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Four Jewish John le Carré Adaptations

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To mark the passing of John le Carré, who died on 12 December, Nathan Abrams recommends four Jewish adaptations of his work.   

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) 

This was the first film adaptation of any le Carré novel. It was directed by Martin Ritt, who was Jewish. Oskar Werner plays the ‘brilliant and principled’ East German Jewish spy Fiedler. The name of the principal female character in the novel, the innocent and naïve British Jewish communist, Liz Gold, is altered to Nan Perry in the film allegedly because the producers were worried about the potential confusion in the media with Burton’s wife, who was then Elizabeth Taylor. Nan is played by Claire Bloom who was born as Patricia Claire Blume in Finchley. Her paternal grandparents, originally named Blumenthal, as well as her maternal grandparents, originally named Gravitzky, were both Jewish. Sam Wanamaker features as Peters, as does Warren Mitchell as Mr. Zanfrello.  

The Deadly Affair (1967)  

The 1961 novel Call for the Dead featured four Jewish characters: British civil servant Samuel Fennan, his wife, Elsa, a refugee from Nazi Germany; Inspector Mendel of the Metropolitan Police; and Dieter Frey – an agent of East German intelligence. The casting for the film, directed by Sidney Lumet, though, was decidedly less Jewish other than Simone Signoret (who came from Polish Jewish roots but hid them by using her mother’s given name) who played Elsa.  

The Little Drummer Girl (1984) and (2018) 

This has been adapted twice: once for film, in 1984, and again for television in 2018. Given that the novel involves a Mossad mission, both are peppered with Jewish characters and actors. There are too many to list here! 

The Tailor of Panama (2001) 

The author disputed that its leading character, Harry Pendel, was Jewish because his mother was an Irish Catholic and therefore under Jewish law, he ‘has no right to call himself a Jew’. ‘The whole point of the character’, he elaborated, ‘which should be plain to a blind hedgehog, as the Russians say, is that he is an unshaken cocktail of differing, and sometimes conflicting, cultures.’ 

Pendel has a Jewish Uncle Benny, who escaped the death camps by tailoring uniforms for officers of the Wehrmacht. As a child of a Jewish and Catholic liaison, he has one son at a Jewish school and one daughter at a convent school. 

But as Norman Rush points out here, as he is depicted, Pendel’s Jewishness is not in doubt. His father is Jewish. His mother entirely vanishes from his life shortly after his birth. He is raised in the East End of London by Jewish relatives, and when he arrives in Panama, he is taken under the wing of a Jewish family. He takes part in the Kaddish, in family festivals. Pendel’s wife ‘loved him . . . for making chicken soup and lokshen on Sundays.’ His thought is sprinkled with Yiddishisms and the other characters consider him to be Jewish. The film adaptation cements this Jewishness, and its cast is peppered with Jewish actors. Geoffrey Rush plays the lead, Harold Pinter his Uncle Benny, Daniel Radcliffe is Mark Pendel and Mark Margolis is Rafi Domingo. 

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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