Just prior to the grim conclusion of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a dark story of espionage set along both sides of the Berlin Wall during the height of the Cold War, embittered secret agent Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) viciously breaks down the foul nature of his work to the woman he loves, and who he has just unwittingly betrayed:
“What the hell do you think spies are?” he asks, his voice dripping with venomous self-recrimination. “Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not. They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me. Little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.”
James Bond, this ain’t.
Rather, it is John le Carré, one of greatest writers England has produced over the last century and the greatest writer of spy fiction bar none. Le Carré, born David Cornwell in 1931 and who died this past December, wrote and published 25 novels over the course of his career, most set in or around the world British intelligence (the “Circus”, as it is referred to throughout many of his stories). Like fellow spy novelist Ian Fleming, whose popular Bond stories and novels preceded le Carré’s work by about a decade, le Carré took inspiration from his own career in espionage, having worked for both MI5 and MI6 until his identity was compromised by the infamous KGB mole Kim Philby.
But unlike Fleming, whose romantic adventure fantasies presented espionage as an exotic and heroic (if amoral) undertaking, le Carré’s exquisitely detailed, highly complex existentialist dramas showed spycraft for what it really was: a grim, pitiless and self-perpetuating bureaucracy operating solely on the principle that the ends justify the means. His is not a world of gadgets, girls and gunplay, but an ashen moral no man’s land where the name of the game is betrayal—not just the dramatic double crosses of moles and turncoats, but the small betrayals we are all capable of making in our weakest, most human moments. As one character says in his novel The Looking Glass War (1965), “Love is…whatever you can still betray.”
This is hardly a concept that had movie producers salivating, but, as with the literary industry at the time, the success of James Bond (whom le Carré would later call an “international gangster”, “ultimate prostitute”, and “ideal defector”) created a counter-market for le Carré’s more grounded and intellectually richer stories about espionage. Over his lifetime, he would see a number of his books adapted for film and television, four of which—The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1964), The Tailor of Panama (2001), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) and A Most Wanted Man (2014)—comprise a subtle but fierce counterbalance to the militaristic and Manichean fantasy of espionage pervaded by Hollywood.
The very first adaptation of le Carré’s work, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, remains arguably the best. Inarguably, it’s a hard masterpiece, a perfect film based on a perfect novel (le Carré’s third, and the one that would bring him international acclaim). Directed by Martin Ritt, the story tells of a British MI6 operator stationed in Berlin who, following the execution of his top agents by his East German rival, pretends to defect in order to frame his enemy. Over the course of the quiet, haunting film (Oswald Morris’s black-and-white cinematography reflects the hero’s arc by emphasizing the grey in between), Leamas discovers he is but a sacrificial pawn in a different game altogether, leading to one of the great gut-punches in all of cinema. Not content to merely devastate the viewer emotionally, it’s the rare ending capable of making one seriously question their larger worldview.
The following year would see the release of The Deadly Affair, an adaptation of le Carré’s debut novel, Call for the Dead (1961). Using the backdrop of espionage to tell a more traditional murder mystery, that novel introduced le Carré’s greatest and most enduring character, the unassuming but brilliant spymaster George Smiley – although, as played by James Mason, the character (like the story’s title) gets a name change, the result of rights issues stemming from the film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (which features Smiley in a small but pivotal role). As directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet, it makes for a good movie, although nowhere near the level of his best work or, for that matter, Ritt’s film.
Over the course of the next 15 years only three of le Carré’s novels would receive the big screen treatment—1970’s The Looking Glass War, 1984’s The Little Drummer Girl and 1990’s The Russia House—all of which were quickly forgotten even as the BBC adaptations of his masterful bestsellers Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People (which aired in 1979 and 1982, respectively), made for instant classics of the form.
Of those three feature adaptations, The Russia House is the most interesting, if only because it stars the man most responsible for turning James Bond a pop culture icon: Sean Connery. However, while he gives a decent performance in the film, it’s a pretty standard romantic hero role. That would not be the case with the next le Carré adaptation, which used a different Bond actor to much better purpose.
Directed by the great John Boorman and featuring le Carré on co-scripting duties, The Tailor of Panama is an updated spin on Graham Greene’s 1958 espionage novel (and it’s subsequent 1959 film adaptation), Our Man in Havana, centered around the historic transfer of the Panama Canal from the United States to its home country at the turn of this century. Amidst the global power imbalance created by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the previous decade, a resentful cold warrior (Pierce Brosnan, gleefully cutting loose as an seductively corrupt sociopath) makes the jump from spy to mercenary, manipulating his British bosses, as well as their American masters at the Pentagon, into staging a coup d’etat against the Panamanian government nation by using totally fabricated information.
