John le Carré: the spymaster who was never left out in the cold
The spy novelist is 87, but his star has never shone brighter, with a BBC adaptation of ‘The Little Drummer Girl’ about to start
Still beating: Alexander Skarsgård and Florence Pugh in ‘The Little Drummer Girl’
All decent folk will feel glad for John le Carré. It must be gratifying to find yourself at the centre of the conversation as you negotiate your 87th birthday. Jane Austen was long in her grave when that rush of adaptations began in the 1990s. Le Carré is here to enjoy his apotheosis. The back catalogue has been republished as Penguin Modern Classics, and the adaptations are everywhere.
This weekend, a delicious cast – Charles Dance, Alexander Skarsgård, Michael Shannon and the superb Florence Pugh – grace a TV adaptation of his 1983 book The Little Drummer Girl. Offering further confirmation that telly is now respectable, Park Chan-wook, the celebrated Korean film-maker behind Oldboy and The Handmaiden, has directed every episode. The BBC’s take on The Night Manager was a hit at the start of 2016. Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was nominated for Oscars in 2011. There was a good film of A Most Wanted Man and a tolerable one of Our Kind of Traitor. Paramount is developing a series of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. No other writer so interests the era’s best film-makers and show-runners.
Le Carré, born David Cornwell, cannot have guessed this would still be happening when The Spy Who Came in from the Cold broke in 1963. His first two books, both featuring the spymaster George Smiley, had received respectable notices without unduly stimulating the cash registers. Their successor, detailing a diabolical game of bluff between MI6 and the East German intelligence service, became one of the era’s key novels. The seediness contrasted with the glamorous doings of James Bond. The cynicism about the West’s unscrupulousness made it a rare spy novel to play well with the growing counter-culture. Even if the book hadn’t made his fortune, the author would have been forced to leave his own job with the intelligence services. Le Carré (or Cornwell) was now too famous to function as a spy.
Martin Ritt’s film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – with a convincingly bleak Dublin standing in for Berlin – won an Oscar nomination for Richard Burton. There then followed something of a lull. Le Carré would not have been the first writer to flounder after writing one early sensation. People liked The Looking Glass War and A Small Town in Germany, but neither had anything like the impact of his third novel. His attempt to shift genres with The Naïve and Sentimental Lover was met with bafflement.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy secured his position in 1974. Nobody had written an espionage novel like it: an old man wanders around London discussing old times with other old people. The text is wadded with jargon – lamplighters, scalp-hunters, ju-ju men – and jammed with a complex narrative that even the most intelligent reader needed a second run at before grasping. The 1979 TV adaptation was more successful still. Featuring Alec Guinness as Smiley, the BBC show is routinely and properly rated as one of the best things the corporation has ever done. The key to its appeal was the integration of the consequential (English decline before Thatcher) and the mundane (rundown hotels and crumbling public schools). The story concerns the hunt for a KGB mole modelled loosely on Kim Philby, but it is really about the same bitchy office politics that divide every insurance firm, bureau de change and fast-food outlet.
Producers have also realised that le Carré’s taste for moral ambiguity plays well in an increasingly confused political environment
Further excellent TV adaptations of A Perfect Spy and Smiley’s People followed, but – to use the language of his protagonists – the trail went a little bare in the 1990s. Fred Schepisi’s The Russia House (1991) was tolerable. John Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama (2001) had what one might euphemistically call “tonal issues”. It looked as if the fall of the Berlin Wall might have done for le Carré as a force in popular culture.
Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener (2005) reminded those who drifted away that the author was still saying worthwhile things about millennial discontents. Late le Carré fever still came as a shock. The rise of high-end television has something to do with it. For all the many attractions of Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor, the compacted plot remains close to unintelligible. It requires space to pack in all those narrative diversions.
Producers have also realised that le Carré’s taste for moral ambiguity plays well in an increasingly confused political environment. On its publication, The Little Drummer Girl, concerning a liberal Israeli spy who recruits a British actress to track down a Palestinian bomber, felt like a puzzling intervention in somebody else’s business. George Roy Hill’s 1984 adaptation, starring a miscast Diane Keaton, was a disaster. Since then, the debate about Palestine has become ever more heated and disputatious. That story from the depths of the Cold War seems implausibly urgent.
It is a good time to be David Cornwell.