The Night Manager, a six-hour adaption of John le Carré’s classic espionage thriller, comes to BBC One next week (21 February) but fans of the original novel will notice a few changes. Here, in this ‘author’s letter’ released by the BBC, le Carré explains the changes made by screenwriter David Farr and why he approves of them:
It’s been one of the unexpected miracles of my writing life: a novel I had written more than 20 years ago, buried deep in the archive of a major movie company that had bought the rights but never got around to making the movie, suddenly spirited back to life and re-told for our times. And how!
In the novel, my chief British spook had been a man named Burr – a rough-cut, ponderous, no nonsense fellow, but a man for all that, and a throwback to my own distant days in the secret world when female officers were, to say the very least, a rarity.
But did we really want this in 2015: one white male middle-aged man pitched against another white middle-aged man, and using a third, younger, white middle-aged man as his weapon of choice? We didn’t. So enter instead – to loud applause from myself – the delightful Mrs. Burr, first name Angela, shrewd, gutsy, in turn dour and sparkling, and in life, as in the screenplay, majestically pregnant.
And then, as Hemingway might say, there was the story. For the novel, I had set much of the drama on the luxury yacht of my arch-villain and illegal arms dealer extraordinaire, Richard Roper. But luxury yachts cost the earth to hire, and in movies – unless you’re going to sink them – tend to become repetitive and claustrophobic. Far better to give him a billionaire’s island in the sun with a palatial Gatsby-style villa at its centre and a sprinkling of cottages for his underlings and protectors.
On the northern reaches of the Spanish island of Majorca, we found just such a rich man’s paradise,and moved Richard Roper into it, together with his much younger, peerlessly beautiful, disconcertingly intelligent trophy mistress, Jed. But we still had the story to tell. And we were still determined to tell it about today.
Twenty-five years ago, the novel’s plot had taken me – and my fictional protagonist Jonathan Pine – from West Cornwall to the mining town of Val d’Or in Northern Quebec; to Panama City and the forested mountains of the Darien.
The purpose of these seemingly disconnected wanderings had been to frustrate the sale of a huge consignment of state-of-the-art weaponry to nervous drug barons of Central America. Their supplier Mr. Richard Roper, my villain.
But by 2015 the war on drugs had run and run, endless movies had portrayed it, and the hot market for illegal arms had in the meantime moved to the bloodlands of the Middle East, to Syria, Libya and above all Egypt, where democracy even now is being shot down every time it lifts its head.
I never wanted the film of the book. Actually I never do. I wanted the film of the film. And we all did. All I asked was that the central interplay between our protagonists remain intact, and the narrative arc of the original story – never mind where it’s set – be broadly the narrative arc of the novel, exploring the same human tensions and appetites, and resolving the dramatic conflict in the same broad terms.
As to Mrs. Burr: well, of course, I dearly wish I had written her into the novel instead of her ponderous husband. But I didn’t. So all I can do is welcome her to the family, and thank my lucky stars that the writer and producers had the wit to conjure her into life.
Of Hugh Laurie’s performance, Tom Hiddleston’s, Olivia Colman’s, Tom Hollander’s, Elizabeth Debicki’s – it goes on and on – above all of Susanne Bier’s superb and uncompromising direction – in short of the whole symphony that the six hours of The Night Manager have become – I can only say that they bring back those glory days in the seventies when I was watching the BBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being magicked to life by Alec Guinness and the inspired cast that surrounded him.
And finally, a collegial salute to our tireless and wonderfully inventive screenwriter, David Farr. In the beginning, as ever, was the word.