Best John le Carré dramatization yet (non-Smiley division)

Gadi and Charlie visit the Acropolis…

It’s not the best le Carré ever, because we have to face the fact that the Alec Guinness version of George Smiley is out there, in both “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People.”

But if you consider only adaptations of the non-George novels, I think this is the best.

And I wasn’t expecting that — at all. In fact, when I heard they had remade The Little Drummer Girl as a TV series back in 2018, I was, as usual, irritated. Why mess with success?

The 1984 version, starring Diane Keaton, wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty great. She was good as Charlie, Klaus Kinski was just as good as Kurtz, and Yorgo Voyagis — of whom I had never heard before or since — was very impressive as the conflicted, lugubrious Israeli hero Gadi Becker.

Yeah, they messed with it. For instance, they turned Charlie into an American. Because, you know, Diane Keaton. But beyond that, I was well pleased.

But still, when I fell victim recently to a come-on from AMC+ (a free week! which of course wasn’t enough to get me through this one show without having to pay!) I immediately had to go check it out.

And then, I had to watch all the way through. These last couple of days with COVID helped me get it done.

And from the beginning, I realized, “This is better.”

Especially if you appreciate dramatizations that are true to the book, in every possible way. And of course we don’t see that nearly enough. I had had high hopes for “The Night Manager,” which is probably my favorite non-Smiley le Carré. But you couldn’t get more than a few minutes into it before everything was turned this way and that. Worst of all, they updated it (shudder). As le Carré reacted at the time:

But a novel I had written nearly a quarter of a century ago reset in present time? With none of Pine’s trip to northern Quebec in the story? None of Central America? My beloved Colombian drugs barons replaced by Middle Eastern warlords? No zillion dollar luxury yacht for Richard Roper? A new ending to the story, yet to be discussed? What did that mean?

One change worked: Jonathan Pine’s handler was changed from a man to a pregnant woman. I’m still not sure whether that was an improvement because of the maternal aspects of looking after an agent in the field, or simply because the actress was Olivia Coleman. Probably both.

But the other changes didn’t work. Especially not the new ending.

But this was true right down the line. Time, place, characters and plot. Which is great because it’s a fantastic story, filled with delicate features and contradictions that could be thrown completely off with the wrong changes.

The moral ambiguity of the story is doubled, partly because of the extended time format. And that’s essential. No one — not agent Charlie, not her handler, not anyone — is supposed to be entirely sure who’s right and who’s wrong in this counterterrorism story.

And then there’s the casting. The unknown (to me) young woman who plays Charlie is just what the role demanded. She’s supposed to be an unremarkable little actress who feels she’s never been able to realize her potential. Now I realize: How could that be Diane Keaton, who at 38 was such a big star that they’d change the main character’s nationality to get her? She needs to be someone you look at and try to figure out and decide whether she’s up to the overwhelming task.

And you do. She makes you do that. A lot of women should love her in this. First, she’s not a willowy supermodel type like Ms. Keaton. Her figure — as you discover when the head of the terror cell makes her strip to her underwear as a safety precaution — is at best “average.” And yet, she has this quality that draws men’s eyes. You completely believe the thing you have to believe about Charlie — that she can bewitch everyone from her fellow actors to international terrorists.

They had to do the same with Gadi Becker. You had to believe that he could enthrall Charlie, and that it was so obvious that Kurtz, head of the Israeli team, could bank on it. And yet it was something Becker himself did not value.

As for Kurtz: Klaus Kinski was perfect, but if anything — if you’ll allow the logical impossibility — Michael Shannon is more so. An American, of course, but one who can really act, and makes this intense Israeli real. But what has Shannon ever done that wasn’t great, from Elvis to the cop in “Boardwalk Empire?” His characters are always bigger than life. And kinda scary.

Anyway, I recommend it…

Michael Shannon as Kurtz.

3 thoughts on “Best John le Carré dramatization yet (non-Smiley division)

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Here’s an unhappy thought: Will this be the last really true, respectful le Carré? I ask that because it was the last one that had to deal with a living author — and of course he appeared in a very tiny cameo.

    Maybe, but maybe not.

    Le Carré has too much gravitas. I sort of doubt even Hollywood would ever desecrate his oeuvre the way Amazon did to the late, lamented Tom Clancy with the execrable “Without Remorse.” Did you see it? If not, count yourself lucky. (The blasphemy starts with “updating” it. How the hell we’re supposed to believe in a John Clark who didn’t get his start in Vietnam, I don’t know…)

    Of course, even when Clancy was alive, the moviemakers never made anything as true to the original as this new Drummer Girl. Not even, alas, “Hunt for Red October,” as much fun as it was.

    One ping only, Vasily…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    OK, so none of y’all were interested in this, but here’s why I was… I was just thinking about it again last night.

    As I alluded above, it’s the simple matter of respecting a good book. That is so rare in TV and movie adaptations, so it really impressed me here.

    I’m lying awake at night watching TV too much these last days. COVID keeps me from feeling like reading. Too much effort. So I signed up for a “free week” of AMC+, which was of course not enough to really explore the service, which means I’ve now paid for a month. Whatever.

    Anyway, one thing that I immediately checked out was something I hadn’t known existed — a 2018 TV series based on Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. That’s the long, deep, involved murder mystery set in 1327. Well, good. I had always loved the book, and was disappointed by the movie.

    This one stars John Turturro as William of Baskerville, instead of Sean Connery, which was always an odd choice – the Franciscan friar with a license to kill. That’s certainly an improvement, and Turturro does a good job in the parts I’ve seen. Although it’s interesting that they would choose an Italian to play an Englishman who is supposed to be sort of a fish out of water at this monastery in Italy, but whatever. Connery wasn’t English, either.

    There are some early scenes that are practically word-for-word from the book, and they’re good. But beyond that, an enormous amount of screen time is spent developing characters who were peripheral to the book or even not in it — I can’t remember for sure after all the years since I read it. But the scenes are pretty pointless in developing the main plot, which is about this grisly series of murders that all seem to be rooted somehow in differing interpretations of the books and ideas that consume the monks’ lives.

    For instance, in the book, the novice Adso of Melk has a dalliance with a beautiful girl whom he encounters trying to take food from the monastery kitchen. This of course becomes an occasion for much hand-wringing by young Adso, and causes him to have such such morose reflections as omne animal triste post coitum (although apparently the youth carries the memory fondly for the rest of his life).

    But beyond the few minutes before the sex and the few after, I don’t think we see or hear from the girl again. And yet she seems to have been developed into a character who appears again and again and develops this relationship with Adso over time. Why? Because you can’t make a TV series without some good-looking women — or women, period — in it, I guess. But it takes away from development of the actual plot.

    Worse is this guy who is on his way to the abbey for a conference — which is what William is there for as well — and on the way stops to burn people at the stake, or have flashbacks about burning people at the stake, and talk a lot about how he wants to destroy the Franciscan order. Maybe this is somebody who was mentioned in the book at some point, but I don’t remember him at all, much less having to watch his grotesque depredations in scene after scene.

    So I quit watching.

    And after that, I was just particularly glad to see how deeply respectful the makers of this new Drummer Girl were of the original novel.

    It’s not that directors have to throw away their own creativity when approaching good literature. But they have ample opportunity to contribute their own gifts though the casting, the cinematography and so forth. Just add what the visual arts have to add.

    I just don’t see why they have to mess with the core of the material. And the makers of this Little Drummer Girl did not.

    That impressed me, because I too seldom see it…

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