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

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 Smiley, an ageing, owlish penpusher with a wife called Ann (Harriet Andersson) whom he adores but who treats him like shit – she’s “a nymphomaniac slut” in her own words, and most of Dobbs’s colleagues would agree, since they’ve nearly all slept with her.

The plot hangs off the death of a ministry wonk. Suicide is the official explanation. Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) was about to be outed as a former communist sympathiser, so the story goes, though Dobbs had quizzed Fennan on the very subject only that morning and Fennan had seemed happy to admit he’d been a Communist Party member in his university days – “Half the present Cabinet were Party men,” he points out. Unconvinced by the official line and suspecting murder, Dobbs sets about investigating, roping in Inspector Mendel (Harry Andrews), a cop on the verge of retirement, to help with the spade work. But first a trip to visit the dead man’s wife, Elsa. She is played by Simone Signoret, and let’s just say that you don’t hire Signoret simply to play the grieving widow.

James Mason’s mannered delivery works in his favour in The Deadly Affair. He’s a brilliant, silky Smiley (I mean Dobbs) – the silent but deadly quiet man whose unobtrusiveness is his secret weapon. The Dobbs character is of a piece with the shabby London settings captured by director Sidney Lumet. Far from the Swinging London of many mid-1960s movies, this is still the post-war world of damp rooms, electric fires and adultery, Lumet leaning in to Le Carré’s determination to present spying as a drab and morally ambiguous affair in much the same way Martin Ritt had in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel
Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel


Lumet also wanted to shoot in black and white, as Ritt did, but was prevailed upon by the studio to film The Deadly Affair in colour. Cinematographer Freddie Young gets Lumet half the way there, though, by “flashing” the film (exposing the negative to a controlled amount of light), a technique that drains out the colour, knocks back the contrast and increases shadow detail. This is a murky film that plays out in one underlit, beautifully photographed interior after another.

It’s also a superbly made film in terms of Lumet’s economical direction. From the opening shot, of Dobbs and Fennan already in mid-conversation in St James’s Park, Lumet does not hang about but drives the story forwards.

What a cast. As well as Signoret and Andersson – both greats of cinema – there’s the Austrian/Swiss actor Maximilian Schell, now amazingly almost a cinematic footnote but at the time about as big a star as a non-anglophone actor could be in Hollywood. One of Lumet’s fascinations is the way different actors work in different registers. Against the bluff, four-square Harry Andrews there’s puckish, nervous Roy Kinnear, for instance, and Lumet also stages several scenes at the theatre, where yet another different breed of actor, brother and sister Corin and Lynn Redgrave, play a camp director and his over-eager stage manager. We even get extracts from the plays they are supposedly working on – Shakespeare’s Macbeth and, particularly, Marlowe’s Edward II, where David Warner is playing the king and Timothy West is a witness to his terrible death (red hot poker where the sun don’t shine). Lumet is obviously indulging himself in a bit of “what I did on my holiday in London” postcard-writing with these scenes from Royal Shakespeare Company productions but they also provide a bit of contrast with the drabness of Dobbs’s milieu.

Quincy Jones’s lush John Barry-like score (title song sung by Astrud Gilberto) does something similiar, acting as a stark contrast to locations like semi-industrial Lots Road in West London, in the days before all of the Thames waterfront had gone upmarket. It’s where Dobbs finally unmasks his “traitor”, the dénouement playing out, grimly, quickly, in the dark and the pouring rain.

The years have been kind to this film, coating it in an allure it didn’t obviously have at the time. Mason is a superb Smiley (Dobbs, whatever) and this is a superb Le Carré adaptation.



PS: do yourself a favour and watch a restored version of the film, like the Amazon Blu-ray one listed below. It’s really worth it to see the results of the remarkable Freddie Young’s “flashing” technique. So much darkness, but so much detail.




The Deadly Affair – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021