*This piece was originally published at The Film Experience as part of the Team FYC Series, in which the website's contributors make a case for an under the radar candidate for Oscar nomination.
Anton Corbijn’s latest film, A Most Wanted Man, is one of
the year’s best American films. It’s the type of work that is elevated
above the trappings of its overly familiar genre with superb
performances and intelligent observations on the real world conditions
that give birth to its story. It is arguably the smartest film made
about America’s increasingly troubled relationship with, and its
definition of, terrorism. Yet, it is surprising to compare the film's
screenplay, penned by Andrew Bovell, to its original source, the 2008
novel of the same name by John le Carré, and notice the dramatic
improvement that the adaptation has made to the text.
With densely plotted novels, particularly in the espionage genre, one
of the biggest challenges of adaptation is the careful omission of
narrative threads without disrupting the harmony or logic of the story.
Le Carré’s book is one of his lesser works, a straightforward piece
about Issa (Gregoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen fugitive in Hamburg, whose
history of being tortured in his homeland is sufficient cause for
authorities (German and American) to assume ties with terrorist
organizations. Issa’s story is intertwined to three other protagonists
who are afforded equal attention in the novel: a banker named Tommy Brue
(Willem Defoe), a lawyer named Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and a
spy named Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Bovell and Corbijn remove almost the entirety of Annabel and Tommy’s
back stories and shift the focus of the narrative entirely, tightening
the scope of the film but lending it more political resonance. They
introduce Dr. Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) in the opening scenes instead
of the latter half and make several crucial decisions that don’t just
improve upon the book, but create thematic subtexts that were absent
Two examples illustrate this best: first, the film eliminates the two
most memorable exchanges of dialogue from the book: Bachmann’s Cantata,
a long manifesto about the history of Hamburg and how it is interwoven
with terrorism in today’s world. In this belligerent speech’s stead, the
film relies on the subtlety of Hoffman’s performance and his dejected,
knowing gaze, always aware that the anti-terrorist empire is one moment
of misjudgement away from complete collapse. One memorable monologue is
taken away; a delicate, slow-burner of a performance takes its place to
more lingering effect. (Chris Ryan of Grantland has written about this
omission at length here.)
The second piece of dialogue is the book's finale, a rather explicit definition
of extraordinary rendition delivered in lecture form. The film's silent
ending is sublime in comparison.
The second example is the addition of Abdullah’s son, Jamal (Mehdi
Dehbi), completely absent from the book in the present form. A secret
collaborator with Bachmann’s espionage team, Jamal’s character does as
much as Issa’s in painting a nuanced portrait of how Muslims as a whole
are misunderstood in the West with regards to their views on terrorism.
He is less a symbol of tolerance and more a complex figure of conflicted
sentiments: peace activist on the one hand, guilt-ridden son on the
other. As a smooth, perfectly paced thriller, the screenplay is
structurally robust and extremely entertaining, but the sharp commentary
on America’s convoluted, haphazard foreign policies – timely as ever in
the wake of the release of the torture reports – create a text that is
nothing short of outstanding.