The Constant Gardener
I’ve always wondered why so many of John le Carré’s books have been made into movies. I mean, when I read a le Carré (and I’ve read them all) I have never reached the last page, closed the book, and thought “Wow! That would make a great movie!” The reason is simple. Not much happens in a le Carré book. The man does not write action scenes. What little violence there is often happens off-stage, or is quickly and laconically gotten out of the way. These are cerebral books. These are chess problems, not thrillers. Now, I hate chess, I totally stink at chess, but that doesn’t bother me because in a book I’m not a player, and I don’t care if I solve it. And le Carré’s characters are not chess pieces, they are fully-realized, fallible, quirky people, warts and all. And John le Carré has forgotten more about the spy business than Tom Clancy and Ian Fleming ever knew, combined. He understands what pop spy thriller writers never have grasped: that spying is a filthy, rotten, disturbing, subtle and ultimately soul-destroying business. Betrayal is at the heart of it, not Aston-Martins and high-tech satellite surveillance. Not what you’d call great movie material.
The natural form for his novels is the multi-episode TV series, as was shown so wonderfully in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. They tried it again with Smiley’s People, with results not quite so wonderful, and skipped the middle book of the Karla Trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy, as unfilmable. (Gee, I would have said that about all of them!) A Perfect Spy was also made as a series, but it’s not available on video. I’d love to see it.
But the man has been lucky. His stories appeal to directors and writers who want to make something different, something that matters. They include John Boorman, Martin Ritt, Sidney Lumet, George Roy Hill, and Fred Schepisi. They have had mixed results, from very, very good (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Little Drummer Girl) to only so-so (The Tailor of Panama, The Russia House). The less than wonderful ones are not le Carré’s fault; it’s the screenwriter who wasn’t up to the complexity of the material.
This new one, The Constant Gardener, is one of the also-rans, I’m sorry to say. It was a hell of a good book. There were those who wondered how le Carré would deal with the collapse of communism, as if it would have robbed him of all his best plots. Not to worry. He has been stronger than ever, finding nastiness in the world of business, as in this book and The Tailor of Panama, and the incredible perfidy of Big Oil and neo-con fascism in Absolute Friends. If anything, he has gotten angrier and more sharp as he discovers evils on what used to be our side fully as bad as anything practiced by the old regimes behind the Iron Curtain. But this movie, though it starts well, founders in bad technique and lame attempts to jazz the material up. Believe me, there was not this much action in the book; some scenes were added simply to get some gunfire on the sound track. Not nearly as good as some critics said it was. Read the book.