The first television series to adapt a John le Carré novel in a quarter-century is set for screens around the world. Stewart Clarke reports
John le Carré is one of the world’s best-selling novelists, and his classics Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley’s People and a Perfect Spy have all been adapted for TV. There has not, however, been a small-screen le Carré since 1991’s A Murder of Quality, with the author’s work transferring more readily to the big screen in the subsequent 25 years.
The Night Manager looked set for the same movie treatment and there have been two attempts at theatrical versions. One was set up at Paramount with a Robert Towne (Mission: Impossible) screenplay and Sidney Pollack (Out of Africa) set to direct. The other was through Brad Pitt’s Plan B, which optioned the novel, with Pitt set to star. Neither, however, came to fruition, partly because of the sheer breadth of the 429-page novel.
“When people have tried to get such a huge story, and characters of that scale, and compress it all into two hours, it hasn’t quite worked,” says Simon Cornwell, le Carré’s son and co-founder of The Ink Factory, which exploits his books across TV and film. “The book moves through an extraordinary world, and people will want to spend time there and see the characters and sub-plots develop.”
David Farr (Spooks) penned the six-part high-concept thriller and had le Carré’s blessing to rework some of the core elements of the book for the series. “Generally, my father always looks at the book as the raw material for filmmaking or TV, and this adaptation did not need to adhere slavishly to the plot of the book, as long as it captured its spirit,” says Cornwell.
The novel was penned in 1993 and is loosely based on the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s. It follows former soldier Jonathan Pine as he navigates Whitehall and Washington amid a murky secret arms deal that is being sanctioned by western intelligence agencies. Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers) plays Pine as he seeks to infiltrate the illicit weapons trade, with Hugh Laurie (House), playing Richard Onslow Roper, a major arms dealer.
“My vision for the series was basically I wanted people to be seduced by Richard Roper in the same way that Jonathan is seduced by him,” says director Susanne Bier. It was the job the Danish film-maker, who won an Academy Award for In a Better World, to shape David Farr’s script into a series. It was her first foray into TV and she brought all of her big-screen experience to bear. “The main difference with this and a feature was it was six hours, not two,” she says. “I shot it in the same way as a film, not as individual episodes.”
Olivia Colman (Broadchurch), Tom Hollander (Rev), Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) and David Harewood (Homeland) round out a cast that is A-list, even by today’s lofty TV standards.
Bier says that despite Hiddlestone and Laurie’s star power, The Night Manager is an ensemble drama. “I wanted all of the characters to be both forceful and intriguing,” she says. “If there are some strong characters, and some that are not, you can lose the tension, and we needed all of the protagonists to balance out against each other.”
There were three big and radical decisions made by Farr, Cornwell, le Carré and the team. The setting was moved to the present day, the action was moved from Central America to the Mediterranean, and a key intelligence officer character is now a woman (Colman’s part).
The new setting provides a modern feel, but avoided the Middle East region, which has been done elsewhere. “We wanted a contemporary resonance, but we didn’t want to make a Middle East-focused political thriller, which, given there is Homeland and The Honorable Woman, was not where we wanted to go,” says Cornwell.
The result is a show with “a fast-moving contemporary feel, but that has achieved that without Hollywood-ising” says Cornwell, adding: “It feels very authored, considered and layered and it also has enormous explosions.”
“It couldn’t be slow, but it also couldn’t be shallow,” adds Bier. “You can’t do interesting characters without giving them space, so while it is pacey and has big set-pieces and fireworks, we also gave the characters that room to develop.”
UK pubcaster the BBC bought into that vision and took the series, but more partners were needed to cover the US$30 million budget.
Chris Rice, WME Global’s head of television, takes up the story. “After it was sold to the BBC and was in development we helped to cast the show,” he says. “Because it was so ambitious and the budget was large, it needed to be a partnership, so we then worked to find the US partner. Hugh and Tom elevated the profile of the project in the US market, and there were multiple networks vying to buy it. We brought on AMC.”
Instead of parking the rights with a distributor, WME then sold the series to a raft of broadcasters. Tele München Group took it for German-speaking territories, while C More Entertainment and TV4 have it in the Nordics. Elsewhere in Europe, pay TV operator Sky has taken the series in Italy, while further afield BBC First and SBS have it in Australia and TV3 has rights in New Zealand. The rest of the world is largely accounted for by a deal with AMC Networks that gives the channel operator the rights in Iberia, eastern Europe, Russia, Asia (ex-Japan), Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
WME Global brokered the deals in the clearest sign yet that the talent agency, having bought IMG, is moving beyond repping clients and packaging projects, and into working with buyers directly. It has done deals for HBO, Canal+ and Sky series The Young Pope and, earlier, for ABC series Black Box, but its efforts on The Night Manager are its most extensive yet in terms of international deals.
“We did all of the presales, and sold the entire world through multiple deals,” says Rice. “We are a sales engine rather than a traditional distributor. We represent people and companies, but they are in control and choose what they do, and we try to approach sales of content in the same way.”
The show: The Night Manager
The producer: The Ink Factory
The distributor: WME Global
The broadcaster: BBC One (UK), AMC (US)
The concept: Contemporary reworking of John le Carré’s 1993 novel, starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie