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‘The Little Drummer Girl’ Gets John le Carré Right

Park Chan-wook’s AMC miniseries is a gripping spy thriller set in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of the late ’70s. But what it says about the psychology of its characters transcends genre or time period.

AMC/Ringer illustration

In the parlance of spying, backstories are called legends, and The Little Drummer Girl is a spy story with a hell of a legend. It was 1979, and David Cornwell wanted to do something different. The world knew Cornwell by his pen name John le Carré, and John le Carré was known as the grand master of spy fiction. Since the 1961 publication of Call For the Dead, he had been writing about the Cold War and how it had been conducted on a hidden chessboard by unseen players, sitting at a table that stretched from London to Moscow. Le Carré’s popularity and critical acclaim had crested with the Karla Trilogy—three novels about the unretired British spymaster George Smiley and his pursuit of his Russian counterpart, Karla. The BBC had made the first of those novels—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—into an acclaimed miniseries, and, according to Adam Sisman’s 2016 biography, le Carré could no longer imagine his creation without seeing the face and hearing the voice of the actor who played him, Alec Guinness.

With 1982’s Smiley’s People, le Carré’s most famous creation had come to a natural end (though le Carré would periodically return to him in the ensuing years), and the author wanted to come in from the Cold War. He needed new characters, a new conflict, and a new chessboard, so he wrote The Little Drummer Girl, which almost instantly became his most successful novel to date. Set in the late 1970s, it’s the story of an English actress named Charlie who finds herself choosing between two theaters: the world of drama and the world of revolutionary action. A group of Israeli agents, investigating a series of bombings, including one in Germany that kills their cultural attaché, pluck Charlie from a sea of head shots and put on “a production,” in the words of the mysterious Kurtz. Charlie will work with them to flush out Khalil, the leader of a terrorist cell. Charlie will play the part of a radicalized actress, in an affair with Khalil’s brother Salim, who is known as Michel. In reality, Salim has been kidnapped by the Israelis, and Joseph, a mysterious and scarred agent, has taken his place. To lure Khalil out of hiding, Joseph and Charlie conduct a very public love affair across multiple countries. The two paths of Charlie’s life become one, and she is thrust from musty, seaside pub productions into the theater of the real.

That’s the story of The Little Drummer Girl—which has been brilliantly adapted for TV by the acclaimed Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). Here’s the legend.

Just as Kurtz (who is also known as Schulmann) and his colleague Joseph (who is also known as Becker) use bits and pieces of Charlie’s life to construct a new character for her to play, so did le Carré in the writing of the novel. Charlie is le Carré’s creation, but she is an inexact double of his half-sister, Charlotte, an actress who had spent time on the outskirts of the Workers Revolutionary Party. According to Sisman, Charlotte Cornwell never actually joined the WRP, nor did she take part in any kind of radical training, but the germ of an idea was there, and from it her brother wove a legend.

I love that. John le Carré, smarting from seeing his chief creation slip out of his hands, in turn lifts parts of his sister’s biography to fashion a new character. Writers are ridiculous people. He doubled Charlotte to make Charlie. Park certainly loves it too. His adaptation, which will air over three nights on AMC, starting on November 19, is layered with copies. Over the first two episodes, the three main characters—Kurtz, played by Michael Shannon; Joseph, played by Alexander Skarsgard; and Charlie, played by Florence Pugh—are often seen through windows, in mirrors, behind the lenses of glasses, and even in the finishes of automobiles, multiplying their images or dissolving them into the scenery. All these characters have more than one name, and each is in the act of living or creating multiple identities. These are actors playing actors, even if Charlie is the only one who would call that her profession, and the fate of the world is a stage.

Or maybe it isn’t. There’s a spiritual exhaustion that runs through The Little Drummer Girl—all the characters are courageous and have deeply held convictions, but they know they are in a war that will never really end. Kurtz has a concentration camp tattoo; Joseph is scarred from shrapnel. In le Carré’s previous work, vulnerable patriots fought in the name of deeply held if increasingly corrupted beliefs—the West, democracy, peace. The Little Drummer Girl is different. Characters on the Israeli and Palestinian sides are operating out of a sense of survival, even if some of them are conflicted about the means by which they achieve that primal goal. Writing in The New York Review of Books, James Wolcott commented that le Carré had “thrown off his winter cloak” with The Little Drummer Girl, and it does feel like a different kind of le Carré novel—impulsive, distracted, digressive, and warmer, as if the temperature of the locations in which the novel is set somehow heats up the language of the story.

