You don’t need to be a spy to spot a common trend in espionage-oriented films and television shows - many have stemmed from the pen of one particular author. Since the 1960s, the real-life British Security Service and Secret Intelligence Service employee known to the world as John le Carré has been a driving force not only in writing page-turning spy thrillers, but also in inspiring big and small screen adaptations.
The seductive, scenic and action-packed miniseries The Night Manager, currently screening on SBS, is just the latest - and one of the best - filmed version of le Carré’s work. It’s in crowded company, however.
So just how does the Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie-starring effort compare to the 14 others that have gone before it? Thankfully, even an average le Carré adaptation is usually worth watching, but we’ve ranked them all anyway.
15. A Murder of Quality
Something for le Carré completists only. There are only really two things worth noting about this 1991 British television movie. Firstly, and most importantly, le Carré himself actually wrote the screenplay (something he’d also do with The Tailor of Panama). Secondly, among the cast is a 17-year-old Christian Bale.
14. The Little Drummer Girl
If you’ve never even imagined that Diane Keaton could play a double agent caught between Palestine and Israel, this sometimes interesting, sometimes lagging 1984 effort mightn’t convince you otherwise.
13. The Russia House
Australian director Fred Schepisi took on le Carré in 1990, working with a script by renowned playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, and making only the second American film to shoot on location in the Soviet Union in the process. It’s obviously a joy to see Sean Connery caught up in some spy intrigue again, even if the results are mixed in what amounts to a fairly formulaic thriller.
12. The Looking Glass War
All the usual le Carré elements come together in 1969's The Looking Glass War. A defector, a mission to earn a new life, conflicted MI6 agents, and the complications of love and loyalty - they’re all here, as is a young Anthony Hopkins.
11. The Tailor of Panama
Actors that play Bond just can’t stay away from le Carré, it seems, with Pierce Brosnan getting another dose of spy action in this engaging enough, but never completely satisfying, film from 2001. Joining Brosnan are Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis, Brendan Gleeson and a pre-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe.
10. A Perfect Spy
Le Carré’s novels typically focus on a particular incident or mission, the players and the repercussions, even if their storylines unravel over a lengthy time-frame. Departing from that template immediately makes A Perfect Spy stand out. The seven-part series from 1987 prefers to follow one man from childhood to his final days, gradually but convincingly building a compelling portrait of its central character.
9. The Deadly Affair
In 1966, when Sidney Lumet met George Smiley, le Carré’s most famous creation, it was under another moniker - the MI6 agent was renamed Charles Dobbs due to rights issues. A bleak but absorbing feature results, complete with a soundtrack by Quincy Jones.
8. Our Kind of Traitor
It takes a while for the most recent le Carré film adaptation to warm up, but once this 2016 tale of an everyman professor forced to help a Russian mobster share details with MI6 kicks into gear, it becomes a worthy addition to the fold. As is often the case when it comes to the author’s work, excellent casting helps, pitting Ewan McGregor against Stellan Skarsgård, and also featuring Naomie Harris and Damian Lewis.
7. The Constant Gardener
Rachel Weisz won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her 2005 role as the murdered wife of Ralph Fiennes’ British diplomat in what proves an exceptionally acted affair all round. The two are immersed in an involving, Kenyan-set storyline and benefit from measured direction from City of God’s Fernando Meirelles.
6. Smiley’s People
Sequels don’t often meet the standard set by their predecessors, but don’t judge 1982's Tinker Tailor Solider Spy spin-off Smiley’s People too harshly — it has considerable shoes to fill and does a stellar job. Six words sum up all you need to know, really: Alec Guinness returns as George Smiley. He wasn’t the first actor to play the part, nor was he the last, but in his second stint as the espionage mastermind tussling with the KGB, he’s absolutely enthralling to watch.
5. A Most Wanted Man
It will always be remembered as the last leading role of Philip Seymour Hoffman, however 2014's A Most Wanted Man deserves ample attention regardless of the tragic fate that befell its star. Unsurprisingly, Hoffman remains a commanding presence, anchoring a familiar premise involving an informant caught between two sides, though the impact of Anton Corbijn’s (Control, The American) precisely paced direction shouldn’t be underestimated.
4. The Night Manager
We already warned you The Night Manager was up there with the best le Carré adaptations and we weren’t kidding. It’s filled with the author’s classic elements in a thoroughly engaging and entertaining manner - and here’s something we prepared earlier on just why you won’t want to miss it.
3. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
The first le Carré to make the leap to the big screen in 1965 is still one of the finest. In fact, it would take almost five decades for another film to surpass it - and almost as long for anything else to even come close. An atmosphere of uncertainty is a difficult thing to perfect, and not only is it absolutely pivotal to the author’s output, but it’s the defining factor of this Richard Burton-starring effort. Making a feature about Cold War tensions during the Cold War certainly helped.
2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)
The mood, the machinations, the mole hunt at the centre of the story, the multiple threads expertly woven together, the main man that is Alec Guinness as George Smiley... they all come together perfectly in this 1979 miniseries. Again, just try to tear your eyes away from Guinness, who slotted this in on his resume between a little film called Star Wars and another called The Empire Strikes Back.
1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
On paper, it shouldn’t be easy for a movie adaptation to outperform an excellent miniseries version of the same text, particularly given that it has to condense le Carré’s twists and tension into a shorter package. And yet, on the screen, Let the Right One In’s Tomas Alfredson makes the task look simple (with plenty of assistance from Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and Mark Strong). The TV version and its sequel might remain the Smiley versions of record, but with almost every member of the cast in or near career-best form, 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is - if only just - the more rewarding viewing experience.
Watch double episodes of The Night Manager on SBS on Wednesdays at 8:30pm. You can stream the show from the first episode on SBS On Demand: