The Constant Gardener, John Le Carré

Penguin, 2001, 570 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-14-100169-0

Hello John Le Carré. It’s been a long time.

I first tried to enjoy Le Carré’s fiction as a teenager, and almost invariably bounced off of it: Too long, too dull, too bleak, too ponderous. In still remember some of the titles: A Small Town in Germany? Eek. Never mind Le Carré: I just read something else.

But parallel development can be healthy. On one hand, Le Carré has successfully weathered the end of the Cold War, reportedly having tremendous fun with its New World Order aftermath (The Tailor of Panama), and even getting angry at the state of the War Against Terrorism (Absolute Friends). But it took me a movie, a really good movie to bring me back to Le Carré’s prose.

Seeing the pitch-perfect adaptation of The Constant Gardner on the big screen remains one of my favourite birthday memories so far: With its blend of contemporary geopolitics, growling anger, strong emotional content and low-key thrills, THE CONSTANT GARDNER landed near the top of my list of 2006 movies and got me thinking that I really should re-visit Le Carré’s latest fiction. Hence the call of the cheap paperback.

For all the usual vitriol directed at book adaptations, it truly seems as if the last decade or so has seen a marked improvement in the quality of such adaptations. More and more, screenwriters and producers seem to understand how to preserve the nature of the story as it makes its way from one medium to another. If everyone does their job properly, if the producers are confident enough not to meddle with the original material, the resulting adaptation can feed back into the novel by providing another framework for the reader: It’s easier to portray the characters, follow the structure of the story and enjoy the style of the writing without worrying so much about the story.

So is the case with The Constant Gardener: Reading the film after seeing the movie is like getting and second, more complete run at the story. In light of what we already know about what happens in The Constant Gardener, Le Carré’s choices in telling the story seem even more surprising than if we’d encountered them for the first time. The first section, for instance, is told almost entirely from a would-be adulterer’s point of view: a secondary character in the film, here given first point of view. The novel also gives more time to some of the film’s most intriguing characters: I was particularly happy to see Ghita get more screen time, as it were, in this version of the story.

Reading the novel only increased my admiration for the screenwriters who adapted it, as much for what they kept than what they didn’t: the weakest part of the novel, a trip to Canada, has been almost completely excised from the finished film –though a radically reworked but no less ridiculous version of the sequence subsists in the DVD’s cut scenes.

But what’s also obvious, regardless of whether you’ve seen the film or not, is that The Constant Gardener is a superb example of the modern thriller, freed from the usual terrorists and old-fashioned villains: It tackles issues of contemporary sensibilities, with a resigned but not impotent rage at the ways the world is designed. Character-wise, it will stun you. Writing-wise, Le Carré’s never been better.

But then again, you knew I’d say that. After fifteen years, it may just be time for me to go back and take a look at the rest of Le Carré’s fiction.

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