How to Adapt John le Carré

This isn’t the film of the book, it’s the film of the film, which is what we all pray for, and it seems to me that this time round we may really have got it: film doing its own job, opening up my novel in ways I didn’t think anyone had noticed—and maybe I hadn’t noticed …
—John le Carré


le carreThe Night Manager is the latest adaptation of a John le Carré novel (there have been fifteen) but only the third one of his books to be expanded into the extended episodic television series format that is, presently, the most rewarding way to “watch a book”. 

Previously, in the standard two-hour film, the nuances of varied subplots and detailed backstories of characters, in most complex novels, haven’t been entirely satisfactory to novelists or to dedicated readers. The novel, compromised into a screenplay, always feels like a condensation. The extended series format, however, is rapidly becoming the novelist’s best friend. Instead of compression, it allows embellishment and expanded artistic licence.

In an interview with the Guardian, le Carré (above) said:

The long form has often suited my work better than feature, and television drama, these days, whether from the US or Scandinavia or, more rarely, from Britain, is scaling new heights.

The US has certainly produced some very credible extended dramas, including Homeland, Deadwood, 24, The Shield, Sons of Anarchy and John Adams.

I would disagree with le Carré’s assessment of the British, who have always been masters of the adaptation and period-costume drama, with The Onedin Line, The Forsyte Saga and myriad Austen and Bronte adaptations. Wire in the Blood and Spooks are also fine procedural television series. (Not to mention those Merchant-Ivory films which, although produced in India, have always felt very English.) British productions have been benchmarks from which others have drawn inspiration, including the Scandinavians, relative newcomers who now produce some of the most cutting-edge drama.

This essay appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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At its worst, the multi-episodic structure of a series can result in padding. Sometimes a simple story, renewed year after year, due to its ratings and commercial popularity, loses its dramatic teeth, as in the case of Homeland, where poor plotting and weak character arcs, after seven years, have watered down a compelling story that should have ended after one or two seasons. As soon as Damien Lewis left the show, Homeland should have ended. It’s been said about Lewis, who also starred as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall, and as Soames Forsyte in ITV’s 2002 production of The Forsyte Saga: “no one does power like Damien Lewis”.

But in other instances, like Bates Motel—the serial adaptation of Robert Bloch’s Psycho—a gifted young actor like Freddie Highmore can bring astounding and unexpected depth, and even heart-breaking empathy, to the character of a psychopath like Norman Bates. The five-season series had a stunning conclusion that, in my view, transcended what Anthony Perkins only hinted at in the original role, and resulted in an adjacent, but complementary, narrative for the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece.

I have watched the six-episode series of The Night Manager three times, enjoying it each time as though anew, and I’d like to compare and contrast it a little with the le Carré novel, published in 1993, without giving too much away.

“John le Carré” is a pen-name. His birth name is David John Moore Cornwell and he began his working career as an officer for MI5 in 1958. According to the New Yorker, “he ran agents, conducted interrogations, tapped telephone lines and effected break-ins”. Two years later, he was transferred to a branch of the foreign intelligence service, MI6, based in Bonn.

Cornwell began writing, as a pastime, under the pseudonym John le Carré, as MI6 intelligence officers were forbidden to publish under their real names. (Le Carré is French for “the square”.) He wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963, his third novel, and his first major commercial success,

He quit intelligence work in 1964 to focus on writing full-time, for several reasons: the notoriety and success he was achieving as a writer were making it difficult for him to stay “secret”, and his cover, as Second Secretary to the British Embassy, at Bonn, was blown to the KGB by the double agent Kim Philby.