Boorman’s film is broader in its tone than most le Carré adaptations—starting out as a slightly sleazy slice of South American neo-noir, it eventually takes a sharp turn into Dr. Strangelove territory—and it never quite coalesces. However, it remains one the most disturbingly prescient films of its time in how it mirrors the events of a few years later, when the United States would attempt to justify its disastrous invasion of Iraq on faulty intel. Ever the foreign policy expert, le Carré correctly read the tea leaves at the end of the Cold War, and he foresaw how the West’s search for a convenient new enemy against which it could justify the continued expansion of its military powers would lead to a doctrine of preemptive war. That this destructive foray is set into motion by 007 himself—The Tailor of Panama was released the year between Brosnan’s final two Bond entries—gives the film an extra-rich pungency.
Over the next two decades, Le Carré become an ferocious critic of the Iraq war and the War on Terror, pushing that subject to fore of many of his novels, including The Constant Gardener, a romantic political thriller whose 2005 adaptation stands as the most commercially successful adaptation (as well as the biggest awards magnet) of his work to date. However, the film that followed it six years later, Tomas Alfredson’s feature-length version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, falls just below it in both categories, even as it wholly eclipses it on an artistic level.
Alfredson had a truly daunting task adapting le Carré’s most famous (and many would argue, best) novel into a 2-hour film, not only because its story—about George Smiley’s hunt to find a KGB mole stationed in the upper echelons of The Circus—is so intentionally complex, but because the original BBC miniseries, which starred a magnificent Alec Guinness as Smiley, remains so beloved in the U.K. The fact that Alfredson’s moody, enthralling thriller not only lives up to that version, as well as the original source material—in le Carre’s words, replacinging, by necessity, a romantic nostalgia for the “fading British establishment” with a unsentimental, “grittier and crueller” sense of retrospection—puts it in the running not only for best le Carré adaptation, but best film of its decade.
Much of the film’s success rests on the shoulders of its star, Gary Oldman, who had the equally unenviable task of stepping into Guinness’s shoes—especially since, on paper, he seems all wrong for the role, with Smiley being described in the books as short, fat, shy and badly dressed (as if that wasn’t enough to stand him as the antithesis to James Bond, his other defining quality is being a hopeless cuckold). One of the great chameleon actors of our time, Oldman could have made the physical transformation easily enough, but his usual high wire-energy seemed to run entirely counter to the character’s stoicism and shyness (an early novel describes Smiley as “possessing the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin.”). Remarkably, Oldman discards any attempt to replicate the character’s well-known physical attributes, giving instead a remarkably restrained, mostly internal performance, one that, like the film itself, contains a new, more dangerous edge. “Oldman’s Smiley,” le Carre remarked, “is a man waiting patiently to explode.”
The same can be said of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s late turn in Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of le Carré’s blisteringly angry and mournful 2008 novel A Most Wanted Man. Released shortly after the actor’s tragic passing, the film follows a burnt-out German intelligence officer stationed in Hamburg as he attempts to entrap a prominent Al Qaeda money launderer and turn him into an asset. To do this, he forcefully enlists the help of an idealistic immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams), a morally stricken banker (Willem Dafoe) and a suspicious but innocent Muslim refugee (Grigoriy Dobrygin), all while trying to hold off his bosses—and, of course, the Americans who are truly calling the shots—from simply liquidating their targets in the name of expediency.
At the heart of the film is a blistering repudiation not only of the West’s brutal, extralegal, and ineffective anti-terror policies, but its entire post-9/11 moral philosophy. Combined with an emotionally annihilating ending, Corbijn’s film stands as a true spiritual successor to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, as well as the best movie explicitly about the War on Terror to date. Even as the likes of the Jason Bourne franchise and Daniel Craig’s Bond run took on darker shadings in order to reflect a certain real-world moral ambiguity, they play like the campiest of Moore-era Bond when held up against any of these le Carré adaptations, all of which put the militaristic fantasy at the heart of other spy films in sharp relief.
As we now prepare to enter a post-Trump, post-Brexit landscape, one in which authoritarian regimes the world over are enjoying a new prominence and where the surveillance state has become embedded in every facet of modern life (le Carré spoke and wrote about all of this, in detail, during his final years), le Carre’s coldly furious vision is more essential than ever.
Or put another way, James Bond and all the other superspies need to bring their asses in from the cold.