The Spy, from Page to Small Screen

In recent years, we’ve witnessed a boom in long-running TV series based on spy novels, a trend that makes perfect sense because literary spies have always made for great on-screen entertainment. The scope and episodic nature of TV series allows internal moral conflicts, shadowy meetings, painstakingly realized revelations, and rebellious attitudes to flourish with each hour-long episode. This list of books providing the basis for critically acclaimed shows offers just a taste of the burgeoning genre. Expect more to come!

Codename Villanelle, by Luke Jennings

Jennings’ series has been adapted by BBC into the already award-winning series Killing Eve. Sandra Oh portrays the titular Eve, a learn-as-you-go MI5 spy on the trail of relentless killer-for-hire Villanelle (played frighteningly well by Jodie Comer).

Little Drummer Girl, by John le Carré

John le Carré’s book, already the subject of a 1984 Diane Keaton feature film, was also presented as a small-screen series by BBC and AMC just last year. Michael Shannon, Alexander Skarsgård, and Emily Pugh star in an espionage thriller that follows a group of Israeli spies and their plans to infiltrate a terrorist group. Highly acclaimed Korean director Park Chan-wook directs all six episodes.

The Night Manager, by John le Carré

Amazon Prime’s adaptation of another le Carré novel stars Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston, the latter as a hotel manager who is reluctantly recruited into MI6 to take down an international arms dealer. The classic do-gooder versus ne’er-do-well conflict gets a complex exploration of character in each episode. Ethics are traded, lives are bargained, and le Carré’s words are given great readings.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series

Clancy’s iconic CIA straight man has been a motion-picture cottage industry for nearly 30 years. Amazon Prime broadened the Jack Ryan universe with an eight-episode series starring John Krasinski, exploring the character’s humble beginnings as an intelligence analyst.

Honrable Mention (Feels Like It Came from a Book, Even if It Doesn’t)

The Worricker Trilogy

Though the 2011 BBC series was not adapted from novels, I feel it needs to be given recognition for wonderful character development in at least its first installment, Page Eight. Bill Nighy plays Johnny Worricker, a spy who senses his long career at MI6 is nearing its inevitable conclusion. After revealing nefarious intentions buried in a report, he plans an exit on his own terms. The character of Worricker seemed to be written for the page as he drinks, flirts, enjoys Billie Holiday records, and skirts disaster for himself and his country.

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About the Author:

Michael Ruzicka, Office Manager, was raised in suburban Los Angeles, received a BA in Creative Writing/Poetry at UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Birmingham, AL, where he spent five years owning an independent bookstore and earned an MLIS. He has brought his librarian skills to Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive, Battle Ground Academy, The Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Michael is very excited to be a part of Booklist and call Chicago his home.

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