around the block courtesy of Stephen Frears. Frears makes it a less pathetic, more screwball story, as if Fred and Ginger had stepped out for a minute, to be replaced by a non-dancing Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant – actually, there is a dance moment, and it’s there, deliberately, to underline what Frears and this film are about.

As with Marguerite the joke is on us rather than her, her inability to hit a note or negotiate any tune being a tragedy deeply felt by all concerned. Streep is good, but Hugh Grant is the star, as the devoted husband who, in spite of his floozy mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) on the other side of town, is in love with his wife and wants to spare her humiliation (possibly only because she’s stacked with cash, an idea left dangling). Those downturned eye corners, Hugh, are finally doing some work.

Screwball is pursued rigorously and all the characters are types – the brute, the fairy, the kept woman, the maestro, the silly matron, and so on. The Emperor’s New Clothes also hovers as an archetype, and we follow Jenkins as she heads towards a concert at Carnegie Hall, encouraged by sycophants, loyal employees and her paid rehearsal pianist (Simon Helberg), where triumph or tragedy awaits. Which is it to be? How will we react? Is someone going to shout foul? Will the glassware be up to it? Tragic, funny and rather marvellous. Hate to say it, but Marguerite has the edge – the personal cost to the braying diva is more keenly felt –  and I bet Frears is kicking himself.

Florence Foster Jenkins – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Suburra (Kaleidoscope, cert 18)

Sit tight, watch hard – the plot of Suburra takes a while to become fully operational and there are many strands, including one including The Pope, who is there as a kind of bookend, this all supposedly happening in the run-up to Pope Benedict’s surprise announcement of his abdication in 2013.

A Catholic End of Times story, then, folding corrupt government officials and violent rival gangs around and through a piece of land on the coast near Rome, where a fortune can be made if only the area can be re-zoned and it can be turned into a mini Vegas. The actual mechanics involve a flaky member of parliament (Pierfrancesco Favino) whose night of drugs and sex ends in tragedy. Enter the local gypsy mafia, enter the more traditional Italian mafia, enter rival politicians with their own agenda, enter an ageing mafia fixer (Claudio Amendola – it’d be Harvey Keitel in any US remake) to try and knock all these heads together, and you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry, sort of thing.

It’s intensely, glitteringly stylish in a way that’s almost Sorrentino-esqe at times, and director Stefano Sollima stages a decadent party à la The Great Beauty to show he too can turn it up. But Sorrentino isn’t about plot, whereas Suburra is, and Sollima shows he’s a nimble choreographer of precisely staged shootouts and knows how to stage violence so the psychological is as important as the physical. 

So, it’s unequivocally brilliant? No. And that’s because it’s all just a touch too familiar. But it is done with such panache it’s hard to complain – the gothic score alone is worth watching the film for. And you could carp about the subordinate role of women if this were an equal opportunities showcase, though even here Sollima pulls a neat switcheroo, late on. And how it rains. Style in the way of content? Oh, go on, just a bit. A hell of a thing though.

Suburra – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Our Kind of Traitor (StudioCanal, cert 15)

As the Tinker Tailor film demonstrated, but which many bunkered film reviewers won’t admit, John le Carré doesn’t work well at filmic length; he needs TV’s six-plus hours to play out all those storylines, and to consolidate his message of spying being a slow, sordid and unglamorous exercise, more about data management than derring-do.

Film adaptations of TV works obviously have to cut something, so they tend to cut all the boring stuff, not realising that in the case of le Carré they’re cutting the meat. And if you’ve seen TV’s The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston, you’ll realise what a superior work it is, for all the above reasons, when compared to Our Kind of Traitor, which is the same story flipped.

There it was Hiddleston as the out-of-his-depth new recruit to spying, inserted into an arms dealer’s coterie. Here’s it’s Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris as the husband and wife rookies getting involved with a Russian middle-man (Stellan Skarsgård) and an off-the-books British spy sting being run by Damian Lewis.

“A bit Bondish” seems to be the idea, and director Susanna White does what she can in lush locations, particularly in North Africa and Money Europe, though she does have a TV director’s obsession with watching cars grind to a halt outside buildings.

Damian Lewis is the best thing in it, as a young Smiley character trying to keep all the balls (and possibly his soul) in play, and not quite succeeding on every count. Skarsgård, again, is a marvel, here as a bearish extrovert trying by sheer force of personality to keep the hounds of fate at bay. Harris – cast because she was Miss Moneypenny – can do little with a character that’s barely there. McGregor is again, as in The Ghost, playing one of those blank-slate ingenues and succeeding, a feat, I think, at 44. That caveat about le Carré needing air apart, it’s a fine spy thriller.