The Night Manager was the first novel le Carré wrote after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was the background for the book, but for the recent television series, the “Arab Spring” of 2011 became the landscape. The series of The Night Manager was directed by Susanne Bier, winner of the 2011 Academy Award, Best Foreign Language Film, for In a Better World, and the screenplay was written by David Farr, associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who had also been a writer for the British series Spooks. The series was produced by le Carré’s son, Simon Cornwell, and cost about £20 million to make. Farr said:

The Night Manager [book] is a very different story to le Carré’s Cold War novels. It has a searing political anger. He wrote it in the mid-1990s and his disgust aimed at US and UK foreign policy in Latin America was nakedly apparent. I didn’t feel that the Latin American milieu had the prescience now that it did then. I have a personal interest in the Middle East and it felt tragically perfect to set the series there. The Arab Spring was only two years old when I started the adaptation but already one felt the awful unravelling beginning, and the West’s utter confusion as to the right moral position to take. I had a very strong instinct that we must begin in the heart of that once hopeful month of January 2011, in the heart of Cairo.

The lead character of Jonathan Pine, the night manager of the Nefertiti Hotel in Cairo, is played by Tom Hiddleston. The scenes at the Nefertiti were shot at Es Saadi, in Morocco, a resort developed by Jean Bauchet, the artist-entrepreneur who, in 1955, took over the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Bauchet bought twenty acres of empty land in Marrakesh and built a casino. Josephine Baker and Maurice Chevalier opened it in 1952.

For a start, there is a break from previous adaptations, as, in the past, le Carré’s spies have been cynical counterparts to the suave dash of the popular franchise secret agents, typified by Ian Fleming’s James Bond. In the Night Manager series, with Jonathan Pine played by the impeccably elegant, charismatic and handsome Hiddleston (who has also been under consideration to play the next Bond), the distinction between Fleming and le Carré is beginning to blur.

The across-the-Thames-from-MI6-River-House intelligence agent (in the novel, Leonard Burr), has also been modernised into a pregnant Angela Burr, played by Olivia Colman.

Gender swapping is quite common in remakes. Judi Dench played the iconic M, head of MI6, in the James Bond franchise, for seventeen years. In the US series Revenge, essentially a modern-day variation of The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas’s protagonist Edmond Dantes is turned into the shrewd Emily Thorne. Susanne Bier commented:

Burr was from a different class, a less upper-class background. And if you were to update it to today, it felt very natural that that character become a woman, because there is a sort of intrinsic class fight—in this case, then, a gender fight—which becomes a part of it. Not that it’s outspoken in the series, but it’s there as part of the DNA of the whole thing.

Olivia Colman was actually pregnant during the shooting and her memorable interpretation, against type, becomes the unexpected moral centre of the film. Angela Burr is the one who encourages Jonathan Pine to transcend his apathetic night-manager comfort zone and to “do the right thing”—become a soldier again. John le Carré says:

Today, of course, I wish I’d written Mrs Burr into my novel instead of her ponderous husband. But I hadn’t, and that was then. So all I could do, still guardedly, was welcome her to the family and hope to heaven that the writer, director and producers had the wit to conjure an enjoyable and believable character into life. And they did. 

Other key characters in the series are Hugh Laurie, as Richard Roper, the humanitarian arms-dealer. (Doesn’t just the placing of those two words together ooze with evil?) Roper is our resident bad guy, and the versatile Tom Hollander is his number one henchman, Corky, who, as le Carré says, “has all the best lines”.

The plotline of The Night Manager series proceeds roughly as follows. Jonathan Pine, the night manager of the Nefertiti Hotel, with a military background in Iraq, forms an attachment with Sophie, girlfriend of the violent Freddie Hamid, a member of the powerful Hamid family, who owns the hotel as well as half of Cairo and is heavily invested in the UK. Sophie entrusts some documents to Pine, as an insurance policy against anything nasty happening to her because of what she knows about the Hamids. These papers include invoices connecting the Hamid family to Richard Roper, an entrepreneur and humanitarian by day and an illicit international arms-dealer by night.

Pine, realising the terrorist implications of this information, with all good intentions passes it to a former friend in intelligence. There is a leak somewhere, things go wrong, and bad things happen to Sophie.

