Dec 15, 2014

Adapting le Carré in A Most Wanted Man

*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 originally.

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.

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