Fleming vs Le Carre - Event Report
4th December 2016
Tom Cull attended the debate that pitted two legendary spy novelists against each other
By Tom Cull
Within the fitting grandiose setting of the Emanuel Centre in London’s Westminster, last Tuesday saw two of the most influential writers working today make the case for their respective choices for the greatest spy novelist of all time.
In one corner Anthony Horowitz, the author of the latest Bond continuation novel “Trigger Mortis”, argued for Ian Fleming. He was pitted against David Farr, who recently adapted John Le Carre’s “The Night Manager” for our screens with global success.
Accompanying them were four esteemed actors who added colour to the debate by performing readings of each author’s novels, who included Simon Callow, Lesley Manville, Alex Macqueen and Matthew Lewis.
Members of the audience were asked to pick who they thought was the superior before the debate kicked off and were then asked after the closing remarks to vote again. Before the debate, Ian Fleming carried 32% of the vote, Le Carre 43% with 25% undecided. The game was afoot!
Mr. Horowitz came out first and was in typically ebullient spirit. He delighted in picking readings for the actors such as the centipede scene in “Dr. No”, Goldfinger’s speech to Bond as he is strapped down in front of a circular saw and a tender scene between Bond and Tracy in “OHMSS”. These were brilliantly done by the four actors, but special mention must be made for Alex Macqueen who should well be on EON’s radar if they are looking for a new villain.
Mr. Horowitz argued that Fleming transcended the page and how Fleming‘s creation and even book titles had seeped into the DNA of Britain. Everyone remembers the characters and lines but who really remembers Smiley, Karla, Mundt and Leamus in a wider context? He gleefully teased Mr. Farr about the Bondian treatment “The Night Manager” TV series had, down to the opening credit sequence, and happy ending – changed from the original text.
The Bond films, of course, are intertwined with the book’s success and yet whenever the film franchise chooses to stick closely to the original texts, they are all the better for it. Fleming’s Bond was the first modern spy and Mr. Horowitz stressed that in those early books he was no cartoon hero and Fleming adroitly made him vulnerable.
Mr. Horowitz discussed Fleming’s wonderful use of language as only he wished he could write and asked, “did Le Carre ever write a sentence with such a smile?” The sheer number of great set pieces, book titles and iconic moments are incredible for one writer to have created in 12 books. Do we really know Le Carre’s characters in the same way?
Fleming’s Bond is in our national identity. So could David Farr topple this cultural behemoth?
In a very different style to Mr. Horowitz, Mr. Farr sought to swing the undecided voters by framing Bond as more of a black and white movie character now. Le Carre he states, “delves into the human soul and takes risks […] Writing is a matter of life and death”.
In an admission to the Bondian treatment of “The Night Manager”, Mr. Farr explained that “Jonathan Pine has no ideas who he is and experiments with who he is, which sucks us in.” In the tradition of Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, Le Carre goes into deeper existentialism that Fleming does not venture.
In Le Carre’s novels, he is seeking himself just as his characters seek their nemesis. Deep ideas but never high-brow. He tackles moral problems, which tests the reader and asks the sort of questions that we ask ourselves about our own identity.
Mr. Farr spoke of Fleming as a dilettante stylist and that the films have made him more famous than his writing style is due. Perhaps a low blow late into the fight but he spoke of his admiration for Fleming as a writer of action. Le Carre he opined, takes us on a journey into the heart of darkness with an umbrella.
Both speakers brilliantly made their cases and it was up to the audience to cast their final votes. In the end, Le Carre surged ahead with 60% of the vote compared with Fleming’s 38% with only 2% undecided. Whether you agree or disagree with the vote, it was a pleasure to watch two brilliant writers speak passionately for two of the greatest novelists of all time.
My advice is to read Fleming and Le Carre as we are all the richer for them.
You can listen back to the whole debate organised by Intelligence Squared here.