John le Carré’s 1983 espionage tale “The Little Drummer Girl” follows an English actress named Charlie who is recruited by an Israeli spymaster and ends up working as a double agent. But the story revolves around more than spycraft, dissecting morality, power, love and how to forge a path through the patriarchy. In order to turn the 430-page novel into AMC’s six-part limited series, writers Michael Lesslie and Claire Wilson worked closely with le Carré himself, as well as his sons Stephen and Simon Cornwell, co-chiefs of the Ink Factory.
Shifting Narrative Perspective
Since le Carré’s version of the story is “very, very rich” and “stuffed with details,” as Lesslie points out, much of the adaptation process was about being “selective” in what sequences to keep intact and which to condense, remove or shift around. “One of the interesting things about it is it’s a very modern novel [and] the times today guided those selections,” Lesslie says.
Case in point: in le Carré’s novel, the readers are introduced to Charlie when she meets the man who brings her into the world of espionage on a beach, in a moment that is “really when the plot begins,” Lesslie says. It comes after about 74 pages of set up of the world and the introductions of many other characters involved in Charlie’s journey. But because the series was to be focused on going on the journey with Charlie (played by Florence Pugh), Lesslie says it was integral to make sure she was the first character the audience really got to know.
“We wanted it to be quite a bold declaration that this wasn’t a normal spy series, so moving her up to post-credits, the first scene of the series really declares that this is a different show — and a contemporary and interesting one.”
Creating New Context
Charlie’s introduction in the limited series is not one that is “explicitly in the novel,” Lesslie says. Here, she walks into an audition room to perform a screen test, and at first glance it is a pretty average scene for an aspiring actress, but as time goes on in the series it becomes clear that the scene has a “double function,” as Lesslie puts it: The audition was the Israelis testing her to see if she had the right personality to go undercover.
“We wanted to ground the story in her and what appeared to be normal life initially. She’s an actress — and she’s an actress being pushed around and she’s an actress who clearly has unfulfilled potential and wants to make a difference in the world and isn’t being allowed the opportunity. That seemed like an instantly empathetic scene that we could create straightaway with her. But also, it’s one of those scenes now that on a rewatch will enrichen the series.”
As Charlie responds to requests for different emotions in the audition, the scene allows for a visual representation of “finding of truth through artifice, and finding of truth through theatricality and performance, which is fundamental to le Carré’s work in espionage,” Lesslie notes.
The scene also allows the audience to find “context through character,” Stephen Cornwell says. In the novel, two pages of prose are dedicated to explaining who Charlie is from the first mention of her name, but the show wanted the audience to draw its own conclusions after meeting her.
“You really long to engage with Charlie, and I think that scene very effectively introduces her with the concept of being very exposed and also with a strength and a vulnerability,” Cornwell says. “You meet Charlie purely on her own terms and through that you discover the story.”