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Adapting le Carre: The Case for Our Game

May 18, 2016

I must admit I’ve been feeling some withdrawal symptons after the excellent TV adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager finished. le Carré’s novel of former hotel manager turned undercover spy Jonathan Pine’s mission to infiltrate an arms dealers’ entourage and bring Richard ‘the worst man in the world’ Roper to justice gripped me from beginning to end, and it made riveting viewing onscreen. In the US The Night Manager can currently be seen on AMC.

The Night Manager got me thinking about which other of le Carrè novels deserve to be adapted to film or television. Fourteen of le Carrè’s novels have so far been adapted for the small and silver screen, ranging from the Good (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), the Bad (A Perfect Spy), and the Ugly (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — film, not TV, version).

Hugh Laurie recently claimed that The Night Manager’s strength lay in the fact that it was the first novel le Carré published after the end of the Cold War, and as such it still managed to retain the hauntingly powerful resonance of his previous novels which had all been set in the ideological conflict between East and West: the longest and most complicated espionage duel the world had ever seen.

Alas, I don’t think the same power could be attributed to all of le Carré’s post- Cold War novels. Single and Single (1999) is dour and uninvolving. Absolute Friends (2003) veers dangerously close to anti-American bigotry. Both would make dull films. Of the Cold War novels yet to be adapted, I would love to see The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) onscreen, partly because it is a gripping, action-packed tale in which le Carré sketches some vivid portrayals of South East Asia and also because it features his most famous character — George Smiley. However, there are some obstacles to overcome from page to screen. The plot is fiendishly complex and would be difficult for a screenwriter to render concisely, and The Honourable Schoolboy is also the middle book of the Smiley Versus Karla trilogy, making the back-story an issue for the uninitiated viewer.

The 1995 novel Our Game, I believe, is a stronger candidate for adaptation. The plot develops from a relatively simple premise. Retired spy Tim Cranmer is visited by two police detectives one evening who grill him about the disappearance of his friend Larry Pettifer. Pettifer was Cranmer’s protégé in British intelligence, but they both seemingly left the world of espionage to pursue a more peaceful life. Recalled to London by his former spymasters, Cranmer learns that Pettifer has swindled the Russian government out of a small fortune. Pettifer’s motive is the conduit through which le Carré explores themes such as the nature of belief. Cranmer has typically British views: a dislike for ideology, a predilection to compromise and a belief in his country that is tempered by an understanding of its corruption. Despite the Christian symbolism of his name, Cranmer has no firm religious views:

I am not a God man, though I believe society is better for Him than without Him. I do not reject Him as Larry does, and then go scurrying after Him to apologise. But I do not accept Him either.

But if Cranmer can appreciate the status of the Church of England while never believing in its dogma, as Roger Scruton put it, ‘my tribal religion, the religion of the English who don’t believe a word of it’, then Pettifer, by contrast, is dashing idealism all the way. His undercover work put him in touch with the oppressed Ingush people of the Caucasus. Moved by their historical plight at the hands of the Tsarists, communists and finally the Russian Federation, Pettifer’s fraud was initiated to help the Ingush in their struggle for independence. The relationship between Cranmer and Pettifer is complicated further as Cranmer’s young mistress Emma has run off with his former friend. Should Cranmer try to rescue Pettifer from his folly or leave him to be hunted down by vengeful Russians? While le Carré never works up nailbiting suspense in  Our Game he nevertheless crafted a compelling and absorbing novel. The title refers to both the tradecraft of espionage and also ‘the annual festival of Winchester Football, a game so arcane  that even experienced players may not know all the rules.’ Cranmer and Pettifer both attended an elitist private school as children, and after the titular football game, Cranmer has to thrash New Boy Pettifer who found himself on the losing side. Pettifer refuses to comply with any of Cranmer’s demands that would allow him to give a softer beating:

‘Why didn’t you sing?’ I ask him, later that night as he bends over the same table.

‘It’s against my religion. I’m a Jew.’

‘No, you’re not. You’re father’s in the Church.’

‘I’ve converted.’

‘I’ll give you one chance,’ I say expansively. ‘What is the Notion for Winchester Football?’ It is the easiest test I can think of in the entire school vernacular, a gift.

‘Jew-baiting,’ he replies.

So I have no alternative but to beat him, when all he needed to say was Our Game.

In his recent writing le Carré seems to be at his best when he is imitating other writers. The Tailor of Panama (1996) is a tribute to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1958) with its Foreign Office Englishman abroad theme. The Night Manager has a Bondian romantic adventure feel to it (le Carré would be loathe to admit it but the TV adaptation only confirmed the Fleming undertones of the story in my mind). Our Game has a Kiplingesque fascination and reverence for Ingushetia and its people, and this is what makes the narrative so powerful. Through imitation, le Carré has demonstrated that he is at his best when his authorial voice doesn’t swamp the text. Our Game’s complex, non-chronological structure would certainly be a challenge for the screen, but with two fine actors, the duel between Cranmer and Pettifer would be electrifying. Cranmer and Pettifer are, in effect, two sides of le Carré’s character. Cranmer is the Smiley-figure resigned to his fallen world and Pettifer is the young radical le Carré seems to regret he never became. In this tension between them, one voice never drowns out the other.




6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2016 2:54 pm

    Our game is a novel of le Carré’s which I’m keen to read next. Also I agree with Honourable Schoolboy being a potentially great film but it plot does seems maybe too complex/long for a film. Maybe a TV series would be better!

    • June 23, 2016 3:08 pm

      Do read Our Game. There are some le Carre novels I’d recommend skipping, ie A Small Town in Germany, but Our Game is a thoughful, thrilling yarn. The BBC did consider making The Honourable Schoolboy as a mini-series follow-up to Tinker, Tailor but its exotic locations were deemed too expensive. But considering the budget The Night Manager had anything is possible now.

  2. Steve Hill permalink
    June 26, 2021 1:22 pm

    I would love to see The Honourable Schoolboy as a lengthy BBC TV series. It is one of my favourite books and I doubt it could be turned into anything as short as a film or any of the British TV series that have been based on LeCarré novels. I felt too much was left out of The Night Manager, though it was pretty good for the length it was allowed, and I was a bit disappointed with The Little Drummer Girl for similar reasons. I don’t quite know what to make of Our Game and I found it a very hard book to follow towards the end. I have read it twice over the years but maybe I should read it again extremely slowly.

    • June 26, 2021 1:39 pm

      I quite agree Steve. THS is an incredible novel with an epic sweep and some heartstopping action. I feel the BBC could afford it today given the co-productions they mount with HBO. A few issues still remain, the plot threads it picks up from TTSS and the fact that Smiley takes a backseat for much of the narrative may displease some fans. Frankly, I think it works just as well as Jerry Westerby’s story.


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