It's stating the obvious to say John Le Carré is the master of the spy novel.
He reinvented -- if not completely invented -- the genre with 1961's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and there isn't a real clunker among the 22 novels he's released.
Adapting them to film, however, is a different matter. The books are novels, not screenplays posing as novels. Characters ruminate, details are piled on, ambiguities increase. That's not what most people are looking for in a spy movie, apparently.
Most of Le Carré's books have not been filmed, but eight have been. We haven't seen the 1969 adaptation of The Looking Glass War starring Anthony Hopkins, but the other seven vary greatly in quality.
Here they are, ranked from worst to first.
Pretty much a mess from beginning to end. A star vehicle for Diane Keaton, it was directed by the usually reliable George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
). Perhaps it's telling that this was his penultimate film, followed by the horrendousFunny Farm
with Chevy Chase.
Very much of its time and place, this adaptation of Le Carré's first novel,Call for the Dead,
is little remembered. It stars James Mason and Simone Signoret, has a soundtrack by Quincy Jones -- one which includes a bossa nova tune by Astrud Gilberto of "Girl from Ipanema" fame -- and movies don't get much more '60s than that.
The novelThe Russia House
is able to take its time setting up its story and the motivations of its characters. On screen, all of the subtlety gets tossed away. Sean Connery does all right as the reluctant spy, but forcing audiences to believe Michelle Pfeiffer as a mysterious Russian woman was simply too much to ask.
Le Carré helped with the screenplay for this Pierce Brosnan film. It's a straightforward adaptation of one of his more straightforward books, an homage toOur Man in Havana.
It's entertaining and involving, with a great cast (Geoffrey Rush, Brendan Gleeson) that includes Daniel Radcliffe making his film debut.
Like many of Le Carré's novels,The Constant Gardener
depends on flashbacks and the interior thoughts of its characters, aspects which can be challenging to film. Thanks in large part to a terrific performance by Ralph Fiennes, this damning indictment of Big Pharma never loses its way.
Technically it shouldn't be on the list, since we mean the 1979 BBC mini-series and not the movie opening
in Houston January 6. But this six-hour adaptation takes full advantage of its extensive length to make its point that spying is not James Bond excitement most of the time. The sometimes dawdling pace might annoy modern viewers who are used to quick cuts and CGI explosions, but watching the extremely subtle Alec Guinness is a reward all its own. Here's hoping the new film lives up to this one.
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The first Le Carré adaptation remains the best. Atmospheric black-and-white emphasizes the gray, gloomy world of postwar Europe, both in London and in Berlin. Richard Burton gives a restrained performance, the plot twists are sprung with care and the ending sticks with you.