When John le Carré died in December 2022, the world lost its finest writer of espionage fiction. Le Carré (real name David Cornwell) served in two branches of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI5 and MI6, and began his career as a novelist in 1961 while still an active undercover agent. In 1964, he left the Secret Service after double agent Kim Philby, one of the so-called Cambridge Five spy ring, betrayed him to the KGB. Free to write full-time and buoyed by the proceeds from his third novel, 1963’s best-selling The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carré set to work on a series of superbly crafted novels that, taken together, represent an unprecedented body of work. Hollywood also began to take interest in possible John le Carré movies.
For many, le Carré’s crowning achievement is the “Karla trilogy,” a series of three interwoven, intricately plotted novels – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People – that focus on the efforts of retired agent George Smiley to root out a mole in The Circus and unmask the Soviet spymaster (codenamed Karla) who pulls the strings.
Carré’s writing crackles with tension, his characters course with life, and his plots keep the pages turning with an urgency few writers can match. The recent documentary The Pidgeon Tunnel, and the publication of A Private Spy, his collected letters, in late 2022, shed fascinating new light on this singular author’s life and work – work that has, as the following list attests, provided rich fodder for filmmakers ever since he hung up his tiny camera in the early 1960s. Find here the best John le Carré movies.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)
Writer Arthur Hopcraft and director John Irvin’s seven-part BBC adaptation of le Carré’s signature novel harks back to an earlier, more sedate era of television drama. A magnificently low-key ensemble piece starring Alec Guinness in a rare TV appearance, it captures the seedy essence of le Carré’s world with dour precision; viewers can almost feel the chill draughts and smell the musty carpets of The Circus.
Guinness delivers perhaps the finest performance of his distinguished career as the fusty, brilliant Smiley (a role he erroneously thought himself wrong for), and the supporting cast, a cross-section of Britain’s finest character actors, provides consummate ballast.
In tribute to Tinker Tailor’s pedigree, Irvin insisted on shooting the whole thing on film (at the time, only TV exteriors warranted film, a budgetary measure that resulted in jarring visual discrepancies between scenes). The extra expense paid off. The seamless transitions and grainy texture of film add greatly to the overall effect, setting a precedent for future prestige productions and future John le Carré movies.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
Richard Burton stars in a suitably chilly version of le Carré’s 1963 novel, playing disaffected agent Alec Leamus, a fake defector drawn into a plot to sow disinformation about a high-ranking Stasi officer (played by Oskar Werner). Aiming to portray espionage as a morally compromised business, the film, like the novel, can’t help hinting at something quietly heroic in Leamus, amplified by Burton’s forceful performance. Universally favorable reviews made much of the stark contrast between Leamus and another fictional British agent whose more lurid exploits enjoyed their third big-screen outing the same year. (Incidentally, Bernard Lee, most famous for playing M in the Bond movies, including 1965’s Thunderball, has a small role here playing a grocer).
Le Carré had fond memories of visiting the set. “I enjoyed an amiable relationship with the screenwriter [Paul Dehn],” he wrote in The Guardian in 2016, “As a former instructor in the black arts at a British spy school during World War II, [he] turned out to know much more about espionage than I did.”
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Another brilliant interpretation of le Carré’s 1974 masterpiece with Gary Oldman stepping confidently into Alec Guinness’s shoes. Georgeously shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and an almost absurdly starry supporting cast (Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, Simon McBurney, and Kathy Burke) it oozes class and Oldman is in his element. If it has a fault, it’s one of bandwidth rather than execution.
The script, by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor, “Is a brilliant feat of condensation and restructuring,” to quote Jonathan Romney of The Independent, but the feature-length format doesn’t quite have the headroom to accommodate Tinker Tailor’s sinuous expanse. “To strip down or minimalize le Carré,” wrote The Atlantic’s James Parker, “is to sacrifice the almost Tolkienesque grain and depth of his created world.”
Smiley’s People (1982)
That the Beeb’s follow-up to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an adaptation of book three of the Karla trilogy, falls slightly short of its predecessor reiterates the dizzying height of the bar confronting it. Make no mistake, Smiley’s People knocks most TV drama–and even some other John le Carré movies–into the proverbial cocked hat.
Alec Guinness again brings a hint of wintry melancholy to Smiley, here engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse with his KGB nemesis, and Beryl Reid, a beloved British actress best known for her comedy performances, strikes the perfect note of blowsy vulnerability as former Circus researcher Connie Sachs. But it lacks the staying power of Tinker Tailor, possibly due to a troubled and unhappy shoot. Guinness considered Reid miscast as Connie (an opinion he later revised) and disliked director John MacKenzie so much that he had him fired. He then quickly fell out with MacKenzie’s replacement, Simon Langton. “I felt dubious about Simon's work,” he wrote at the time. “I greatly miss John Irvin's grip and inner tension.”
The Constant Gardner (2005)
Le Carré found himself again on slightly unfamiliar ground with his 2001 novel, a dive into the cesspit of corporate corruption and the murderous activities of pharmaceutical companies in the third world. Naturally, he pulls it off with breathtaking skill. Much the same goes for the film adaptation, an emotionally charged thriller that makes masterful use of flashbacks to tell the tale of a mild-manner British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) investigating the suspicious death of his activist wife (Rachel Weitz). With another terrific supporting cast (they do seem to come running for John le Carré movies), including Hubert Koundé, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite, and Donald Sumpter, Gardner won an Oscar for Weitz as Best Supporting Actress. It also earned nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Film Editing.
