I've spent much of my life trying to figure it out: What is it about the work of John le Carre that draws me back to his books again and again?
Le Carre (real name, David Cornwell), a former British spy turned best-selling novelist, is a master plotter -- but so is Arthur Conan Doyle. He's a marvelous creator of dialogue -- but so is Elmore Leonard. He is darkly hilarious in that dry, British manner -- but so are any number of contemporary English novelists.
My humble conclusion: It's the themes of loyalty and betrayal at the core of le Carre's work that have made some of his stories tales for the ages.
With a new version of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" starring Gary Oldman now playing, here's a shortlist of the best films and TV shows made from le Carre's books. Most feature George Smiley, a British bureaucrat in the spy service whose bland bespectacled facade masks a passionate intellect, a broken heart and a sixth sense for betrayal.
* The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965): Richard Burton showed his chops as an actor with his gritty, depressing and thoroughly realistic portrayal of burned-out British spy Alec Leamas.
* Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979): This six-episode miniseries, made for the BBC, has been hailed by many as some of the best television ever made. Based on the first book of le Carre's "Karla" trilogy, "Tinker, Tailor" features the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley, who is brought back out of forced retirement and charged with ferreting out a mole in British intelligence.
* Smiley's People (1982): The third book in the "Karla" trilogy again starred Guinness and concludes the titanic struggle between Smiley and Karla, his archenemy in East German intelligence. Patrick Stewart has a brief but unforgettable nonspeaking scene as Karla.
* A Perfect Spy (1987): The BBC miniseries version of le Carre's finest novel after "Tinker, Tailor" is almost as devastating as the 1986 novel, which Philip Roth called "the best English novel since the war" when it came out. The seven-episode series portrays the disintegration of Magnus Pym, a British spy recruited by a Czech student he met (and betrayed) as a young man. Le Carre had a hand in the screenplay.
* A Murder of Quality (1991): Though he doesn't quite approach the gravitas of Guinness' characterization, Denholm Elliott is still marvelous as Smiley. Le Carre wrote the screenplay. A young Christian Bale plays a prep-school student who knows more than he oughta.