Jul 20, 2016

Tradecraft: Smiley Returns to the Small Screen in New The Spy Who Came in from the Cold Miniseries

In an introduction to a paperback edition of The Looking Glass War, John le Carré joked that what the public wanted from him at the time he wrote that book was "Alec Leamas Rides Again." Unlikely as that prospect seemed, it looks like Leamas, the titular Spy Who Came in from the Cold, will indeed ride again! This is certainly exciting news. The success of The Night Manager miniseries (or "limited series," to use the preferred term du jour) in both Britain and America guaranteed we'd be seeing more le Carré adaptations on the small screen, but I honestly didn't expect a new version of what's probably his most famous novel (and one of the best spy novels of all time). Yet that is in the works! Deadline reports that Paramount TV and The Ink Factory (the production shingle run by le Carré's sons with a mandate to develop film and television projects based on his works) are developing the property as a limited series with Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) writing. Le Carré will serve as executive producer, as he did on The Night Manager. No network is involved at this stage, though one has to imagine that both of Night Manager's partners, the BBC (in Britain) and AMC (in the United States), will bid hard for a follow-up of this magnitude.

Though it was his third novel (and also third featuring George Smiley), it was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that put le Carré on the map. Upon its publication in 1963, the book garnered excellent reviews and became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Martin Ritt made an excellent film of it in 1965 starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom and co-written by Goldfinger scribe Paul Dehn. But as good as that film is, I don't see it as the last word on the story. In fact, I've long harbored dreams of a Spy Who Came in from the Cold remake. Making it in a new format (as a miniseries) will afford Beaufoy the opportunity to make different choices from Ritt and Dehn, and to flesh out certain aspects of le Carré's novel that got short shrift in the film, just as the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy feature proved a fresh take on that material from the famous BBC miniseries that came before.

No casting has been announced, and it is probably a long way off at this stage. But I would guess that, like The Night Manager, this title will attract high caliber stars. Personally, my dream cast for a Spy Who Came in from the Cold remake has long been Daniel Craig as Leamas (I think he'd be perfect!) and Keira Knightly as Liz (who can now use her actual name; in the film it was changed to Nan because of Burton's famous wife named Liz). Craig, however, is committed to another TV series, and sadly unlikely to be available. Even more important, though, are the supporting roles. I really, really hope that The Ink Factory's producers Stephen Cornwell and Simon Cornwell will manage to lure their Tinker Tailor actors back in the roles of Smiley and, more crucially, Control. While it seems somewhat unlikely that Gary Oldman would want to reprise his film role on television for what basically amounts to a cameo, I have trouble picturing anyone other than John Hurt in the role of Control. He was utterly fantastic in Tinker Tailor. (Spy would be a prequel to that story, which was adapted from a later book.) And Hurt certainly does television.

The only thing I'm slightly disappointed about regarding this news is the fact that they're not doing Call for the Dead first. Though Call for the Dead (which was filmed in the Sixties as The Deadly Affair, also adapted by Dehn) features Smiley front and center and Spy does not, Spy is very much a sequel to Call. I wonder if Beaufoy will be able to incorporate certain aspects of that novel into his adaptation? Depending on how many episodes the miniseries turns out to be, that could be a very interesting approach.

What this news means for the Ink Factory's previously announced follow-up to The Night Manager, a 3-part adaptation of le Carre's 2003 novel Absolute Friends, remains to be seen. Hopefully that is still on track as well. (It may even materialize before The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.)

Read my book review of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold here.
Read my overview "George Smiley: An Introduction" here.


Dylan said...

Hoping for Simon Russell Beale as Smiley. He was great in the BBC Smiley series, and I think he’d be great on screen. But then, I really didn’t care for Gary Oldman’s version of Smiley.

Jason said...

I've only ever watched The Night Manager, but I imagine le Carre's books would probably work better as limited series, since the people adapting them are able to include things that would otherwise be cut from a movie.

Anonymous said...

Watching the big screen version of "Tinker, Tailor" a thought that got stuck in my head was that Toby Jones, adopting a different accent, would have been (or would be) a very good George Smiley.

Nothing against Mr. Oldman as Smiley, but I have the contradictory thoughts that he was both very good in the role but at the same time just not the right fit as George Smiley. But I am old so perhaps Sir Alec's performance spoiled me.

Tanner said...

It's definitely hard to picture anyone else, Guinness's performance was so definitive, but I've thought both Denholm Elliott and Gary Oldman did good jobs since. (As VERY different Smileys from each other!) Oldman certainly focused on a different aspect of the character from Guinness, but that ruthlessness is certainly on the page. Guinness, however, was able to ACT fat, and trick us into thinking he'd gained weight even though he hadn't. Oldman didn't manage that trick...

Dylan, I agree SRB was great in the radio versions, but seeing him in TARZAN this summer, he certainly seems too old to play Smiley on screen to me now!

Toby Jones could be interesting, Anonymous. He certainly does look like a frog, like Anne always said.

I was rooting for Jim Broadbent when TTSS got made, and would still like to see his take.

All that said, what I would like most for this TSWCIFTC miniseries would definitely be for Oldman to reprise. Partly to maintain a sense of continuity in the Circus between TV and film, but mainly because I REALLY want to see John Hurt back as Control! And it would just make sense for Oldman to come along if he did that. But I thought Hurt was FANTASTIC in the film, the definitive Control.