AMC Remembers John le Carré, Author of The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl
John le Carré, the world renowned author best recognized for his nuanced spy thrillers about Cold War intrigue, has passed away at 89.
Le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, worked for both the British Security Service (MI5) and the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) during the 1950s and 1960s. His experiences as a secret and foreign intelligence agent himself informed his work as a novelist. While le Carré was an active MI5 agent, he published Call for the Dead, and it was during his time in MI6 that le Carré penned A Murder of Quality and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was an international bestseller, and became a landmark contribution to the fictional espionage genre. Before le Carré's work, the national image of the "spy" figure was closer to James Bond: suave, brilliant, impeccably dressed, and charismatically detached. Le Carré transformed this notion, shifting the idea of the spy to that of the everyman: lonely, disillusioned, undervalued, and with a moral spectrum dotted with gray areas.
"Thematically, le Carré's true subject is not spying," Timothy Garton Ash wrote in "The Real le Carré" from The New Yorker in March of 1999. "It is the endlessly deceptive maze of human relations: the betrayal that is a kind of love, the lie that is a sort of truth, good men serving bad causes and bad men serving good."
In a time when social fears of the Cold War propped up various caricatures of the mythos of "Soviet villainy," le Carré's novels reminded readers that both sides of the war were being waged by real people -- brilliant, but flawed, and deeply human.
After leaving MI6 to become a full time novelist after the success of his Mr. Smiley novels (and because his cover was blown by infamous double agent Kim Philby), le Carré went on to write Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Little Drummer Girl, The Night Manager, The Constant Gardener, and many more international bestsellers about espionage and political intrigue. Much of his work has been adapted for film and television.
Recently, AMC was honored to work with John le Carré to bring his 1993 novel The Night Manager to life. The 2016 miniseries starred Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, and Elizabeth Debicki, and was directed by Susanne Bier. John le Carré was an integral part of the production, acting as Executive Producer and filming a series of deeply personal "Author's Notes" for fans, offering intimately personal insights into his work, his inspirations, and his family history.
"I've always been fascinated by villains," le Carré says in this behind-the-scenes interview about his inspirations for The Night Manager. "All my villains in some way are versions of my dad: my wicked, dominating, domineering, charming dad."
"I think in the character of Richard Roper, I thought I was looking for some kind of single version of the deceptions I'd grown up with," le Carré continues in this video. "Roper lives an enormous lie; one of the lies, I think, is that he's a happy man."
If The Night Manager's villainous Richard Roper, played by Hugh Laurie, is inspired by his con-man father, le Carré reveals in this video that Jonathan Pine, played by Tom Hiddleston, has a little bit of himself. "You can't really create a character unless you put a little bit of yourself into him," le Carré says, explaining a little bit of his writing process. "You explore solitude, you explore variations of yourself in privacy, and there is no escape from solitude if you're writing, particularly a long haul. Other relationships become secondary to the relationships you have with the people on the page. I could imagine that the reclusive part of Pine lived in much the same way. Seeing a lot is very painful."
To create the character of Jonathan Pine, le Carré reveals that he actually lived like Jonathon Pine. "To write the story, I entered the character of Pine as best I could," says le Carré in this behind-the-scenes video. "I took myself to North Quebec; that's where [Pine] begins to put together the legend of who he was. Then, again, in the novel, he goes down to Central America and Miami and Panama and into Colombia and so on. I made those journeys, and tried to think myself into the role of the character. The notes I would take are his notes, not mine. It's a schizophrenic process."
"I followed Pine's stars and saw where it led me. And when the logic of a character really begins to form itself, the character will take over in the writing, as it does in the acting," le Carré adds.
After investing so much of his life, and so much of himself, in his characters, it's no wonder that John le Carré would say here, "When you watch characters from your novel being turned into actors, there's normally a huge sense of loss, for the writer. As long as the character exists on the page, you have your version of him, and other people have their versions of him." But in this behind-the-scenes video, le Carré says he felt not only happy with the portrayals he saw onscreen; they felt familiar.
After all, John le Carré is intimately familiar with both con-men and the machinations of war. The author knows better than most that wars are about money, not morality. In this Author's Notes video, le Carré reveals Roper's true self, the greedy void of a man at the core of his humanitarian magician's act. "Corporate power and warfare are absolutely inseparable," le Carré explains here. "And Roper understood that: that wars are about money and resources." Perhaps this truth is why le Carré's novels feel so grounded in the reality of human nature, regardless of their sweeping global scope.
Ultimately, of course, Roper is bested -- by Pine, by Burr, by Jed. Truly, though, as le Carré explains in this video, Roper's downfall is due to his own hubris. "It was the gradual disintegration of a self image in Roper that was, to me, very important. I'm killing the father, I suppose."
AMC was also honored to work with le Carré again, in 2018, to adapt his 1983 novel, The Little Drummer Girl. The miniseries starred Florence Pugh, Michael Shannon, and Alexander Skarsgård.
Read more about John le Carré's career and legacy on AMC's sister blog, BBC America's Anglophenia.