The Constant Gardener (2005). Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). The Night Manager (2016). Over the past few decades it has been a great time to be a fan of author John le Carré, and it keeps getting better with The Little Drummer Girl.
What’s it about?
Set in the 1970s, the miniseries focuses on a struggling British actress, Charlie (Florence Pugh, Little Women), who meets the mysterious Becker (Alexander Skarsgård, Big Little Lies) while holidaying in Greece – the series is shot on location, so the views are spectacular; Athens looks good, too.
Becker realises he needs Charlie’s skills as a performer for an intelligence operation to infiltrate a terrorist group. The mission is led by a spymaster (Michael Shannon) whose plan is so intricate that it becomes harder for Charlie to know who to trust as she gets a crash course in espionage.
The novel of the same name was first published in 1983 and became so popular it was adapted into a film starring Diane Keaton the following year. The allure of le Carré’s books comes down to authenticity and how he uses stories about spies to address political issues and the nature of relationships. Each le Carré book is the exact opposite to Ian Fleming’s James Bond spy fantasy.
Who made it?
The Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning producing team responsible for The Night Manager are the brains behind The Little Drummer Girl and it’s guided by legendary South Korean film director Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden, Stoker).
Park is a huge le Carré fan but discovered the novels late. Korea didn’t get le Carré’s novels until long after they were best-sellers in America and the United Kingdom, but Park connected with the themes of each book.
In publicity for the series, Park said, “You could say that I may not be able to understand 100 per cent the British core of le Carré’s work, but on the other hand, le Carré is an author who often handles material that’s set in the Cold War era.
“So to still be living in [Korea] where Cold War rhetoric still applies, probably one of the last remaining divided nations, the root of which is found in the Cold War… maybe I have more of an understanding of and affinity with Cold War-set stories.”
Park and co-writers Michael Leslie and Claire Wilson met with le Carré several times.
“[le Carré] was giving feedback on the scripts. He even wrote a few things himself. His help was invaluable,” says Leslie.
“He told me that Charlie is based on his older sister,” says Wilson. “She’s an actor, and that was the inspiration for this whole yarn; an actor who wants attention but is floating in the wind, and how quickly can she get picked up by the passing adventure. He was very passionate about making her real and you see he clearly loved her.”
How is this different to other adaptations?
The most obvious difference is Park’s use of colour, and the costume design is impeccable. A lot of le Carré adaptations are stripped of colour, which matches the tone of his stories perfectly, but the approach has become repetitive.
“Even though this is set in the late seventies, I didn’t want to go down the road of making it look too dark or dull or go for a desaturated look,” Park said.
“Rather, I wanted just to go with a more lively look, more vivid. When you think of le Carré spy stories, you might immediately conjure up grey images in your head, a grey tone – when I say this, I have no intention of putting down Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – compared with other le Carré stories, this is very much at the centre a young woman’s story of love and romance and therefore I thought it needed a more vibrant tone.”
The Little Drummer Girl is the perfect entry point if you’re new to le Carré’s spy world and Park’s interpretation is compelling enough to give fans a break from overcast adaptations.
If you love a good spy thriller no matter who made it, well, prepare to go all in on The Little Drummer Girl.
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The Little Drummer Girl starts on Thursday, 6 February 2020 with a double episode on SBS at 8.30pm. The episodes also stream at SBS On Demand from then, with further episodes to follow weekly. Episodes 1 and 2 are available to watch at SBS On Demand now.
The Little Drummer Girl will also be subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic and will be added to the subtitled collection at SBS On Demand, available immediately following it's premiere. Last year, SBS launched the Chinese and Arabic collections featuring a range of diverse dramas, documentaries and current affairs programs to enable growing multicultural communities to engage with local and international stories in their first language.