Four years later, we find Jonathan Pine, now night manager of another hotel in Switzerland. By a stroke of coincidence, Richard Roper, his girlfriend Jed, henchman Corky, and an entourage of goons arrive at the hotel for a skiing holiday. Pine is content to be nondescript in his job and hopes no one in Roper’s party connects the dots with his previous time in Cairo, but Angela Burr, who is running a “church mouse operation”, under the radar of MI6, codenamed Operation Limpet, persuades Pine to go undercover and help her catch Roper.

He eventually agrees and is given a series of false identities and passports to help him create a believable backstory, as a wanted murderer and thief, in order to withstand scrutiny by Roper’s organisation. Burr discovers that someone in MI6 with connections to the CIA is trying to thwart her investigation.

Several incidents occur now, one involving the rescue of Roper’s son, which endears Pine to Roper and allows him, very believably, into the upper circle of the organisation. Pine rapidly rises to become Roper’s new right-hand man, displacing Corky, who has distrusted Pine from the start, but Roper ignores the warnings. Pine, now as managing director of Tradepass, the shell company created for Roper’s arms deal, is the one entrusted to sign the paperwork and do the money transfers, because, in this way, there will be no incriminating documentation leading back to Roper. Heavy weapons and sarin gas are purchased from some unsavoury Latvians, and a meeting is set up with Egyptian buyers and the Hamid family, with Roper as the middleman. However, when Pine starts to have serious feelings for Roper’s girlfriend, Jed, more bad things start to happen, to everyone.

The series has, literally, a fireworks finale and to reveal any more details would spoil the ride, so let’s leave it at that.

Le Carré’s book was set in 1991, with the Iraq War in progress, and opens with the arrival of the wealthy mogul, Roper, at a snow-swept Zurich hotel. All those initial Cairo scenes, in the film version, are presented as backstory, in flashbacks. The novel is encrusted with extraordinary detail. (Two pages are devoted to a description of the head concierge’s wig!)

Jonathan Pine is also quite different physically. In the novel:

[Pine] was a compact man but tentative, with a smile of apologetic self-protection. Even his Englishness was a well-kept secret. He was nimble and in his prime of life. If you were a sailor you might have spotted him for another, recognized the deliberate economy of his movements, the caged placing of the feet, one hand always for the boat. He had trim curled hair and pugilist’s thick brow. The pallor of his eyes caught you by surprise. You expected more challenge from him, heavier shadows. And this mildness of manner within a fighter’s frame gave him a troubling intensity. 

Intelligence agent Burr, as mentioned, is a man, Leonard Burr. Roper is an entrepreneur, but one whose “white” operations—minerals, tankers, farms—are not doing well financially. To avoid ruin, he is looking for one last super-deal, before retirement, from his “black” operations, referred to as “the five uglies”: money laundering, gold, emeralds, rainforest timber and arms trading.

Operation Limpet here concerns itself with British intelligence wishing to dismantle an arms deal Roper is planning with three Colombian drug cartels who have signed a mutual internal non-aggression pact to provide themselves with a military umbrella against the US and outsiders. As Roper says, “Armed power’s what keeps peace. Unarmed power doesn’t last five minutes. First rule of stability.” Roper’s base of operations is not the sumptuous island villa of the film, but the luxurious yacht Iron Pasha.

Do not look for the film ending in the book, or vice-versa. Susanne Bier says, “The last two episodes [of the film] are not in the novel.”

In a major shift, Angela Burr, the moral centre of the new series, had, as Leonard Burr, been part of the immoral centre of the novel. Corruption, in the River House and US Intelligence, remains consistent in both versions, which leads one to think that this is the real axe le Carré wants to grind.

Hossein Amini, screenwriter for a previous adaptation of one of le Carré’s novels, Our Kind of Traitor, says:

one of the themes of le Carré’s work is that Britain has almost declined as a world power but we still have these British values that come from a time when Britain was on top of the world and had a moral responsibility. As that power has waned, that morality has turned into something far more like compromise. He is very interested in the impact of the decline of British power on a moral system.

When John le Carré first heard that The Night Manager was to be made into a series, he was wary. He had had mixed experience with adaptations:

Any author who goes into a script conference seeing himself as the guard dog of his novel is wasting his time … A novel that takes a dozen hours of patient reading is to be transformed into a film that takes a hundred minutes of impatient viewing … as to budget: well, a ream of middleweight A4 copy paper these days comes in at six or seven pounds. After that, in my case, it’s the spiralling cost of rollerball refills. For the movie, start around the $20m mark and work upwards. 

His first experience of the film world came in 1965 with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starring Richard Burton. Le Carré had a good relationship with the director, Martin Ritt, whom he called “an angry leftist who still bore the unhealed wounds of the Hollywood blacklist”. He got close to one of the screenwriters, Paul Dehn, who had held the rank of major in Special Operations Executive and was once stationed at Camp X in Canada, a facility to train spies and special forces teams. Le Carré said: “[Dehn] as a former instructor in the black arts at a British spy school during the Second World War turned out to know much more about espionage than I did.”

The most positive experience for le Carré in the world of television had been the adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, successfully turned into a seven-part BBC series in 1979, with Alec Guinness. It had given le Carré a good opinion of what long episodic versions of his work were capable of. Guinness, known for being hard to please, also liked the result.

At first, le Carré wasn’t sure how The Night Manager, written at the end of the Cold War, would translate into a long treatment in today’s vastly changed political landscape: “no more Russian bear to fight, no more Reds under the bed at home”. But it worked, and le Carré approved:

what I like best of all is how Susanne Bier goes on chewing at the bone of the drama long after other directors would have given up; and how, in this back-and-forth interaction between film and book, a two-way process occurs, as I begin to spot in her film things she herself may not be aware of, just as she has spotted things in my novel that I may not have been aware of. 

For her work on The Night Manager Susanne Bier won an Emmy Award, and Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie each won Golden Globes.

The BBC, fighting to stay in the game, have begun shooting a six-part series of le Carré’s 1983 novel The Little Drummer Girl, with Alexander Skarsgard, Michael Shannon and Florence Pugh, to be released in 2019. Le Carré’s two sons are executive producers.

I started this article by mentioning that I have now watched The Night Manager three times and I will no doubt revisit it a few more times over the next decade. It’s one of those entertainments you can come back to again and again—just like a good novel.

I found the series tremendously exciting but the novel, on re-reading it, was very slow going, crammed with unnecessary details and a little bit staid on the action front. But some critics feel the opposite. Jasper Rees, in the London Daily Telegraph, wrote:

The only sadness of updating the action to the present day is that we have lost any belief that a clapped-out old Blighty, racked with self-disgust and awash with dirty foreign cash, can find any sort of redemption through the lone agency of a chivalrous man of action.  

You can’t please everyone. Back in the 1990s, Julian Symons, reviewer for the New York Times, and writer of over thirty crime books, said: “the saddest aspect of The Night Manager is the surrender to the conventional thrilldom of the upbeat ending tacked onto a book that cried out for a tragic one”. Of the new series, Tim Goodman has written in the Hollywood Reporter:

Don’t get me started on the detours it takes to create a believable badass backstory for Pine— because I flat out didn’t buy that for a second. Hiddleston is clearly more lover than fighter and didn’t once give off a dangerous vibe. He doesn’t strike fear into you. He strikes lust into you.    

Well, compared to the martial-arts-oriented heroes and super-spies of today’s Hollywood films, the same thing could have been said of the debonair Sean Connery, back in the heyday of 007.

Joe Dolce, who lives in Melbourne, is a frequent contributor of poetry and prose. He wrote on The Crown in the June issue.


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