Filmmakers Adapt John le Carré’s Spy Novels for the Age of Snowden

The BBC miniseries The Night Manager and new film Our Kind of Traitor fumble with morality and power.

Jake Blumgart

Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor in Our Kind of Traitor. (Jaap Buitendijk)

While the sun may have set on the British Empire, it’s still high noon for fic­tion about glo­be­trot­ting British spies. Amidst spec­u­la­tion about who will play James Bond next, those look­ing for more exis­ten­tial angst can turn to the works of John le Car­ré, the pre­em­i­nent spy nov­el­ist of the 20th cen­tu­ry. His works are being adapt­ed at a steady clip late­ly, from 2014’s A Most Want­ed Man, one of Philip Sey­mour Hoffman’s final films, to two new offer­ings this year: the BBC minis­eries The Night Man­ag­er and direc­tor Susan­na White’s new film Our Kind of Trai­tor.

When le Carré’s latterday novels succumb to didacticism, his artistry can still save the day; unfortunately, cinematic reboots do not have that luxury, and these swerve into the territory of morality play.

For many read­ers, the writer’s name is syn­ony­mous with the Cold War; le Car­ré brought a keen analy­sis of pow­er and the gray areas of pol­i­tics to bear on a world that still seemed, to most, black and white. But this year’s films are derived from nov­els writ­ten in the sec­ond half of his career, after the fall of the Sovi­et Union prompt­ed him to explore new sub­ject mat­ter. In our era of height­ened aware­ness and anx­i­ety about sur­veil­lance and end­less war, what does the spy thriller have to offer us?

Le Carré’s staid, self-effac­ing agents have always pro­vid­ed thought­ful foils to the gar­ish Bond, whom the author has referred to as a neo-fas­cist” and a gang­ster.” The secret world of spies they inhab­it is a painful­ly self-aware one, ren­dered in grit­ty detail thanks to le Carré’s stint with the British secu­ri­ty ser­vices in the 1950s and 60s, when its chief mis­sion was to com­bat the Sovi­et Union and ensure a deco­rous retreat from empire.

The writer, whose real name is David Corn­well, pub­lished his first three nov­els under a pseu­do­nym while still work­ing as an intel­li­gence offi­cer. The third, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, achieved such world­wide suc­cess in 1964 that Cornwell’s iden­ti­ty was dis­cov­ered and he resigned.

Writ­ten in the hey­day of the Cold War, le Carré’s ear­li­er nov­els are infused with a nos­tal­gia for the British Empire. The author often lends a sharp eye to the social and polit­i­cal real­i­ties of the time, even as his char­ac­ters cling to the moral and social con­ven­tions of a bygone era. They long for the days when spy­ing was sup­pos­ed­ly a gentleman’s game and abhor the brash intrigues of their Amer­i­can cousins. They strug­gle above all with the fact that, as for­mer U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Dean Ache­son put it, Great Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role.”

Some of le Carré’s best-known nov­els fea­tur­ing rum­pled super-spy George Smi­ley evince this kind of snob­bish anti-Amer­i­can­ism, fraught with a grudg­ing eulo­gy for Great Britain’s days as a great pow­er — a some­times uncom­fort­able pair­ing with left-of-cen­ter pol­i­tics. But it’s this moral ambi­gu­i­ty that gave flesh to the most mem­o­rably ren­dered char­ac­ters the spy genre ever generated.

By the time the Cold War end­ed, le Car­ré had turned his eye from the con­test with the Sovi­et Union to the cor­rupt­ing influ­ence of unchecked cap­i­tal on both sides of the Atlantic. His tar­gets became sharp­er and less ambiva­lent. In The Con­stant Gar­den­er, he took on big phar­ma and an intel­li­gence ser­vice that had become lit­tle more than the hand­maid­en of capital.

The Night Man­ag­er and Our Kind of Trai­tor car­ry for­ward le Carré’s post-Sovi­et Union line of crit­i­cism faith­ful­ly. But that isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly a good thing. When le Carré’s lat­ter­day nov­els suc­cumb to didac­ti­cism, his artistry can still save the day; unfor­tu­nate­ly, cin­e­mat­ic reboots do not have that lux­u­ry, and these swerve into the ter­ri­to­ry of moral­i­ty play.

Our Kind of Trai­tor, in par­tic­u­lar, indulges in overblown ser­mo­niz­ing. The plot fol­lows a vaca­tion­ing cou­ple (Ewan McGre­gor and Naomie Har­ris) who befriend a gre­gar­i­ous Russ­ian mon­ey laun­der­er (Stel­lan Skars­gård, in a stand­out per­for­mance). The sto­ry gets more far­fetched as a group of MI6 agents (led by Dami­an Lewis) recruit the cou­ple to help extract their new bud­dy from the clutch­es of his oli­garch-cum-mob­ster boss, who is attempt­ing to stash his ill-got­ten gains with Lon­don financiers. The real vil­lains here are the British estab­lish­ment fig­ures, who have been co-opt­ed by for­eign cap­i­tal and aban­doned their patri­ot­ic duty to the home­land. This mes­sage is deliv­ered by Lewis’ hon­or­able spy­mas­ter, a hero­ic bore who miss­es no oppor­tu­ni­ty to engage in tact­less mor­al­iz­ing. (Sam­ple line: Mon­ey has no smell as long as there is enough of it.”)

Ulti­mate­ly, mon­ey cor­rupts” is a lazy exem­plum pos­ing as sys­temic cri­tique. And instead of enthralling­ly com­pli­cat­ed anti-heroes, the sto­ry gives us arche­typ­al good guys” work­ing tire­less­ly to effect change from the inside. It’s per­haps a com­fort­ing mes­sage giv­en all we’ve learned in the age of Snow­den, but not a very inter­est­ing one. The Night Man­ag­er deals with sim­i­lar themes, though in sleek­er fash­ion. In this case, it is Arab oli­garchs and bil­lion­aire gun­run­ners who have bought off the high­er-ups at MI6. The vil­lain, in the form of Hugh Lau­rie, is at least giv­en some good lines.

Iron­i­cal­ly, in aim­ing square­ly at the pow­ers-that-be, these adap­ta­tions exhib­it a fair­ly naïve view of pow­er. While George Smi­ley pines for Britain’s hey­day, the sto­ries he appears in often show how fruit­less it is to wish the rot out of pol­i­tics. Le Carré’s lat­ter­day heroes embrace some­thing worse than a false nos­tal­gia — a con­vic­tion that they can serve their coun­try and not cap­i­tal, as though their pre­de­ces­sors hadn’t manned an empire that did both. 

Jake Blum­gart is a free­lance reporter-researcher based in Philadel­phia. You can fol­low him on Twit­ter here.
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