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 Spy Who Came In from the Cold

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

19 December

 

 

Birth of Leonid Brezhnev, 1906

On this day in 1906, the very last old-school leader of the USSR was born.

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was born into Tsarist Russia, the son of workers. Thanks to an education at a technical school he became a metallurgist, joined Komsomol (the Communist youth movement) and started to make his way in the party, becoming a political commissar in a tank factory by the age of 30, and eventually party secretary in Dnipropetrovsk, a Ukrainian city intimately connected to the arms industry.

As a result of Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s, Brezhnev advanced rapidly into suddenly available positions. He was tasked with important work in the Second World War and acquitted himself well.

Brezhnev had been Nikita Khrushchev’s protégé since the early 1930s, and as Khrushchev’s star rose, so did Brezhnev’s. Stalin appointed him a member of the Presidium in 1952. In 1953 Stalin died and Khrushchev took over. Brezhnev’s time had come.

When Khrushchev was removed in 1964, partly as a result of Brezhnev’s manoeuvrings, Brezhnev took over, on a ticket of restoring collective leadership of the USSR.

However, by a series of quiet strategies he managed to collect power around himself.

Brezhnev’s era was marked by the suppression of Khrushchev’s political liberalism, a strengthening of the power of the KGB and the restoration of the cult of the leader.

Some experiments were made with free-market principles (in Hungary, for example). Until 1973 the USSR economy continued to expand rapidly (as it had done since the Revolution) but after 1973 spending on the arms race as well as a general intransigence of the leadership began to act as a drag on the economy – the standard of living started to fall, services began to deteriorate. By that time Brezhnev had also become a pill-popping drunk.

For the last seven years of his life Brezhnev was not a well man – he suffered strokes and heart attacks, had emphysema, gout and possibly leukaemia. He was brought back to life several times before, in 1982, dying of a final heart attack aged 76.

Having presided over a Kremlin increasingly full of old men while he lived, Brezhnev was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, aged 70. Yuri Androprov only lasted 15 months before he too was dead. 13 months after that Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was dead too, aged 73.

Enter Mikhail Gorbachev, aged 54.

 

 

 

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1964, dir: Martin Ritt)

Written by a former spy, John Le Carré, and shot in a style borrowed from British kitchen-sink miserablists, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is probably the best Cold War film ever made, not least because it eschews the glamour of spying and spies – no James Bond heroics. In fact there aren’t even the tawdry delights of tinned mushrooms, one of the small luxuries available to The Ipcress File’s Harry Palmer.

This is spying as nasty, brutish work, where your own side is so out of control of the situation that there’s a good chance you’ll die as a result of their efforts.

It is also, probably, the best screen performance by Richard Burton, as the spy being courted by the other side because they believe he might be happy to change sides now he’s been demoted to a desk job. But the communists are worried that he is in fact a double agent, a notion that the film spends some time being a bit cagey about too.

It’s a good one, but I’m not sure that plot is really what this film is about. Atmosphere seems more director Martin Ritt’s concern – in bleak meetings on park benches or in shabby hotel rooms, or simply in shots of Burton’s Alec Leamas drinking himself senseless in his shabby bedsit, Ritt is after a feeling you didn’t get in spy films of the era, of compromise, muddy morality and of the end justifying the means.

In the centre of this we have Burton, the embodiment of that atmosphere, craggy, hollow-eyed, a husk. The decision to shoot in black and white always requires justification, but none is required here: this is a drab world of buses and drizzle, of barbed wire and rough grey blankets, and cinematographer Oswald Morris’s noirish tones are exactly what is required.

And so, from a different perspective, is Claire Bloom, playing the sweet idealist who believes that communism might actually be the solution to the world’s problems. Not because she’s a communist but because the alternative, believing in nothing, is what makes people like Alec Leamas.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The greatly under-rated director Martin Ritt (The Sound and the Fury, Hud)
  • Oswald Morris’s cinematography
  • A support cast including Oskar Werner, Cyril Cusack, Michael Hordern
  • First cinematic appearance of Le Carré’s spymaster George Smiley

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – at Amazon

 

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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 coat. Martin Ritt directs, and you’d not guess from the portrait painted of life behind the Iron Curtain that he’d been blacklisted in the US, for supposedly having Communist sympathies. Mind you, the picture he paints of life in Britain, just emerging from economic lockdown after going broke fighting the Nazis, is hardly sympathetic either.

Though critically rated, the film did not do overly well at the box office, the public being still in the first flush of love with 007 and finding the lack of car chases, gadgets and no-strings sex something of a letdown. And Ritt’s determination to keep the boomy theatrics out of the performances by Burton and his co-stars (including Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner and Peter Van Eyck) probably didn’t help sell it to the glamour-hungry either.

Not everyone loves this film. Some find it too dark, too grey. But in its depiction of an almost heretical character – the spy who seems ambivalent towards his country – it takes a type established by Graham Greene and adds several dollops of bleak. Le Carré, Ritt and Burton know exactly what they’re about, and they’re all facing in exactly the same direction.

 

 

PS

Trivia hounds might like to note that the film also features the first screen appearance of Le Carré’s most famous creation, George Smiley (played here by Rupert Davies), who’d go on to be played in later films by James Mason, Denholm Elliott, Alec Guinness and, most recently by Gary Oldman.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – at Amazon