The Night Manager returns and a young George Smiley – welcome to the John le Carré expanded universe

The Night Manager is set to return for a second season
The Night Manager is set to return for a second season - AMC Network Entertainment

Over the past 60 years the novels of John le Carré have been endlessly adapted, updated and occasionally mangled as films or television series. But the announcement that Tom Hiddleston is to reprise his role as hotelier-cum-secret-agent Jonathan Pine in two further seasons of The Night Manager heralds a new phase in le Carré’s on-screen career. The first series of The Night Manager was based on his novel of 1993; but now for the first time we will see le Carré characters appearing in a screen production that is not based on his books.

Le Carré – whose real name was David Cornwell – died in 2020, but his most famous characters are proving to be as busy as ever in his absence. In addition to the resurrection of Pine on screen, le Carré’s son, the writer Nick Harkaway, is publishing a novel called Karla’s War in October: this will be set in 1963, after the events of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and will see his father’s most celebrated creation, George Smiley, once again tackling his nemesis, Soviet spymaster Karla.

We could be on the cusp of a Big Bang that will see the le Carré universe expand to infinite dimensions. As with Ian Fleming’s James Bond, once the books have been juiced dry there may be a procession of sequels by other hands, spin-offs for teenagers (a Young Smiley series à la Charlie Higson’s Young Bond books?), and of course an interminable film franchise. Just as Sherlock Holmes defied his birthdate to tackle the Nazis in the Basil Rathbone films of the 1940s, we might all derive some comfort from a Smiley reboot that sees him applying that great brain to dealing with Putin and his spymasters in our own era.

It is too early to say whether le Carré will come to rival Fleming as a fertile source of spin-offs. But as Jonny Geller – formerly le Carré’s literary agent, now the agent for his estate – puts it, this year marks “a real leap of imagination” in how to approach le Carré’s legacy.

Coming up with new adventures for Jonathan Pine was an irresistible idea, says Geller. “The Night Manager was such a landmark show – and it was hugely successful as a Hindi version for an Indian audience last year too – that I think people just want more of that world and that character. With [series one screenwriter] David Farr – who’s an old collaborator with [le Carré] – on board, it all started to make sense.”

Writer John le Carré in 1965
Writer John le Carré in 1965 - Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images

The responsibility for signing off on such miniseries lies with, as Geller puts it, “the newly configured John le Carré estate”. This is a family affair, headed by the author’s three surviving sons (in addition to Nick Harkaway, the son of his second marriage, le Carré had three sons by his first wife: Simon, Stephen and the late Tim). Nick’s wife Clare Cornwell, previously director of global operations at Amnesty International, has been managing director since last year. The family also owns The Ink Factory, the production company making The Night Manager in collaboration with the BBC and Amazon.

Literary estates have a reputation for often resisting agents’ ideas for innovation – one thinks of the estates of Samuel Beckett and TS Eliot. But Geller and the Cornwell family are on the same page: “Oh yes, they’re very proactive and interested in trying new ideas.”

Such innovation is crucial, he says, to avoid the slump in interest in writer’s works that often follows their retirement or death. “Whether it’s authorising a [TV] series or putting new covers on the books, you have to re-present a writer to a new generation, to show them why he is still relevant. And of course, he is: if you read about Russia in the papers, Jesus, it’s like he’s writing it.”

Geller insists that le Carré was keen for The Night Manager to carry on beyond the source material. “He was certainly interested and did agree to contribute some ideas, although he then focused on writing another novel, and his memoir [The Pigeon Tunnel] instead. He was not always interested in going back to his old work.”

Was he prescriptive when it came to adaptations of his work? “He knew the points where he didn’t want them to stray [from the books], so he would try to be involved. [But] sometimes as he would just throw his hands up and say, ‘I’ve had enough, this film is uncontrollable’.”

Films are one thing, but one wonders whether le Carré would have approved of somebody else writing a George Smiley novel, son or no son. (Although it is true that le Carré bequeathed Harkaway the task of tidying up the manuscript of his final, posthumously published novel Silverview.) Either way, a new Smiley novel was probably an inevitability.

