To date, 10 novels by John le Carré have been adapted for the big screen, starting with 1965’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and, more recently, with respected thrillers like 2005’s The Constant Gardener, 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and 2014’s A Most Wanted Man. (The next one, Our Kind of Traitor, is due out later this year.) The Night Manager marks the fifth time that le Carré has been brought to television, all by British producers. The appeal is obvious: He writes popular, witty, well-crafted spy tales that are noted for verisimilitude and political relevance. And yet, a half-century after that first film, it’s worth asking: Is adapting le Carré such a great idea?
Based on my experience as a reader and a viewer — though far from comprehensive in either department — adapting le Carré can send filmmakers down two equally perilous avenues. They can try to replicate the droll tone and creeping paranoia of his books, which risks losing the audience in arcane plotting and the suffocating backrooms of spy agencies. Or, in the name of mass-market entertainment, they can streamline the material too ruthlessly and risk losing le Carré’s voice. The better adaptations, like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, stuck close to le Carré in both letter and spirit, but fidelity didn’t serve The Russia House or A Most Wanted Man quite as well.
Now that The Night Manager has moved past the sleek setup of its first hour, it’s becoming clear that the series is more analogous to The Constant Gardener, a muscular international thriller with faint echoes of le Carré’s tone and language. Writer David Farr and director Susanne Bier have extracted the characters and plotting from le Carré’s book — with some notable changes in the present-day setting and Burr’s gender — but abandoned its arch sophistication in favor of a glamorous, Eurotrash cat-and-mouse game. A familiarity has begun to take over now that Jonathan Pine, our dashing hotelier, has essentially become an undercover super-agent to take down the “worst man in the world.” The specificity of le Carré’s work is swallowed up by the high-stakes clash between Pine and Richard Roper, which has a slightly more generic flavor.
On the other hand, no one could accuse this episode of getting bogged down in stuffy agency intrigue, and Farr’s script uses a slip in time to keep the tension high from the start. Opening on Roper’s seaside compound in Mallorca, Spain, the episode kicks off with a crucial suspense set piece: Roper, his wife Jed, and their young son are breaking bread with various lieutenants and goons when armed men attempt to stage a robbery. Given Roper’s stature and security detail, it seems like the most ill-advised operation since Pumpkin and Honey Bunny attempted to stick up the diner in Pulp Fiction. But crucially, Roper loses control of the situation, and the men take his son hostage. Even more crucially, the camera settles on Tom Hiddleston’s unmistakable blue-green eyes as he peers through a crack in the kitchen door, poised to take action.
Cut to six months earlier, when we learn how he got there. In order for Pine to take action, he first needs to be convinced of the mission’s importance and of Angela Burr’s trustworthiness. It’s a credit to Olivia Colman’s salt-of-the-earth performance as Burr that he gets to that place as quickly as he does. Burr knows how to press the right buttons, playing off Pine’s patriotism, his relationship to his father, and his lingering feelings for the late Sophie Alekan. She correctly senses that he can get close to the villain who’s obsessed and eluded her for a decade. Trust is another matter, however. Pine has to trust not only Burr’s loyalty, but also her competence, because he’s about the commit himself to an operation where she’s his only lifeline. If she’s a scoundrel or a screw-up, then he’s almost certainly dead.
“Episode Two” establishes their rapport convincingly in just a few exchanges. Burr’s pitch comes in the form of a pep talk that doubles as a warning: “There’s not an hour that will go by when you won’t be scared,” she says, in the same breath that convinces him of the righteousness of their cause. Colman quickly sells him — and us — on Burr’s authenticity and clear-headedness as an operative, but the path from their meetings to Roper’s compound six months later is hastily and sloppily established. Burr succeeds in getting him a criminal record, with the fresh charge of lifting 40,000 euros from the hotel vault, but the journey from Devon to Mallorca is a little murkier. Pine deals drugs and establishes himself as a tough guy. He has a fling. He mentions he can cook. And with that scarce connective tissue, we’re whisked forward to the set piece that opened the episode.
The mini-twist is that the robbery was staged by Burr’s agents to solidify Pine’s place in Roper’s organization — and leave Roper indebted to him for saving his son. His all-too-perfect ascendance raises red flags for the fearsome Lance Corkoran, Roper’s chief enforcer, who threatens to hang him up by his “lovely ankles until the truth falls out of [him] like gravity.” Even Roper looks askance at this stranger, despite him getting pummeled (and doing some pummeling) on his behalf. “You sleep now and tomorrow we’ll find out who you really are,” he says as he tucks Pine into bed. In Roper’s inner circle, trust does not come so easy.
- I’ll have plenty of occasions to talk about Jed in future episodes, but this episode does well to emphasize her as a captive within her own marriage, held back by both Roper’s controlling behavior and the child they conceived. She can’t take a call from her own mother without putting herself in danger, and when she does, her mom calls her a whore. Gorgeous and isolated, she stands to be Pine’s secret ally — and perhaps more.
- “Is it okay to baptize the princeling in the way of the grape?” The moral corruption of Roper’s sweet-faced boy starts early.
- The Night Manager may well return to le Carré-land if it goes deeper into the institutional corruption at the River House, which Burr knows well enough to keep its duplicitous agents off the scent. Beyond the corruption, there’s also an issue of policing philosophy: Do you reel in a nice fish or use that fish to bait the really big catch?
- “Only by freeing capital do you feel the world.” Roper’s speech on economics and the corporate benefits of philanthropy is refreshingly straightforward in its unchecked greed.
- Pine shatters an agent’s arm in three places to infiltrate Roper’s operation. Burr tells him that he was to be the second-worst man in the world. He’s off to a rousing start.
- Like any great super-villain, Roper only seems to travel by private jet, helicopter, or speedboat. Anything less would be uncivilized.