Le Carre's Night Manager updated for new realities

Tom Hiddleston (above right, with Hugh Laurie).
Tom Hiddleston (above right, with Hugh Laurie).PHOTO: AMC

Step aside, James Bond - there is a new British spy on screen, courtesy of the acclaimed novelist John le Carre, who was one of the biggest rivals and critics of Bond creator Ian Fleming.

The Night Manager, a stylish six-part espionage thriller, stars Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, a hotel manager recruited to spy on billionaire arms-dealer Richard Roper, played by Hugh Laurie. It airs in Singapore on AMC (Singtel TV Channel 322), repackaged into eight episodes.

Le Carre's best-selling spy tales were set mostly during the Cold War and have been extensively adapted for the screen, from the Oscar-winning The Constant Gardener (2005) to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which was both a 1979 mini-series and a 2011 movie.

But the Cold War is long over and for this and other reasons, adapting the author's work today requires a rather different approach. So say Hiddleston, Laurie and executive producer Simon Cornwell, who spoke to The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles recently.

For one thing, the geopolitical realities are radically different now and so is the spy game - something le Carre acknowledged in his 1993 novel, his first set entirely in the post-Cold War era.

"The world has changed," says Hiddleston, the 35-year-old star of the Thor franchise (2011 and 2013) and horror flick Crimson Peak (2015). "I feel as though we are living now in an apparently transparent society - everybody knows everything about everyone - and yet it still feels like there are so many secrets at the highest level.

I feel as though we are living now in an apparently transparent society - everybody knows everything about everyone - and yet it still feels like there are so many secrets at the highest level.

TOM HIDDLESTON (with Hugh Laurie) on how the world has changed

"I think we will always be fascinated by the complexities of what goes on behind closed doors and I think The Night Manager touches upon that," says the British actor, whose character's task is complicated by the fact that some of the intelligence community are helping the illegal arms trade.

The show got the blessing of 84-year-old le Carre - whose real name is David Cornwell - to update his original story to reflect the new political landscape. For example, instead of Roper trying to sell weapons to South American drug cartels like he does in the book, the nefarious activities will take place in the Middle East.

But one thing that will remain constant: the moral ambiguities facing those who engage in international espionage.

Simon Cornwell - le Carre's son and a producer on several adaptations of his father's work - says that while the players, political landscape and technology are different today, "one of the sad things is that the moral questions and the ambiguity are still very much there".

It was le Carre's awareness of those moral grey areas that set his work apart from the more glamorous, escapist Bond tales written by Fleming, even though both writers drew from their experiences as former British spies.

Unlike Fleming, le Carre was often critical of the intelligence methods used by both the West and the communist bloc. The latter was also vocal in his criticism of the Bond character, whom he once described as a "neo-fascist gangster".

Laurie, the 56-year-old British star who won two Golden Globes for his role as the misanthropic but brilliant titular doctor in House (2004 to 2012), was so taken by The Night Manager that he tried to buy the movie rights to the book when he first read it 25 years ago.

"I love everything le Carre wrote, but this is a story I found incredibly compelling. When the book was first published, I was three chapters in and I tried to option it.

"I never optioned anything in my life before or since. But that's how compelling, how romantic and how powerful I found this story to be."

When he met Cornwell to discuss his role as Roper, Laurie says he was "pretty naked about my admiration, my worship, in fact, of le Carre and also this particular story".

"I volunteered to basically contribute whatever I could, whether it was catering or anything else."

In the series, which was co-produced by American TV network AMC and British broadcaster BBC, a lot of that romance is supplied by the stunning locations, which take the story everywhere from Egypt to Switzerland.

Cornwell says bringing this to life on the screen cost £20 million (S$39 million), or more than £3 million an hour, making The Night Manager the most expensive drama in BBC history.

Hiddleston recalls his first day on the globetrotting production, where he filmed a scene in the Alps with the majestic Matterhorn peak in the background.

"I tweeted a picture of the Matterhorn at dusk on our very first day shooting - the first of 75 days across many continents and many countries and we started in Zermatt in Switzerland.

"That particular moment felt like the beginning of an incredible journey, which took us to Morocco and Mallorca and to Devon and London.

"And to be in the shadow of the Matterhornshooting the first page of a script and representing le Carre's writing, felt thrilling."

For Laurie, the excitement also came from the fact that he is a huge fan not just of le Carre, but also of the espionage genre in general.

"It's a genre I've loved since I was a small boy. To me, it's our generation's equivalent of the Western - there are certain similarities in the assumptions both the storyteller and audience can make about honour and challenge and betrayal.

"And it is an arena where we take certain things as understood - that there are causes that must be fought for and risked and sacrificed for - and that's immensely appealing and romantic to me."

The Night Manager is an exemplary spy novel for him because it simmers with le Carre's righteous indignation about the evils of the arms trade.

"This is an incredibly romantic story without ever straying into the sentimental. That's the miracle of le Carre's writing. He's very tough and righteous and angry.

"The anger in this story is about the class of person who engages in this trade, this evil trade. The pages are smoking on your fingertips. It's powerful stuff."

•The Night Manager airs on AMC (Singtel TV Channel 322) on Mondays at 10pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'Le Carre's Night Manager updated for new realities'. Print Edition | Subscribe