Park’s series feels different from le Carré adaptations that have come before it. The original BBC version of Tinker, Tailor is treasured by le Carré fans for its exhaustive devotion to the source material. It brings seemingly every rain-soaked, drab scene to aching life. But everything that’s come since has felt like a degraded copy. Le Carré, a former spook, chose to set his fiction in the world of espionage because that’s the life he had lived. But it also allowed him to write about characters that were as observant as he was. The people in le Carré novels watch for a living. Their obsessions are the lives of others. They understand that human frailty, on a mass scale, can lead to national vulnerabilities in their enemies. So they probe and read and listen and bait and trap. And while they do all that, they are always thinking and chatting and telling stories. They are fascinating to read about, but it’s not especially cinematic. With the exception of 2005’s The Constant Gardener, no le Carré adaptation has come close to the complexity or rewards of its source material.

In recent years, as seemingly everything that’s been written down since Beowulf has become industrialized intellectual property, there’s been an uptick in filmed le Carré productions. Tomas Alfredson’s stylish but slight take on Tinker, Tailor was the murmur of the revival, and since then, le Carré’s sons, Stephen and Simon Cornwell, have produced a series of film and television adaptations of their father’s work, with Our Kind of Traitor, The Night Manager, and A Most Wanted Man. It’s not quite an expanded universe as much as it is a thinking person’s James Bond.

There is a certain savviness to all this. The Cold War is dead, long live the Cold War. We are living in a time when we are well aware of the information warfare and global skullduggery being conducted by various nations and groups trying to win our hearts and minds (and what’s left of our wallets). What we do in the shadows is increasingly out in the open, so it only makes sense that we’d be drawn to stories that illuminate that secret world.

This most recent spate of le Carré productions has largely been concerned with the surface elements of his stories—the spycraft, with all its dead drops, and arms deals, favor trading, and concepts of loyalty and betrayal. It’s as if the filmmakers acknowledge that it would be impossible to reckon with the psychological depth of le Carré’s work, so they stay on the surface. The people look good, the twists play well, and, frankly, I’d watch sauced Tom Hollander read a phone book.

The Little Drummer Girl is different. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict still rages on, but Park’s series is a period piece, packed with archaic recording equipment, stylish pistols, gorgeous vintage Mercedes, and some dynamite outfits. It has all the signifiers of a ’70s spy yarn, but Park seems far more interested in the psychology of the characters, far beyond the politics and realities of the moment. He asks: Why would anyone be drawn into this particular kind of work? What calculations would need to be made to live a double or even triple life? If you are a copy of yourself, what happens to the original in the act of copying?

Charlie is in search for purpose in life. She bounds carelessly into auditions and bar fights, onto trips, and into love affairs. She is living her life in the present, creating a legend about her past before she even agrees to become a clandestine agent. Her facility with mixing truth and fiction is what attracts the Israelis to her in the first place. And their recognition of her “talent” draws her to them in return. Joseph, on the other hand, is imprisoned by purpose. His life is not his own.

The visual language of the spy thriller is tension and paranoia. The Little Drummer Girl is certainly tense—and has its fair share of set pieces—but it doesn’t feel like a ’70s thriller. It speaks a different visual language altogether. Park doesn’t see his characters as trapped, so much as dissolving into their assumed identities. And that act of disappearance is not altogether uninviting. In one brilliant sequence early on, Charlie is questioning Joseph about the nature of her love affair with the man Joseph is pretending to be. As he stands, the camera dollies in on Joseph’s chest, only to dissolve into a padded cell where the real Michel/Salim is being held. This is not a claustrophobic spy story; it’s an immersive dive into the nature of identity.

Directors—like spies and like novelists—are watchers. The job is ultimately to tell us what to look at. Park does an excellent job telling a complex story, but his facility with the interiority of le Carré’s work is what’s staggering. Because that, ultimately, is what makes the source material timeless. Wars go hot and cold; walls go up and are brought down; borders are drawn and redrawn. People are trampled by history. Le Carré was far more interested in the former. He made them legends.