I recently read John le Carré’s Silverview, a water-tight little gem of a novel that is a fitting and poignant cap to the author’s storied career. It reminded me of a long-abandoned pet project that I began a number of years ago (before the Park Chan-Wook Little Drummer Girl series was even announced, I think) but never got over the finish line: to watch, rank, and write up every filmed adaptation of le Carré’s work, whether movie or TV series.
Well, I finally tracked down and powered through some of more obscure BBC adaptations (not to give any spoilers, but some have been clearly forgotten for a reason). The gap between starting and finishing my project does mean it has now unfortunately been some time since I visited some entries and my keenest analysis has perhaps faded from memory. On the other hand, perhaps that assisted with the ranking – letting those movies with the strongest and most lasting impression rise to the top. In any case, much as I love le Carré’s grimy, shifty landscape of sallow-faced operatives and creaky back rooms, I’m not particularly inclined to start all the way over, so here we go. From the bottom to the top:
16. The Looking Glass War (1970)
One of the earliest adaptations takes the lowest spot by virtue of being so utterly, completely, transcendentally forgettable. I suppose in a meta way, The Looking Glass War is actually the most authentic depiction of the faceless men that le Carré held so dear; but let’s be honest, that kind of authenticity is not really the reason we read books or watch movies. I struggled to recall a single detail of the plot here – Wikipedia tells me something about a Polish emigré dropped back into Eastern Germany to retrieve photographs, which is certainly plausible and standard le Carré fare, though Christopher Jones makes for a rather less-plausible Pole. I remember a young Anthony Hopkins being mildly interesting in a too-brief supporting turn, but otherwise this is entirely boilerplate material elaborated to much greater effect by both le Carré and his adapters elsewhere.
15. A Perfect Spy (TV, 1987)
One of le Carrés most sprawling and ambitious novels (the only, to my recollection, to attempt to actually cover a character’s lifetime) gets a listless and overlong “mini”-series. On the page, Magnus Pym is a cipher, his loyalties at any given moment as much a mystery to the reader as to those around him – forced to visualize this in five episodes’ worth of low-budget closeups, Peter Egan can pretty much only summon this inscrutability via blank stares and incomprehensible, paradoxical actions (not even taking into the account the whole two episodes/hours spent in Pym’s childhood and teenage years). Meanwhile, the day players are pitched all wrong, dominated by over-the-top, Law and Order-cameo-type theatrics that are so very wrong for le Carré’s tone and which pretty much every other entry on this list avoids. The one bright spot is Ray McAnally as Magnus’ rapscallion father Rick.
14. The Little Drummer Girl (1984)
A wonky film, though one nominally wouldn’t expect much from some of le Carré’s worst source material (a fact that made one of the later entries on this list such a pleasant surprise). The Little Drummer Girl is possibly his most outrageous plot, much closer than usual to the romanticized Ian Fleming-type spy stories that le Carré supposedly hated. So the filming style here – utilitarian and sparse, barely a notch up from the BBC productions, probably intentional to match their reputation and audience expectations of a “le Carré” work – actually clashes horribly. Diane Keaton is terribly miscast as Charlie, clearly very much a woman in her mid-30s when the character does not work at all if a day over 20 (and look, I adore Diane Keaton, but the idea of giving this part to a non-Brit is madness). It’s a shame, especially since Klaus Kinski as Charlie’s Mossad controller is the kind of insane casting that inexplicably *does* work. But the movie just winds up a string of baffling choices cobbled together to little point or effect.
13. Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
Another attempt whose greatest sin is blandness. It very much feels like some producer wanted to piggyback on the recent successes of other contemporary adaptations higher on this list, with little enthusiasm or perspective behind the particular story; an IP grab for the art house (clearly evidenced by the hedged, tacked-on coda to one of le Carré’s most brutal endings). But, it’s shot slickly enough, and the cast is uniformly solid if unremarkable. You expect the standout to be Stellan Skarsgård, teed up to chew the scenery as Dima,the flamboyant Russian money launderer looking to sell out his oligarch clients, but in true le Carré fashion that kudos actually belongs to Damian Lewis, both catching and deflecting the eye as Hector, the MI6 investigator caught between manipulating his agents and being manipulated by his political superiors.
12. A Murder of Quality (TV, 1991)
An oddity in le Carré’s oeuvre, starring his most famous character but completely transplanted from “the Circus” to a mystery plot more in line with something from Inspector Morse or Ms. Marple. As long as your expectations are suitably adjusted, this TV movie becomes a perfectly serviceable way to pass the time – Joss Ackland was the proto-Skarsgård of scenery-chewing, Denholm Elliott plays an agreeably rumpled “Detective” Smiley, and you get a fun flash of young Christian Bale. The ceiling is quite low here, but at least it doesn’t trip.
