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.
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.