Our Kind of Traitor – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

The Closer We Get (Somewhere, cert PG)

Like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, Karen Guthrie’s documentary is all about her family. And like Stories We Tell, it takes a while to actually establish where the story is, but then, suddenly, we realise Guthrie has her hooks in as the focus slips from Karen’s sick, suddenly ancient mother, to her father.

For the most part it’s a sweetly domestic tale of one Scottish family, in Largs, where Karen has returned, after years in London trying to become something in the film biz, to film her mother – still well – for a project about the family, one which changes direction when mum has a stroke, then again when a spoilerish something about her father is revealed.

The father’s story is the thread that tugs us through the story, it being about the man who went into the world, and was changed by it, while the women to a large extent stayed at home. This double focus is fascinating – the sharp mother, the bluff dad who went to work in Africa – and it’s particularly noticeable how easily the camera detects something we might not in real life. That the mother’s sharp edge is there as a protection from being hurt; the father’s bluffness a cover for being found out.

Karen’s soft-voiced narration is a blessing, and becomes beautifully contrapuntal as, in circle-of-life style, she starts to pull all the threads of this family’s story together as Malcolm Middleton’s evocative harmonium-plus-synths score builds to a jangly crescendo. Strong meat.

The Closer We Get – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Paramount, cert 15)

Tina Fey drops about 50 per cent of her comedy persona to play a bored journalist who signs up for a stint in Afghanistan, gets entirely embroiled in what’s going on over there, and ends up as one of those weird flak-jacketed war correspondents who jump out of helicopters by day and do vodka shots by night.

This is a big old movie with a budget, stars and locations and it has clearly not lived up to expectations. That’s because it is, for all its Afghani credentials, a Vietnam war movie with all the clichés in place – no one said “love you long time” but it was close. I wondered if it was the sort of film a liberal comedian has to make, perhaps having made one too many cracks about a stupid war at a party, only to be confronted by an angry “what are you going to do about it, then?” patriot? Maybe.

There’s lots to like in its series of brilliantly strung-together scenes with no real throughline – Martin Freeman is surprisingly brilliant as a tough sweary, boozy jock, Margot Robbie (I nearly said Kidder, pardon my 1970s) as a ballsier-than-the-guys tough nut rival correspondent, Billy Bob Thornton, badly used (and symptomatically) as a general wheeled on to deliver pith – “This war’s like fucking a gorilla,” he says at one point. “You keep on fucking till the gorilla wants to stop.”

The movie, for all its many great performances (Fey best of all) and superb atmosphere, feels a bit like that too.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Road Games (Icon, cert 15, DVD/digital)

A very 1960s-style horror about an English guy meeting a French girl out hitch-hiking. He speaks English, she speaks French and the movie pretty much stays with the Franglais, in what seems at first like an irritating gimmick, but eventually becomes integral to the plot of this nicely turned bit of something.

Road Games should actually be called Genre Games, because we’re never quite sure what sort of horror it is – ghosts, serial killers, mad psychos, torture porn? But as things move on, and the couple are picked up by a wildly scatty French guy (Frédéric Pierrot – a welcome face from the French TV series The Returned) with a nervous English-speaking wife back at their lavish pile in Picardy, things become very 1960s, as mannequin heads, trophy animals, empty rooms, ventriloquist’s dolls, all the discombobulating paraphernalia of an episode of the TV series The Avengers in other words, are wheeled out for effect.

Fans of the Rover P6 (design inspired by the Citroen DS, appropriately) will enjoy watching it being flung around corners as the film builds towards what can only be described as a “running around and screaming” finish. An interesting genre exercise.

Road Games – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

People of the Mountains (Second Run, cert 15)

This gorgeous film has been fabulously restored so the blacks smoulder and the whites ping. Which is fitting because István Szöts’ 1942 drama is considered to be a jewel of Hungarian cinema. It tells the romantic pastoral tragedy of a Transylvanian family trying to make ends meet against a backdrop of tough eked-out existence, made worse by a landgrab forcing peasants into increasingly shocking living conditions. The focus is peasant couple Csutak and Anna, whose struggles to bring a child into the world are compounded by Anna’s beauty, which makes her the target of a lusty local land overseer and the fulcrum on which this sorry tale plays out.

It is a tale of woe, and there is a lot of it, and perhaps there is more plot than one film should be asked to bear. But never mind that. Focus instead on the gorgeousness of the cinematography of Ferenc Fekete, who treats us to vista after vista of the most gorgeous alpine beauty – light spilling over mountains and through trees, mist sitting like an army blanket in valley bottoms, you can almost taste the purity of the air.

The nearest reference, clearly, is Leni Riefenstahl’s visions of heroic nature and blood-and-soil purity in The Blue Light, made before she went off to work for Hitler. This film, though, didn’t find favour with the Nazis, who banned it because of its excessive reliance on Catholic religious motifs. Their loss.

People of the Mountains – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2016