11. The Tailor of Panama (2001)
I had generally positive memories of this one from the early aughts that drained considerably the moment I realized/remembered that *Brendan Gleeson* was meant to be playing a Panamanian. Still – the central relationship mostly lands: Geoffrey Rush makes for a great le Carré scoundrel in the Rick Pym tradition, and Pierce Brosnan is a savvy bit of casting (though he was clearly so bored and/or over-eager to flip his heroic Bond persona that his Andy Osnard comes off as a rather un-le-Carré-ish cartoon villain). The scenes with the two together, bringing out the worst in each other, spiraling out to the great detriment of themselves and those around them, are propulsive amid an otherwise by-the-books thriller. Rush’s visions of his mentor Uncle Benny, gleefully and eccentrically played by Harold Pinter of all people, are so jarringly shot by John Boorman that I still can’t quite decide if they work as part of the film’s darkly comic tone or detract by hitting the node too hard.
10. The Russia House (1990)
Another former Bond paradoxically bringing star-power sheen to le Carré’s galaxy of normies, resulting in a thriller too conventional to reflect the author’s unique voice but that still largely delivers on the genre’s pleasures. Unlike Brosnan, Connery need make no attempt at all to subvert his established persona; his curmudgeonly charisma is a fine match for a reluctant spy (it’s really the bit where he’s a *book-seller* that’s a stretch). Do I buy Michelle Pfeiffer as Russian? No. Do I care, because ’90s Michelle Pfeiffer was and remains a national treasure? I do not. Unremarkably shot, but the twisty plot keeps one engaged.
9. The Deadly Affair (1966)
Catch me on a different day and I could swap around this film and either of the previous two on this list. But today I rank it top in the trio for Sidney Lumet’s elevated direction and James Mason’s sweaty, disheveled take on Smiley (sorry – “Charles Dobbs”), wallowing in perhaps the character’s lowest moment. It’s also unabashedly European – Simone Signoret! Maximilian Schell! Harriet Andersson! – in a way the other two aren’t that just better retains that classic, Cold War-fueled le Carré simmer. Quincy Jones’ moody jazz score and D.P. Freddie Young’s washed-out, foggy color palette are subtler pleasures than some of the bolder work higher on this list, but pleasures nonetheless.
8. The Night Manager (TV, 2016)
If we were ranking based on pure entertainment value, The Night Manager might have come in tops, but that just seems wrong and counter-intuitive for a le Carré list. Unabashedly sexy, over-the-top, all tension and sensuality and romantic settings and daring capers – I mean, there’s not an anticlimax in sight here! You can almost hear the Broccoli family second-guessing whether they should break Daniel Craig’s contract and offer Bond to Tom Hiddleston on the spot. The everyman-turned-accidental-spy is a classic le Carré setup, but Susanne Bier’s series never bothers to address what such an astoundingly handsome and charming man as Hiddleston is doing as a night manager of a hotel in the first place. Instead she just lets a murderer’s row of actors – Hiddleston, Olivia Colman, Hugh Laurie, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki – absolutely go to town on a spy romp with little to no reflection on the human cost of the craft *at all*. “Joes,” they’re not.
7. Smiley’s People (TV, 1982)
On nearly the perfect flip side are the two BBC Alec Guinness-led Smiley adaptations: all unflashy, workman-like execution of a story done to quiet perfection. Smiley’s People is the lesser of the two less through any fault (or really any kind of difference) in the production than it’s just not quite as good a story – Karla’s downfall has always just been a *little* too pat/quick for me even in the book, though it’s certainly in keeping with le Carré’s insistent de-romanticizing. In any case, Guinness is all you want him to be here in his return to Smiley: more of the same phlegmatic, droll demeanor and hyper-competent machinations. His rapport with Bernard Hepton’s peculiarly jovial Toby Esterhase is a particularly welcome addition to this one.
6. A Most Wanted Man (2014)
My word, was anyone ever better suited to play a le Carré protagonist than Philip Seymour Hoffman, the hangdog’s hangdog? Even his talent as one of cinema’s great swearers comes into play here, in a denouement where Hoffman’s thwarted operative lets loose a thunderous “fuck” that has stayed with me for years and in many ways feels like an eruption *on behalf* of every other le Carré lead, too professional to ever do it themselves. Anton Corbijn’s highly composed, clinical style and visuals feel right for latter-day, post-Soviet le Carré – all glass and marble and computer screens, a reminder that the tech-infused, “modern” iteration of espionage and surveillance remains as cold as the Cold War ever was.
5. The Little Drummer Girl (TV, 2018)
I mentioned before that this is one of le Carré’s wonkiest, most outrageous plots, making it an absolutely inspired course correction to hand a second attempt at adaptation to Park Chan-wook. Completely eschewing the dust and fog and chipped paint that usually defines le Carrés underworld-in-plain-sight, Park (as he ever does) goes full-tilt aesthete, packing the frame with flowing dresses and saturated color and sumptuously-decorated sets, right down to a woozy, romantic set-piece staged on the steps of the goddamn Parthenon. No one is hiding behind blandness and mediocrity here – instead, the series piles on layer after layer of artifice, a fitting match for Charlie, the aspiring actress trying on political loyalties and ideology like a new bathing suit. Florence Pugh was the breakout start here for good reason – she balances confidence, naivete, insecurity, yearning, curiosity, boredom, all the pieces necessary to make this story work at all. Elsewhere, Michael Shannon is as solid as to be expected (not as unhinged as you might expect, as a latter-day Kinski), and Alexander Skarsgård is miscast (just, stop with signing up northern European men to play Mossad agents, I’m begging you) but not disastrously so.
