John le Carre – from British spy to best-selling author
Nearly all his bestsellers have been made into blockbusters — hardly surprising, since his novels deliver page-turning suspense and complex espionage plots. An ex-intelligence agent, le Carre knew his subject firsthand.
The master spy
Like the characters in his novels, John le Carre — the pen name of David Cornwell — also once wore loose British trench coats; he served as an intelligence agent before turning to full-time writing in the mid-60s. Yet the world of espionage never lost its fascination for le Carre — or for movie directors enthralled by his work. Many of his best sellers were made into exciting films.
The classic agent
Hollywood star Richard Burton, a Brit like le Carre, played the title role in the 1965 film adaptation of "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." He earned an Oscar nomination for the part and Le Carre's Cold War agent thriller won different accolades, including the British Film Award for best film.
Le Carre's novels are perfect for the big screen, packed as they are with sex, intrigue, action, betrayal and political imbroglio. They have also been translated into dozens of languages in countries all over the world. In 2016, his autobiography, "The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life," was published, revealing how just cinematic his own life also was.
Le Carre was responsible for bringing the expression "mole" from the intelligence lingo into everyday parlance. It often appears in his books, such as in "Tinker Tailor Solider Spy" (1974). This was made into a TV film, starring British actor Alec Guinness as the sensitive and brooding agent George Smiley. The role model for Smiley was British double agent Kim Philby.
A realistic depiction
Even if the sets look a little staged, le Carre's stories were meticulously true to the reality of secret service methods. In 1958, when le Carre was a young man, he was recruited by MI5, the UK's domestic intelligence agency. After years in service, he knew exactly how hearings proceeded and what practices were used. Above, a scene from "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," with Richard Burton.
Intrigue in Latin America
Le Carre worked with director John Boorman to write the screenplay for the 2001 agent comedy-satire "The Tailor of Panama," based on le Carre's 1996 novel. James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan (above right, with Jamie Lee Curtis) played the MI6 spy Andrew Osnard who is transferred to Panama, where he winds up in political and murderous intrigue.
Senior intelligence officer George Smiley reappears as a protagonist in le Carre's novels. He's always skeptical, moody and wearing ill-fitting suits. A new movie version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2011. Actor Gary Oldman (above) was nominated for an Oscar the following year for his portrayal of Smiley.