The director of The Night Manager on adapting John le Carré for the small screen and the 21st century

Susanne Bier on telling a moral tale within the seductive world of Jonathan Pine, the changes that were made to le Carré's novel and why The Night Manager was right for TV rather than cinema

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I have always been a totally unrestrained fan of John le Carré’s books. Suddenly, almost a bit arbitrarily, I got the first draft of the first episode amongst a whole load of other stuff from my agent. It was not actually anything. I just saw the name, John le Carré. I threw myself at it and said, “I’m going to do this. I just have to do this.” It was basically me wanting something that did not quite exist yet. There was the novel but the scripts were not written and it was the very, very first draft of the first episode. Compared to a feature film it would be like reading the first fifteen pages and deciding that you absolutely need to do this. 

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I think le Carré creates a very interesting balance between a fundamentally thrilling, exciting story, and then an unexpected human point of view. It’s like his characters are always complex, flawed and unpredictable, and although you get to love and embrace them, you never quite get to know where they are going to go next, and I find that incredibly exciting.

It was love before sight!

The Night Manager explores a world where the line between good and evil is completely black and white, yet we are drawn into the blackness. Audiences will be eerily attracted to the evil, and I think that is what drew me to it. You are never completely sure if Pine is on the right side. It is quite a political novel and the series reflects that political point of view. I do think that the series, more than anything, has a very distinct moral point of view. It is probably more a moral tale than anything else.

However I do not think you can tell any kind of story or convey anything with substance if you do not do it in a seductive manner, if you do not do it in a way where the audience is going to be entertained, is going to be gripped. If you remind them that they are watching something very important – I know if I am being reminded this is important, I get bored – they may switch off completely. The current of this being a moral tale is really an undercurrent. 

We did depart from the novel in some ways, but we assured David Cornwell [John le Carré’s real name] that these changes would be viable, and would still follow his important goal – to hold true to the substance of the original story.

He was also involved in a much more detailed way. I did come back to him with particular things, concerning spy craft, the relationships between the agents and the handler, and subjects where he has a very distinct, accurate knowledge. That was not a knowledge we could get anywhere else. There were the bigger, more substantial, core issues but there were also more practical, more concrete, questions that he was involved with, quite a lot of them. 

I want to say that David Cornwell, almost more than anyone else, was very keen for it to feel contemporary. It is interesting, he had been to a couple of screenings and when we later discussed the comments there were a number where he remarked, “That’s just a very old-fashioned comment, that’s a very old-fashioned take on…”

In many respects, the update of the story is the biggest difference from the novel. It is an update in time, and it is an update in casting: for example, changing Burr to be a woman. Also, the last two episodes are not in the novel. In many ways it departs from the novel and yet I think it stays completely true to the novel at its core. In the novel Burr is a man, yet I found it essential, as did the producers and everybody involved in the process, in order to make the film today you could not have a fairly white male-driven universe. That felt somehow, in many, many ways, dusty or dated or not contemporary.

I was very keen to have Olivia Colman play that part. I was due to meet her for tea. She came in and said, “Before we start I have to tell you I’m pregnant”. This was five weeks before we started shooting and I replied, “Artistically I think it’s fantastic. I think the insurance companies are going to have an issue but let’s solve it”. I do think this combination of strength and vulnerability adds to a character, and it would not have been there had she not been pregnant. I do not think you could have invented it and it would have worked the same way. 

I think there is no way you could fit The Night Manager into a two-hour slot, because it is such a rich story – the characters have so much nuance. Part of the thing that differentiates this from a mini-series is the fact that all of the minor characters are interesting, exciting and complex. And usually in a feature you are limited, for obvious reasons, because you only have two hours and the minor characters become more simplified. It was so exciting to have a whole huge gallery of fascinating, fun characters, and you could not predict where they were going.

The big challenge for me was that it was not shot in order exactly like a feature film. So you do not need to have six hours of material in your head in order to know the impact one scene is going to have – like episode five and then two hours later you are shooting a scene from episode one – so it is really about having an eye on the ball and knowing how everything fits. I felt it was a lot of fun and hugely challenging.

For the set design, the director of photography, costume designer, makeup designer, and I had quite in-depth conversations, and agreed that it would need to be sexy, attractive, feel contemporary, and not conventional. I think sometimes when you want to depict a wealthy world it becomes very conventional and cliché, so we wanted it to be quite sophisticated, and lavish – but not vulgar. So it was about trying to balance that elegance and still be lavish. To maintain that fine balance, that was the purpose of the whole thing. That was the purpose, that was the caption for the set design, it was a caption for the director of photography, it was a caption for costumes, for makeup, for everything visually. To create a world which was incredibly attractive, incredibly seductive and sexy and then, with the storytelling, be told that this world is a very, very dangerous and evil place.

I hope that the audience experiences a really thrilling and exciting journey, which has those entire core elements of what makes something exciting. And I actually think, potentially, there are some bits of psychological drama, bits of storytelling, that the audience might want to think about, and reflect upon the characters a little bit – I think they will.

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This article is part of The Night Manager: The Insider’s Guide Downloadable from iTunes, this iBook provides a unique insight into the complex process of bringing John le Carré’s acclaimed novel to the screen. It includes pieces by John le Carré, Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston and other key members of the cast, alongside contributions from the crew and real-world experts, with clips and stills from the series and from behind the scenes, to form an essential companion to this landmark television series