4. The Constant Gardener (2005)
Rachel Weisz won the Oscar (not undeservedly) for her turn as the crusading activist Tessa, but it’s really Ralph Fiennes’ finely-calibrated, devastating turn as Justin Quayle, the naive and passive diplomat who gradually uncovers a web of political corruption and pharmaceutical greed, that sticks with you. Fernando Meirelles’ style and tone, vibrant and melancholy in equal measure, is a great match for the material, one of le Carré’s saddest and starkest in its depiction of the impact of the games played by the global elite. In his postscript to Silverview, le Carré’s son Nick Harkaway speculates onhis father’s hesitancy to publish such a near-complete manuscript, landing on its unflinching and arguably unkind depiction of the wheel-spinning of tradecraft – in Harkaway’s eyes, a sharper critique of the utter pointlessness of professional espionage than most of le Carré’s other works. I don’t entirely buy or agree with this argument, and The Constant Gardener is a big reason why – no one playing inside the system comes off well here, and I think the movie does an excellent job of documentary-influenced exposure of injustice without overly preaching or losing the messy character arc at its center.
3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TV, 1979)
In many ways the ur-text of le Carré adaptations and the one most of the entries ranked lower are largely trying to copy in one way or another. For many, Alec Guinness defined George Smiley, and this series at large stands as the best example of adapting le Carré’s uncanny ability to make art with shades of beige. I can’t really find any particular fault with that assessment – the paranoid languor of Smiley’s methodical search for a mole in MI6’s highest circles is the author’s master work, and the BBC series is as dutiful and attentive to le Carré’s text as his lamplighters are to the arrangements of a dead drop. Procedural/narrative television still rarely hits this level of genre satisfaction so squarely.
2. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
It’s fascinating, particularly considering how so many folks looked to copy the BBC Tinker Tailor on both TV and film, the ways in which the *actual* first le Carré adaptation – Martin Ritt’s movie, coming only two years after the breakout novel and preceding even the actual writing of the Karla trilogy – continues to stand alone. The only adaptation to be shot explicitly in black-and-white, such a literal realization of le Carré’s shadows and grays could’ve whacked viewers over the head with visual metaphor,but by god it plays, Richard Burton’s Alec Leamas trapped in the purgatory of a cover story, probing and poking for the way out of his self-imposed captivity with no way of knowing whether he’s headed for escape and reward or just an even worse fate. Le Carré’s plots often hinge on what is not said between his characters, but Ritt’s film has some of the best, sharpest dialogue in any of the adaptations, particularly in the scenes with Burton and Oskar Werner dueling back and forth, the movie just sitting back and letting them sink into the rhythm and tension of each interrogation. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is really worth seeking out if the extent of your le Carré knowledge is one or both versions of Tinker Tailor.
1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
I mean, I don’t even know where to start. Tomas Alfredson’s film exceeded all my expectations for another take on Tinker Tailor (how could you top Guinness?) and gets better every time I re-watch it and notice another subtle detail or precise edit. It seemed an impossible task to condense the twisty narrative, full of divots and red herrings, down to a two-hour film, but Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s script succeeds precisely by throwing too much detail at the viewer in too little time – the effect is a fog, a blur of names, faces, and obscure lingo with little guidance until the very end on *which* of these details is actually important. That’s what elevates Smiley as a character in the books – his ability to sift through the noise and the haze and see the threads, the true intentions at play behind seemingly unconnected symptoms. I do hesitate to declare Gary Oldman a better Smiley than Guinness – the former is clearly still indebted to the latter – but he certainly finds his own spin on it, taking the veteran spymaster’s monkishness to the extreme. I recall, at the time of the movie’s release, my mother compared Oldman’s performance to a lizard gradually waking up from a cold-blooded stupor, and the metaphor is bang-on: that is exactly what Smiley is in this story, a camouflaged leviathan stirred, inexorably, out of retirement. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent – Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Colin Firth stand out, but there’s not a note wrong in the grizzled bunch – and Alfredson comes up with several shots and set-pieces that reach an instantly iconic distillation of le Carré’s mood and tone as no other adaptation has. (I’m thinking, in particular, of the interrogation of David Dencik’s Toby Esterhase on an airport runway,a propeller plane growing ever, anxiously closer in the background via a flattened, distorted lens; but there are others, like the menacing freight elevator at the Circus, or Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr zipping around shipping containers in a sports car with his doomed lover/mark). If you don’t vibe with this movie, I can’t help you – best to avoid le Carré altogether.