Every popular character from Poirot to Philip Marlowe appears in a “continuation” novel these days. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has featured in almost as many novels since Clancy’s death in 2013 as he did before it. And it has to be said that le Carré’s own 2017 novel A Legacy of Spies, revisiting the characters from his classic books of half a century earlier, had a “continuation” air: it read to me like preternaturally well-written fan fiction.

Literary agent Jonny Geller is now executor of le Carré's estate
Literary agent Jonny Geller is now executor of le Carré's estate - David Hartley/Shutterstock

Geller thinks people will be “pretty amazed” by Karla’s War: “David was such a distinctive writer and as somebody who knew him, it was so strange to hear his voice again. [Harkaway] has captured it remarkably.”

One can’t get away from the fact that “continuation” books and TV shows are good for swelling an estate’s coffers, but Geller insists that nothing would be greenlit that, “wouldn’t enhance the reputation and readership of the author: nothing will be done for its own sake. [Le Carré] was a great literary figure who had important things to say. I think he embodied a set of values to do with engagement in the world, politics, standing up to power: there are lots of things he did as a person and also as a writer that [a continuation] would have to honour.”

It isn’t likely, then, that the le Carré estate will immediately follow in the footsteps of the Roald Dahl estate’s deal with Netflix, and hand over the rights to his whole back catalogue for an enormous sum (although one imagines Apple TV, currently establishing itself as the home of intelligent spy drama with Slow Horses, would welcome such an opportunity). “There’s no imminent plan for that,” says Geller.

Geller promises that there will be more announcements about adaptations and continuations – television, cinema and literary – in due course. We le Carré addicts will all have our own ideas about what we would like to see.

Sir Alec Guiness as George Smiley in the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Sir Alec Guiness as George Smiley in the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - BBC

Maybe somebody will finally be brave enough to tackle the ramblingly hypnotic and supposedly unfilmable The Honourable Schoolboy, the middle volume (in between Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People) in the Karla trilogy – perhaps with Alec Guinness conjured up by CGI to complete the set? And although le Carré’s most personal and touching novel A Perfect Spy – inspired by his relationship with his conman father Ronnie – was well-served by a 1987 miniseries starring Ray McAnally, a remake would introduce this masterpiece to a new generation.

But one direction film-makers could go in is obvious. The point of George Smiley when we meet him in le Carré’s debut novel Call for the Dead (1961) is that he is well into middle age and seen as yesterday’s man by his Secret Service colleagues, although he will prove them spectacularly wrong. His adventurous early career is passed over in a few lines, including his four years during the Second World War spent undercover as “ the accredited agent of a well-known Swiss small-arms manufacturer… travelling back and forth between Switzerland, Germany and Sweden. He had never guessed it was possible to be frightened for so long.”

There we have it: the young George Smiley as the Jonathan Pine of the 1940s, running around the continent instead of perched behind his desk. Would the shade of le Carré approve of programme-makers appropriating his character for Smiley At War? I bet they’d be willing to risk a haunting to try it.

The le Carré screen universe – what we’d like to see

Young Smiley

Smiley’s early life poses so many mysteries. How did a man with such masterly understanding of human nature let himself be ensnared by the faithless Lady Ann? What did he really do in the War? There are enough gaps to fill hours of television.

The Last Days of Karla

The Russian spymaster at the heart of the Karla Trilogy is only seen in brief glimpses: perhaps he could take centre-stage in a series about what happened to him after his final defection to the West. Patrick Stewart, the silent Karla of 1970s TV, could play him in Philby-esque exiled old age.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold… Or Did He

Le Carré’s 1963 classic is one of his most tightly plotted books, but his late sequel A Legacy of Spies (2017) revealed an extra layer to the plot that we never knew about. If the screenwriters are cunning enough, they could add new plotlines to this story ad infinitum.

A Small Town In Germany

This 1968 tale of Nazis resurgent in Germany is one of the few classic le Carré’s not to have been filmed. Described by its author as “a black comedy about British political manners [which] was widely perceived to be ferociously anti-German”, it could be the first le Carré comedy film.

John le Carré: The Movie

The Ink Factory owns the film rights to Adam Sisman’s biography of le Carré, so a biopic is a possibility. “He’s lived what he’s written in many ways. It would be lovely to explore that,” his son Simon told The Telegraph in 2018. Given recent revelations about the author’s steamy private life, an X certificate may be necessary.