What to Watch

Five Essential John le Carré Films

In tribute to the late British author and his towering legacy, we highlight the greatest movie adaptations based on his books...

Last night came the sad news that the inimitable John le Carré (real name: David Cornwell) had died aged 89, following a short battle with pneumonia. The British author and former intelligence officer was best known for his intricately-spun spy novels – the most famous of which revolved around an MI6 surrogate known as “The Circus.” Le Carré's writing was crisp, precise, and acutely observant about human nature, his books remarkable for the ways they captured a specific type of English melancholy in the years during and after the Cold War.

But perhaps the best thing about Le Carré's novels is how they stood in polar opposite to James Bond's more glamorous secret agent adventures. Lacking the sex and high-octane action sequences of Ian Fleming's works, they were more concerned with characters trapped in bureaucratic nightmares brought on by their increasingly compromised roles. The protagonists of Le Carré novels are frequently beaten down by their departments and superiors – used, betrayed, lost in convoluted webs of deceit and conspiracy. There is no envy to be had in the spy lifestyles depicted in these books – and that weary deglamorization of an otherwise misrepresented profession is what sets them apart from so many other tales of espionage.

That said, Le Carré could spin a yarn like the best of them and his books remained relentlessly entertaining despite their cynicism – meaning his novels were inevitably adapted to the big screen over the years to varying results. In tribute to the late author and his towering legacy, here are five essential adaptations based on his books (of course, we'd recommend reading them first)…

 

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

This film's iconic black-and-white cinematography is perfectly matched to a downbeat spy story set against the backdrop of the Cold War. Richard Burton plays one of Le Carré's most iconic characters, Alec Leamus, a veteran spy who's forced to become a double agent behind the Iron Curtain before he can finally retire. This is arguably the purest and most faithful adaptation of a Le Carré novel – an equally miserable and thrilling anti-James Bond, with Burton giving one of his best performances as the jaded, eponymous spy who comes to realise he can't trust anyone.

 

The Constant Gardener (2005)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The title of this film might give rise to thoughts about an obsessive outdoorsy type – but no, it's the name of a thrilling, sad and largely forgotten Le Carré adaptation. The Kenyan-set story finds Ralph Fiennes as a British diplomat whose wife – Rachel Weisz, in an Oscar-winning role – is murdered. As he attempts to find out what happened to her, he's caught up in a wider conspiracy; meanwhile, flashbacks key us into what really went down. As directed by City of God's Fernando Meirelles, it unfolds as something of a tragic love story – albeit one with heaps of Le Carré trademark cynicism.

 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Many have come face to face with this more recent adaptation of what is often considered Le Carré's 1974 masterpiece (the 1979 BBC version is well worth checking out), only to find they have no idea what's going on. In the hands of filmmaker Tomas Alfredson, it's certainly a dense and tricky film to get your head round, but one that pays off in dividends if you can keep up with all the twists and double crosses. For those quickly lost to its convoluted plottings, though, it still works as an appropriately dour indictment of British espionage, and an awesome showcase for basically every male British actor in history: Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Stephen Graham, Tom Hardy… the list goes on!

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The great Philip Seymour Hoffman's last ever screen performance was in this adaptation of Le Carré's 2008 novel A Most Wanted Man – an underseen gem that stands as a testament to the singular talents of both men. Hoffman plays (what else?) a disillusioned spymaster who runs a government team tasked with seeking out informants with ties to Islamic terrorism. As directed by the Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn, it doubles as both a gripping thriller and a fascinating character study of a man forced to make decisions that have zapped his soul. Hoffman gives it his all, playing the anthesis of a James Bond type – untucked shirt, limping walk – that is genuinely something to behold.

 

The Little Drummer Girl (2018)

Where to watch it: Prime Video

Okay, cheating a little, since this is actually a television mini-series – but as directed by South Korean genius Park Chan-wook, who also gave us Oldboy and Stoker, it's so cinematic in its execution that it basically qualifies as a film. It also happens to star the one and only Florence Pugh in what might be her best and most complex screen role to date. Here, she plays the young English actress, Charlie, who's hired by Mossad to help them infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist organisation. Pugh is magnificent, while Park inflicts every frame with the same lavishness he's brought to his features. An immensely watchable, tense, and detailed period adaptation of one of Le Carré's best books.

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