4 significant ways The Little Drummer Girl’s ending is different from the original novel

There are some crucial plot changes to John le Carré's 1983 thriller

Florence Pugh in Drummer Girl

The Little Drummer Girl‘s TV adaptation has so far kept extremely closely to the plot of John le Carré’s 1983 spy novel. And although the story has been trimmed here and there, the BBC drama remains faithful to its source material, even borrowing dialogue straight from the pages of the book.


But when it comes to the final episode, there are some subtle – but significant – changes which shed a different light on Charlie, Becker, Kurtz and their journey.

So how is the TV ending different from the novel? We read the 600-page le Carré classic, and this is what we found…

Kurtz never wavered on killing Khalil

Kurtz in The Little Drummer Girl

In the final episode, just as Charlie (Florence Pugh) is about to lead them straight to Khalil, Israeli spymaster Kurtz (Michael Shannon) tries to change the plan – in a hugely significant way. He hadn’t realised that Khalil would take such a shine to Charlie and he now senses an opportunity.

Kurtz’s brainwave is this: what if, instead of capturing or killing Khalil, they made Charlie go deep undercover and stay by his side? “We let them run,” he says. “Deep cover. We will have her by his side as he becomes the leader of his people.”

Opposed to this idea is Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgård) who is scandalised by the idea of betraying Charlie’s trust and putting her in any more danger. “You can’t do that to her,” he objects, furiously.

This idea never crops up at all in the novel. Instead, the Israelis are united in wanting to get rid of Khalil permanently, following Charlie back to the Palestinian terrorist mastermind and instructing her to signal once he’s asleep.

But introducing this idea in the TV series, it puts the idea into our heads: what if Khalil had never discovered Charlie’s deception, and what if he had never pulled the batteries out of the clock and triggered the signal? Would Charlie have continued by his side? Would Kurtz have “let it play”? More questions and more alternative endings stretch out ahead.

It also makes clear exactly where Gadi Becker’s priorities lie: protecting Charlie from further danger, even if it means sending her to Khalil for this one night together.

The clock radio signal – and the death of Khalil

Gadi Becker in The Little Drummer Girl

The plot with the clock radio plays out almost exactly as it does in the novel – with a handful of crucial differences. In both the book and the TV series, once the bomb is ‘planted’ and Charlie is heading back to Khalil, Gadi switches out her clock radio for a replica containing a tracking device.

But then, in the TV series, Gadi issues her with orders that are completely different to what Kurtz just told him.

With his new plan in mind, Kurtz says Charlie should send the emergency signal (taking the batteries out of the radio and cutting the signal) only if she is in extreme danger that night.

But instead, when he passes on those instructions, Gadi tells Charlie to take the batteries out as soon as Khalil is asleep, at which point he will run in – and kill Khalil. In other words, Gadi has decided to disobey his master. His loyalty is to Charlie.

Ultimately, it is Khalil who unknowingly triggers the emergency signal. He takes the batteries out of the clock radio to demonstrate a crucial point: it should not have been working at all, seeing as he took the batteries out of her (original) clock radio when she wasn’t looking. Oops! In bursts Gadi and the rest of his gang to shoot Khalil to death and save Charlie.

By contrast, in the book, there is less friction between Kurtz and Gadi – but there is actually a lot MORE jeopardy about whether Charlie will make it through this encounter alive.

In the book, the “emergency signal” is to press the volume button on the clock radio once Khalil is asleep. But before Charlie does this (if she was ever going to actually do it at all), Khalil begins to get suspicious:

“‘So what is the time please Charlie?’ he asked again, with a terrible lightness. ‘Kindly advise me, from your clock, what hour of the day it is.'”

“Ten to six. Later than I thought.”

This is bad news, because – as in the TV series – he had taken her batteries out of the original clock radio without her knowledge. But in the novel, it is especially bad news because Khalil is now holding the clock radio and strongly considering killing her. And she has no way to send the emergency signal.

Thankfully, Gadi realises what it means when Khalil takes out the batteries (which in the novel isn’t the emergency signal) and rushes in to kill his enemy, saving Charlie’s life.

The bombing was actually in Münich, not London

Charlie and the bomb in The Little Drummer Girl

In the TV adaptation, Charlie finds herself back home in London for her big bombing debut. She must help steal Israeli professor Irene Minkel’s briefcase, and then return it to the academic just in time for her high-profile lecture.

Pretending to be a South African called Imogen, she must bypass the guards by claiming that this locked briefcase contains the all-important text for that evening’s event. At 5.30, it will explode and kill Minkel and a whole load of audience members at the university.

In the novel, the bombing actually takes place in Münich, and Charlie’s journey is much more convoluted – so you can see why this has been streamlined.

Commander Picton (the brilliant Charles Dance) makes an appearance much earlier in the book, with Kurtz using him to chase Charlie into the arms of the Palestinian terror cell by setting the police after her. She is then bundled away to Lebanon and the refugee camp and the training camp, before being shipped over to Münich to kill Professor Minkel (originally a man).

Here, Kurtz works with his old pal Dr Alexis to intercept the bomb and replace it with a “fiction,” staging a small explosion and putting out misleading reports of fatalities to make Khalil believe that the bombing was successful.

Charlie does not return to London until long after everything is over, when the Israeli psychologists decide she is stable enough to continue her civilian life.

Charlie and Joseph’s original reunion

Charlie and Joseph in The Little Drummer Girl

How does Joseph (aka Gadi) really feel about Charlie? That is one of the big conundrums at the centre of The Little Drummer Girl. And at the end of the story we get an answer – of sorts.

In the TV version of events, Joseph sends her a packet of cigarettes while she is recuperating in Israel, secretly giving her his German address. Charlie visits him there and finds him tending his garden. He’s jumpy, but pleased to see her – and together they go into the house, with Joseph taking his teapot and teacup with him.

It’s a quiet, satisfying ending to a dramatic story: our two heroes do like each other after all.

So how do things end up in the novel?

In the original text, John le Carré dwells more heavily on the total and utter mental breakdown that Charlie goes through once the deed is done. Unable to recover and unable to connect with her talent as an actress, her career is in “decline” and her thoughts are in tatters.

Joseph, too, has his period of torment; at one point during the operation he takes off through the Middle East, visiting camps and villages and kibbutzes. After returning to Berlin he floats in a “vacuum,” denying himself all pleasure.

But then, one night, Charlie looks out into the audience while she is on a “lousy” theatre tour, and Joseph is sitting there waiting for her. They reunite outside the theatre. And here’s how the novel ends:

“She was leaning on him and she would have fallen if he hadn’t been holding her so firmly. Her tears were half blinding her, and she was hearing him from under water. I’m dead, she kept saying, I’m dead, I’m dead. But it seemed that he wanted her dead or alive. Locked together, they set off awkwardly along the pavement, though the town was strange to them.”

It’s a bittersweet conclusion, driving home exactly how broken each of them are. But at least they are together at last…


This article was originally published on 2 December 2018

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