Shooting on location in the Kibera slums of Nairobi so affected the cast and crew that, in 2004, they established the Constant Gardner Trust to thank the locals for their help with the filming. The end credits feature le Carré’s dedication of the novel to French humanitarian Yvette Pierpaoli “and all other aid workers who lived and died giving a d-mn. Nobody in this story, and no outfit or corporation, thank God, is based upon an actual person or outfit in the real world,” reads the text, under the author’s name. “But I can tell you this. As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”
A Most Wanted Man (2014)
A terrific take on a late-career le Carré, directed with style by photographer-turned-filmmaker Anton Corbijn, A Most Wanted Man marks Philip Seymore Hoffman’s last screen appearance before his tragic death in 2014 at the age of 46. Cerebral and multilayered, the plot involves Hoffman’s rumpled anti-terror agent pitting his wits against Grigoriy Dobrygin’s brutally tortured Chechen refugee seeking political asylum in Hamburg.
The Little Drummer Girl (2018)
Further evidence that the small screen serves le Carré better than the big, this six-part miniseries, based on his 1983 novel, stars Florence Pugh (Black Widow, Little Women) as a young British actress groomed by a Mossad agent (Michael Shannon) to infiltrate a Palestinian terror cell.
Directed with typical pace and visual flair by Park Chan-wook, the convoluted plot detours from le Carré’s usual stomping ground into hot-button geopolitics and the legacy of British foreign policy in the Middle East. Not to everyone’s taste, it still easily trounces the 1984 film version with a subtle and engaging performance from Pugh erasing all memories of a badly miscast Diane Keaton (yes, that Diane Keaton).
The Night Manager (2016)
A stylish, entertaining miniseries based on le Carré’s 1993 book of the same name, this plays like a 20-minute episode of Cannes Confidential compared to the BBC’s original takes on Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People. Starring Tom Hiddleston as the titular hotel drone drawn into the murky world of international arms dealing, it certainly offers plenty to like – support from Olivia Coleman and Hugh Laurie as a borderline-Blofeld supervillain for starters – but it all feels a bit surface-y and removed from LeCarréworld, even though the author bestows his blessing via a fleeting cameo.
The Tailor of Panama (2001)
Geoffrey Rush, still hot off his Shine Oscar win, hits the spot as an ex-con pitched up in Central America keen to bury his shady past but, instead, coerced into spying on the Panamanian government by an unscrupulous MI6 agent (Pierce Brosnan, sending up his Bond persona with caddish relish). Helmed by veteran director John Borman (Deliverance, Excalibur), Tailor can also boast a script co-written by le Carré himself and a supporting cast comprising Jamie Lee Curtis, Daniel Radcliffe (making his pre-Potter debut), and legendary British playwright Harold Pinter as Rush’s voice-in-the-head mentor and Jiminy Cricket-style conscience. Call it the most underrated of John le Carré movies.
A Murder of Quality (1991)
Another great British actor – Denholm Elliot – gets a crack at George Smiley in this overlooked but surprisingly pleasing TV movie adaptation of le Carré’s 1962 novel. Inevitably, Elliot’s performance suffers in comparison to Alec Guinness, but his mix of pipe-smoking stuffiness and piercing intelligence gets the job done. More murder mystery than a spy story, the plot has Smiley playing detective at the behest of a wartime colleague who has suspicions over an old friend’s death.
Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
While not exactly le Carré Lite, this slickly made thriller still feels vaguely insubstantial despite excellent performances from Ewan McGregor and Naomi Harris as a vacationing couple caught up in international money laundering by Stellan Skarsgard’s charismatic Russian mobster.
The Deadly Affair (1966)
The question raised by this solid if unremarkable adaptation of le Carré’s first novel, 1961’s Call for the Dead, is why, given the talent involved, isn't it better than it is? Sidney Lumet directs from a script by Paul Dehn (who also wrote the far superior The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and, ironically, Goldfinger), while James Mason plays Smiley surrogate Charles Dobbs*, once again making a nuisance of himself investigating the suicide of a government official. The cherry on the disappointing cake takes the form of a swinging-sixties bossa nova score by Quincey Jones, performed by Astrid Gilberto.
*Rival studio Paramount Pictures owned the film rights to the name George Smiley, a holdover from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, hence the pseudonym.
Simon Braund is an author, film journalist, and editor. His love affair with movies began at the age of ten when he was allowed to stay up late to watch The Maltese Falcon on TV. Simon served as Empire magazine's Los Angeles Editor for many years and his work has appeared in such publications as The UK Sunday Times, The London Evening Standard, Q, The Observer, Total Film, Time Out, The Financial Times, and, by a quirk of syndication, Dutch Penthouse. He has attended and reported on numerous international film festivals ranging from Cannes to Zurich, Rio de Janeiro, Dubai, Istanbul, Bermuda, and Marrakech.
Of the countless filmmakers and actors he has interviewed, stand-outs include Martin Sheen, Dwayne Johnson, Angelica Huston, Scarlett Johansson, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Winona Ryder, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Jack Nicholson.
Simon is the co-author and editor of the 2013 runaway moderate-seller The Greatest Movies You'll Never See, currently in the early – agonizing – stages of development as a TV show. He is the author of Orson Welles Portfolio: Sketches and Drawings from the Welles Estate (written in close collaboration with Orson Welles' daughter Beatrice), and Janis Joplin: Queen of Psychedelic Rock. His latest book, Total Recall: The Official Story of the Film, is due for publication by Random House in 2024.
He is a two-time nominee for the Hollywood Publicists Guild All Media Journalist of the Year Award. And was robbed both times!