The novel's full title is The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, and for Joseph Conrad maybe it is, but there are definitely simpler tales. Roger Ebert declared it Conrad's most unfilmable book, but he only had Christopher Hampton's pudding of an adaptation to go on, and even Hampton's fudge threw up sparks: the uncredited casting of Robin Williams for example, as sociopathic bomb-geek "The Professor" - one hand forever clasped around the bulb that would blow him up - comes years before his similarly chilling work in One Hour Photo or Insomnia. For my part I first read the book in 1997, shortly after catching The Conversation on television - a perfect 1970's paranoid thriller starring a mopey Gene Hackman (in a Parrot Shop Sketch mac) - and I was struck by the similarities in tone. I thought it read like a prophecy, was very filmable, and, as longtime readers of this blog might know, I've been pondering how to film it ever since.
"It sounds like Watchmen" said Adriano Shaplin when I told him the story, which meant I was probably telling it well. The most interesting correlation is Conrad's boldest departure from the failed bombing on which the novel was based: In The Secret Agent, the bomb is not the work of terrorists, but of a supercilious peace-keeping force. The everyday anarchists in The Secret Agent are harmless. Even The Professor just makes "the stuff". He never expects anyone to use it. He's a low-rent, walking testament to the theory of mutually assured destruction. The book's most obvious villain is actually the bullying youngblood Vladimir, the celebrated ideas man of the Imperial Embassy. His ultimately ineffectual nemesis is the Assistant Commissioner, a whimsical, nationless embodiment of a comfortable respect for civil liberties, shown no respect himself by his baffled Chief Inspector. And the Assistant Commissioner is ultimately ineffectual because he loses his star witness, not to the anarchists, nor to the Chief Inspector or the agents of Vladimir, but to... SPOILERS. There are definitely simpler tales.
1992. Poor sods.
There are strange future echoes in the book too: The secret agent and his wife are called Adolf and Winnie, the Professor says "Exterminate! Exterminate!" And there are images that seem taken from the very earliest cinema, specifically comedies: a man throwing himself from a train, another man blown literally to pieces (another invention of Conrad's)...
It is a heap of characters - a batty clash of world views on the cusp of a new century* that ends in hopeless chaos... Except there is no end. Life, or if not life, stuff goes on. That's the tone, as far as I could make out. It's not unlike the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading, which is why I like Burn After Reading. You should read it. OR...
I knew there had been a television adaptation a few years before Hampton's, with a heavily mustachioed David Suchet as Adolf Verloc and Peter Capaldi as Vladimir, and I'd been dying to see it for a over decade but couldn't find it anywhere. Well, it's finally up on youtube, I've seen it, and I adore it. Dusty Hughes' adaptation gets everything right that Christopher Hampton couldn't be bothered to, preserving politics, consequence and tenderness. The cast is tremendous, and all seem to belong in the same film, unlike Hampton's (as well as losing Robin Williams last year we also lost Warren Clarke and David Ryall. Both are brilliant here.) Suchet's make-up looks stupid in the photos - an obvious attempt to distance himself from Poirot - but works in action, and Barrington Pheloung's score puts the tin lid on it. That's the other thing: in my unmade head-movie the music was vital. I knew it had to be like the solo piano in The Conversation, or the solo zither in The Third Man - it had to play against the hopelessness, be pitilessly light-hearted and say "That's life. That's entertainment. Stroll on."
In my head! This scene was in my head!
What I'm saying is... I can't think of a better way to open what is already looking like a terribly serious year, so let's all watch this, and if I can get you to do that, can we pretend that's the same as me actually making the film, and move on too? Great!
(And if you want a shiny one, it seems to be available here.)
P.S. Thanks to all those who have suggested how I might stage Jonah Non Grata again. Basically, I need a producer. All suggestions welcome. Jonah, of course, is not a million miles away from Fat Adolf.
* P.P.S I've just remembered, the book's dedicated to H.G. Wells.