The Night Managers

Fri Oct 7, 2016

We are currently living in the era of John le Carré, if the attention given to the recent biography, memoir, and the television adaptation of his 1993 novel, The Night Manager, is any indication. I’m a long-time le Carré watcher. No adaptation will beat Thomas Alfredson’s film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as far as I’m concerned, especially not for capturing the weirdness of his plots and characterizations. Ian Buruma’s article covers the familiar (to le Carré scholars) territory of the image of the father in his various fiction. Buruma begins the piece by noting the resemblance of Richard Roper, the villain from The Night Manager, to Alan Clark.

Hugh Laurie, a British comedic actor best known to American audiences for A Bit of Fry and Laurie, was cast in Roper’s role in the television version. The most inspired bit of casting was Tom Hollander as Major “Corky” Corkoran. Hollander’s turn as the “Fucker” in The Thick of It demonstrated many of the light touches and muted tones this character needed. I just now discovered that the actor who played Jed grew up in Australia. She is converted to an American in the series, which I assumed was an accident of casting. It doesn’t seem to add anything to the plot, otherwise. Burr, the dogged investigator, switches gender and personality quite a bit. There are also many other changes that I may mention.

Now that we have dispensed with the accidents of casting, I want to mention a few of the plot details. Most notable, of course, is that time has been advanced twenty years into the future. Instead of arming Latin American cartels, Roper is sending guns and biological weapons (not in the book, I’m reasonably sure) to elements in Syria. Instead of helping shoot three IRA men in cold blood, Pine was a decorated Iraq war veteran. Jemima (“Jed”) now has a child she abandoned and a family she’s sending money to. Pine does not kill Hamid in the novel. Roper is not turned over to businessmen he’s jilted in the novel. Corkoran does not die in the novel. The suicide of Apostol’s daughter occurs off-screen, so to speak. Roper does not insult any of his business partners in a fatal act of hubris.

Furthermore, Pine is subject to a sustained bout of torture before he’s freed. Roper frees him (and Jed) to prevent any further trouble from Burr’s investigative unit, but not before Pine seriously injures or kills Frisky and Tabby. Pine does obstruct any arms deal. He most especially does not orchestrate any spectacular destruction of weaponry. The incident with Sophie and Hamid remains in Cairo, but none of the rest of the book returns to the region. There is no Bradshaw element to the plot, strictly speaking.

It seems clear to me that most of le Carré’s novels from the 1980s onward were written with a film adaptation in mind. (The Secret Pilgrim perhaps was envisioned as an episodic series.) Several were made into films. The Night Manager seems unusually cinematic. I wonder when the film rights were sold, and if there was any attempt to film it in the early-mid 90s. It would have been quite a different product, needless to say, from this lavishly produced TV series. Would they have kept the parts about Pine faking “jungle tummy” to scribble a message to his handlers? That would make a good exam question.

A general theme seen in le Carré commentary is that his realism and moral ambiguity elevated his spy novels from genre to literature. Almost all of the moral and political ambiguity, such as it is, in le Carré’s novel was removed for the TV adaptation. And that’s just as we would expect. My question is: was it primarily the result of the commercial process or of moving the plot forward twenty years? I don’t think it’s as obvious as it may seem.