John Le Carré on Camera

New memoir by the spy-turned-novelist

Oct. 1, 2016
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With a string of novels that sell reliably in many languages, John le Carré isn’t an author who owes his fame entirely to film adaptations. And yet, his fortune benefitted from those adaptations. Ten of his novels have been transformed into feature films and five television series have been based on his work. Le Carré’s favorite topic is international intrigue, especially the agencies that spy on each other and anyone else that catches their ear. He knows first hand about such things: Le Carré was recruited by Britain’s MI5 in 1956 when he was 25 years old and transferred from domestic to foreign intelligence in 1960 when he joined MI6, where he spent much of his time prowling the corridors of power in West Germany. He retired within a few years to devote himself to writing, but the habits of mind from his youthful profession have remained a source of inspiration.

Le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life is a memoir that rambles across decades and continents as he relates favorite stories, observations and bits of experience. Some of his digressions concern the films made from his novels. He recounts lunching with Alec Guinness in preparation for the actor’s role as the weary British spy George Smiley in the BBC-TV version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Also at the table was one of le Carré’s former colleagues; to the author’s surprise, the old spymaster implied that he besmirched the good name of the secret service by coloring its activities in shades of moral grey. Le Carré reports that Guinness patterned Smiley’s wardrobe and some of his mannerisms after the irascible lunch guest who disliked the novelist’s depiction of MI6.

The Pigeon Tunnel is full of asides that illuminate Le Carré’s novels and the films derived from them. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, published whilst he was still a spy, brought le Carré his fame and his first movie deal. He recounts meeting American director Martin Ritt, who insisted on Burt Lancaster in the lead role. To accommodate the star, the MI6 agent would have to become Canadian, not British. Somehow, and to le Carré’s satisfaction, Richard Burton was eventually chosen for the part. He was also fortunate that Ritt’s original choice for screenwriter, a Hollywood hack with bonkers ideas, was replaced by a Brit who was also an MI6 veteran. Le Carré ended up as a go-between for Ritt and Burton, who despised each other.

Le Carré, with the keen instincts of a good spy, kept his own counsel during their arguments. The film became a masterpiece of its kind, grimly unstinting in its portrayal of the dangerous duplicity that spends human beings like pawns.

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