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Friday, April 29, 2016

LeCarre's "The Night Manager" and the Risks of Translating Literature to the Screen

Just saw the first episode of “The Night Manager” with Hugh Laurie and Tom Huddleston. I only finished re-reading the novel last weekend and it affected me much differently than the first time I read it, about fifteen years ago.

The story, which on screen is updated to the present, was originally set in the 90s when the book was written and published. It is about a wealthy, somewhat famous, and extremely well connected Brit, Richard Roper, played by Hugh Laurie. Think of Roper as a monstrously evil Sir Richard Branson. The rich and famous clamor to be part of his life, which appears to be a continuous traveling yacht and skiing party. He has a rotating posse, the core of which consists of well-born Sir Sandy Langborne, a philandering sot, and his beautiful but boring wife. There is also Lance Corkoran, Roper's gay factotum, who speaks all the languages required, and handles the money, as well as two or three armed guards and Roper's girlfriend Jed. 

The protagonist of the story is Jonathan Pine, a former soldier, hiding out inside his own head from the guilt of a horrible wartime atrocity. He is the night manager, standing at the desk in the five-star hotel between 10 PM. and 6 AM. handling late arrivals, emergency wire transfers, and the comforts of insomniac guests.  He also handles the occasional body that turns up in luxury suites in the wee hours.

Re-Reading a book is always an adventure in self-discovery. The novel's stucture, (which I didn't see the first time I read it) is in large part a series of short scenes, mostly glimpses into the mind of Pine, whose anger, guilt and love burn inversely to the calm exterior he exposes to the outside world. It sometimes reads almost like Nietzsche's later works – short parable-like passages exploding with meaning and angst. “The Night Manager” is a work of intense feeling for the author. He hates the arms trade and its political superstructure, and is livid at the hyper-hypocritical media world, that in part feeds off the profits of the arm's industry, while bemoaning with crocodile tears the deadly little wars that always are raging somewhere. LeCarre shows how we all benefit to a degree from the fat of the profits of misery, whether from our 401-K returns or the bread and circus media entertainment provided us round-clock. He rages on and is, frankly sometimes hard to read, because – I am used to bread-and-circus-easy-to-read crap like anybody else. The question – is the TV mini-series part of that monstrous machine that feeds off of the world's misery? I don't know, someone else has to take up that question.

For those readers who reflexively hate the screen remake of novels, I think  (in this particular case) the depiction of the man-in-full during the 1990s is a different kind of animal than that of  the generation of 2016. One nod to the changed generational climate is that Burr, Pine's MI-6 handler, is now a woman. Burr is played by Olivia Coleman who is such a good actor in the role, that I don't care at all about that. The big kahuna, the major jarring note for me, is the 'Book-Roper' was probably born in the 30s. He remembered the privations of the war, and had deep understanding and acceptance of his own generation's kowtow to British privilege. And of course, Book-Roper never experienced the Tony Blair era. He is old school, in a way modern Brits can't convincingly pull off anymore without a double douse of irony added for the politically 'sensitive' to swallow. The TV-Roper is of course attuned to the modern world, (his opening TV interview bemoaning poverty shows that). He understands the different social winds in a way that would have confused and probably infuriated Book-Roper. The novel’s Cockoran was also product of the bygone era. Life in the closet left a bad mark on him. In the book, he is a powerful and disturbing presence, that after one episode seems diminished on screen. We will see, perhaps he comes alive in later episodes.

LeCarre, was about my age now, (mid-sixties) when he wrote The Night Manager. Since I have been reading LeCarre most of my adult life, I am intensely interested in how time and age affect his narrative outlook. Shorter and more intense passages are typical in older writers I think, I think our brain gets 'hotter' as we age, and we can't take the heat for long stretches as when we were younger. But that style wasn't apparent in LeCarre's recent “A Most Wanted Man”, so... LeCarre is a great writer, whose style has changed again and again over his career, I'll leave it there.

Books and movies can't be compared, I keep telling myself that anyway, even though every time they film a story that I have read and liked, I invariably curl up with the popcorn in anticipation to see what the scenes of the book “really” look like. Most of the time I am disappointed, or even angry at what the Hollywood Philistines do to literature I like and for which I have already have built a theater set in my head.

Hugh Laurie, who played the twit in various roles in the British comedy “BlackAdder”, and “House” the brilliant and arrogant doctor who always solved intractable medical mysteries in 50 minutes, doesn't seem addled enough to be Roper.  It is hard to imagine who could do it on today's scene because the role of Roper requires a devil-may-care upper-class elan combined with a cruel disdain for the desperately poor Third World that is continually blowing itself up with Roper's wares. 

Huddleston is the up and coming British movie star.  His Loki was the only interesting character in the Thor movies. Both he and Laurie in real life had neo-Victorian upbringings, are accomplished, athletic and smart. Good casting if you are looking to sell it to a wide audience.

In the book, Pine never slept with the girl from Devon - at least didn't have sex with her. And why does Corkrane immediately look askance at Pine in the TV show, rather than let it the suspicion slowly develop? These and other minor changes - they have fewer site-locations than the book - are meant to move the story along and make it cheaper to make - both necessary features of the book-to-movie business.  But the motivations of Pine and Corkrane seems to less convincing than in the book. Is it jealousy, or unrequited sexual attraction or does Corkrane have a reason to hate Pine other than the coincidence of him being there and threatening his place as Roper's Number Two.  

Pine seems more like James Bond and less like a tortured introvert that I think LeCarre originally meant him to be. I  feel that the mood of the book, which was dark on many levels has been juiced up and sexed up.  I saw Pine as something like Tom Courtney in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" and Corkrane as a tortured Somerset Maugham character, with a vicious cruel streak. The movie doesn't bring that feeling for me.

Big changes in a movie based on a book are OK if it stays true to some artistic feeling. For example, Shakespeare has been played in many different periods and social venues. Ian Mckellan's version of Richard 3 set in a 20th-century Fascist setting was great. But if you seem to be making decisions to appease rather than confront the audience, and if you violate the unity of story, to make obvious connections for the modern distracted viewer it can lead to disappointment for the purist who has a strong opinion of the original work. 

JLC is in his eighties now and is involved with the BBC project.  I support him making money, even if it dilutes his art.  I am sure he was pressured by all the studio flacks to make the story and characters more acceptable to today's audience. But no matter.  His books are there and speak eloquently enough, and for James Bond type entertainment the BBC Night Manager is OK, for me at least.