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The Little Drummer Girl – Preview

September 20, 2018

The new BBC/AMC adaptation of John le Carré’s novel The Little Drummer Girl is due to air in November, and no doubt the Beeb are hoping to repeat the success of The Night Manager. Shortly after that miniseries aired, I suggested that of all the le Carré’s novels that have yet to be adapted, Our Game might be the most suited for television. Instead, the BBC have taken a significant gamble with controversial material which has already been adapted for the big screen (albeit not very successfully).

That said, The Little Drummer Girl is an extraordinary novel and, if handled right, this adaptation has the potential to be a critical and commercial hit.

Alexander Skarsgård as Becker, Florence Pugh as Charlie Ross – The Little Drumer Girl _ Season 1, Episode 3 – Photo Credit: © 2018 The Little Drummer Girl Distribution Limited. All rights reserved.

The novel tells the story of Charlie, an English stage actress who, in addition to her theatrical career, has interests in radical left-wing activism and the cause of Palestinian liberation. She accepts an acting role on a Greek island only to discover the job is an elaborate ruse by Mossad agents to lure her into a scheme to ensnare Khalil, a Palestinian terrorist. Reluctant at first, Charlie agrees to the dangerous assignment and what follows is a cat and mouse game in which identity is suffused with contradiction, leaving the reader constantly guessing which way the characters will jump next.

You get the sense, for instance, that the spymaster Kurtz is every bit as good a thespian as Charlie, especially when he persuades the actress to accept the mission despite it going against all her pro-Palestinian instincts:

‘If I add that we are also Israeli citizens, I trust you will not immediately foam at the mouth, vomit, or jump out of the window, unless of course it is your personal conviction that Israel should be swept into the sea, napalmed, or handed over gift-wrapped to one or another of the many fastidious Arab organisations committed to our elimination.’

Later on in the novel, Charlie visits a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut and the deprivation she witnesses reawakens her sympathy for the Arab struggle, and compounds her guilt at the course she has taken:

I am a grieving, outraged widow and I have come here to take up my dead lover’s fight.

I am the awakened militant who has wasted too long on half measures and now stands before you sword in hand.

I have put my hand on the Palestinian heart; I am pledged to lift the world up by its ears to make it listen.

I am on fire but I am cunning and resourceful. I am the sleepy wasp that cannot wait all winter long to sting.

I’m Comrade Leila, a citizen of the world revolution.

Day and night.

The Little Drummer Girl may not be le Carré’s best novel (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spyin my mind, holds this distinction), but it is the most fascinating work he has written in terms of research and composition.

When it was first published, the inspiration for Charlie’s character was widely believed to be rabble-rousing luvvie Vanessa Redgrave. In fact, as le Carré admitted in an interview with Melvyn Bragg, the inspiration was the author’s half sister: the actress Charlotte Cornwell: ‘she went through a dotty time politically and emerged from it very fast, and she talked to me about it. And I went up to Islington and mucked around various funny bookshops there that feed the extreme left, and the radical causes, and talked to one or two people in that world.’

le Carré also described having a narrative epiphany while watching Cornwell perform onstage: ‘it was pouring with rain, the most unbelievable noise on the roof, and Charlotte was really having to belt it out. I thought she was very good but she was over the top. I mean she was booming in order to defeat the rain and it was actually the moment, I think, where I thought: yes, I’ll use that.’ And he did, before the intrigue and suspense of the novel kicks in, le Carré gives a wry portrayal of the less than glamorous world of repertory theatre, including one scene where Mossad agents take Charlie’s ineffectual and unsuspecting theatrical agent Ned out for lunch at The Ivy. They get him sloshed on Chablis, and the bumbling old ass gladly tells them everything they need to know about his client.

le Carré’s research would continue with him interviewing Mossad agents and, from the other end of the spectrum, Yasser Arafat. The author was convinced that the plot to lure Charlie into being a pawn for Israeli Intelligence needed to be plausible: ‘I put it to the lads in Israel and they were enchanted with the idea and said: yes if it would work, yes they would do it.’

But le Carré was also determined to write a balanced book, one that would be sympathetic with Israel’s right to defend itself but indignant at abuses against Palestinians: ‘like my character Charlie, I had a love affair with the Palestinians, exactly as in the past I’ve had a love affair with the Jews. It is my job to radicalise, my job to feel the way.’ He found Arafat to be ‘a very infectious man; tremendously spontaneous and very witty.’ It was through Arafat that le Carré was able to visit, like his character Charlie, Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. This was during the run-up to the 1982 Lebanon War, and the hardships le Carré witnessed in the camps as well as the impending violence may have begun the author’s long drift to the left. But while his later novels descended into tedious anti-American hectoring, le Carré was committed to writing a politically evenhanded, well-judged book in The Little Drummer Girl and, broadly speaking, he succeeded.

So, will it work on television?

Well, a year after the novel was published there was a Hollywood film adaptation. Diane Keaton makes a superb Charlie, as le Carré said, ‘it didn’t have to be an English actress, it had to be a western one’, and by making the character American it gives her a Hanoi Jane feel. The problem lies in the direction. George Roy Hill had enjoyed huge success with such caper films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973), and had helmed some tricky literary fare such as Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and The World According to Garp (1982), but he was lost at sea with this material. Perhaps handling a politically explosive narrative made him reluctant to take risks and the tone of the film is flat and boring throughout.

This strikes me as a problem that could reoccur. The Israel/Palestine debate is every bit as contentious today as it was when le Carré’s novel was first published. The BBC’s, otherwise excellent, adaptation of McMafia was accused of being anti-Semitic and anti-Russian and, with ongoing allegations of anti-Semitism rumbling in the Labour Party, it’s difficult to see how the TV adaptation won’t be both offensive and controversial to some viewers.

The Night Manager was a gloriously entertaining, globetrotting romp. If any le Carré novel was destined to be a hit on TV it was that one. The Little Drummer Girl is considerably more risky, but I hold to the view that le Carré wrote a fascinating and balanced novel, and if the BBC can catch its essence then this could be great television.

If you get a chance, read the book before the miniseries airs this November.

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