It is a brave screenwriter who takes on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (BBC1, Sunday), which film critic Roger Ebert called “perhaps the least filmable novel he ever wrote”. Ebert made that remark in a review – a fairly devastating one accompanied by the dreaded one star – of the 1996 film version, directed by Christopher Hampton and with an all-star cast including Bob Hoskins as the eponymous agent Verloc, Patricia Arquette as his comely wife Winnie, and Christian Bale as her half-witted brother Stevie.
Ebert’s grouse was that the novel (written in 1907) is a “character study”, but “the movie deals more with externals and, since there are few of any interest, it drags and finally sighs and expires”. The solution, if that’s the word, adopted by writer Tony Marchant and director Charles McDougall for the TV version, is to create some externals – fun stuff to keep us watching for the full hour of part one of this three-part series.
We know immediately that liberties have been taken with the novel (nothing inherently wrong with that, of course) when we begin with a Guy Fawkes’ night firework display in the back garden of Verloc’s shop in London’s Soho. Fireworks do feature in the novel but in a very different context – Stevie gets sacked when he sets them off at the office in which he is supposed to be working. The fireworks party – a way of introducing the family to us and spelling out Stevie’s mental infirmity – is an invention.
All the time you can hear the programme-makers saying: “We really have to liven this up a bit.” There is a great scene in the book where Verloc, who is in the pay of a foreign embassy (we assume it to be Russian), has to meet the first secretary – a withering anglophile called Vladimir – in his office. The meeting goes badly, and you can feel Verloc getting angrier as it progresses, the office becoming more and more claustrophobic. In this adaptation, the meeting begins in the office, but Vladimir then suggests they go for a ride – cue smart hansom cab, busy street scenes, vistas of London. The claustrophobia is lost. But, worse, Vladimir is taking Verloc to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, which he thinks would be the perfect target for a terrorist attack. The embassy employs Verloc as an agent provocateur to encourage anarchists to commit atrocities that will in turn lead to a police crackdown in the UK (this is 1886 and Tsarist Russia is looking for reactionary allies).
In the book, the first secretary makes a brilliant, witty, scathing case for attacking science – indeed, attacking time itself, since Greenwich marks the prime meridian – but on TV we have to be shown it. The mystery, the enigma, the idea that an attack on the very idea of time is all that will shock the English middle class is lost.
That, in essence, is the problem here: all the workings must be shown. Conrad’s great, strange, tonally complex novel is reduced to a psychological thriller. You would never know from watching it that The Secret Agent is in some respects a funny book, certainly a deeply ironic one. Conrad based Verloc’s attempt to bomb the observatory on a real incident in which a half-baked anarchist blew himself up, and his description of it in a later preface to the novel should be the starting point for any treatment. He called the ill-fated terrorist attack “a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought”.
Much of Conrad’s oddness as a novelist resides in his unwillingness to explain. We don’t really understand Verloc in the book, other than as a study in indolence and narcissism. So to have to start pinning everything down – his sense of being tortured because he is a double (indeed treble) agent, how Winnie feels about working in a 19th-century porn shop, the reason Winnie’s mother feels she has to move – undermines the Conradian worldview: that none of us knows anything, least of all about ourselves.
So much is lost: the competitive, distrustful relationship between Chief Inspector Heat and the Met’s assistant commissioner; Vladimir’s icy humour; Verloc’s French background (I find Toby Jones’s Hoskins-type London accent irritating); the physical grotesqueness of the characters (in the book, Winnie’s mother’s legs are so fat she is completely immobilised, but on screen she is a young-looking, birdlike middle-aged woman); the laziness of the anarchists and their love of domestic order (hinted at in the series, but not made as explicit as in the book); the comedy around the “great personage” at the Home Office and his dislike of being burdened with details.
I’ve only seen the first episode, but I worry for the one-dimensionality of the series. Verloc has so far been treated as the central character and the bomb plot as the hinge of the drama, but Conrad was explicit that the novel’s moral centre was Winnie, and the way she had accepted a loveless marriage to provide for her brother Stevie. The novel achieves the shift of focus from Verloc to Winnie quite brilliantly, but that relies on us gradually discovering what really happened in Greenwich Park. The series seems to be opting for literalness and linearity – plus some invented business involving a manhunt for the bomb-making “professor” – and I wonder if the shock of the conclusion will be muffled. Winnie’s tragedy steals up on you through the London fog – everywhere in the book, not yet seen on screen. Without the fog – real and metaphorical – will it have the same impact? Having to show everything clearly, not being able to trust the mind of the viewer, is the curse of TV.