One of the added perks in seeing a film based on a book is that the movie-going experience occasionally introduces an audience member to the work of a writer he or she may not have known previously. Such is no doubt the case for more than a few ticket buyers who have attended showings of the long-awaited spy thriller, The November Man, in part produced by and starring Pierce Brosnan.
The title is something of a misnomer — more accurately, a handle in need of further explanation. The book on which the film is based first appeared in print carrying the title There Are No Spies — the seventh in a series from the pen of one Bill Granger, a newsman-turned-novelist, an award winner recognized early on for his deft touch in creating a plethora of rich characters steeped in the intrigue of the Cold War.
Granger wrote under three different names over the course of his post-journalism writing life. His November Man series followed the exploits of a disenchanted erstwhile CIA operative named Devereaux, a spy who was less than willing to go back into the Cold from which he escaped.
Though the film is based on Granger’s novel published in 1986, it was actually Granger’s first book in the thirteen-book series — published in 1979 — which provided the title of the film adaptation of Granger’s work.
Among those who knew his fiction, Granger enjoyed a reputation as something of a prolific author, a quality perhaps secondary to the work ethic the writer honed as a print reporter who spent his days on deadline covering the news in a city never short of a good headline.
Granger flourished throughout the productive years spent in his second calling using those same hard-won tools and discipline second nature to his well-earned comfort level working in the pound-the-pavement world of big city journalism. Granger knew the streets of Chicago, and it was there he would eventually report for all of the marquee Windy City papers.
He pulled himself up the old-fashioned, time-honored way by landing work first as a copy boy — a job he found at the Washington Post — albeit with a formal education already in hand. In a business long-dominated by the hierarchy of the journeyman apprentice, Granger came to the field as journalism in general underwent a transition from trade to profession accompanied the its growth as an academic discipline taught on university campuses. In Granger’s case, that university was DePaul, where he edited the college newspaper.
In time, Granger returned to his hometown of Chicago where longtime colleagues praised him as much for his tenacious attention to detail as for his mastery of the written word. He could craft prose in a way that lifted a story from the mundane to the poetic. He ventured into fiction almost as an accidental by-product of bad luck: In 1978, he was laid off from his job as a columnist at what was then the Chicago Daily News.
Writing for the Chicago Tribune in an article timed for the release of The November Man in theaters, Rick Kogan recalled that long-ago day when he, Bill and two other employees lost their jobs when their paper folded its operations. Bill told his friends he had a mortgage to pay. As Kogan relates, Granger uttered these words: “What am I going to do? I’m going to write books.” And so he did.
In a special to the Chicago Tribune on April 25, 2012 — an obituary marking the death of Granger following a series of strokes — the journalist Bob Goldsborough included a passage from a story Granger had written many years earlier. The imagery, the personification of the city he loved, and the artful employment of precise wording can be found in a paragraph exemplifying tools commonplace to a writer in command of his craft.
The 20th century began to claw at the dreams and pretensions of Chicago’s soul — the South Side. Riven by hatreds that pitted European immigrants against black Southern immigrants, the great race riots of 1919 forever changed the South Side. The soul was scarred, and while the scars have mostly healed, they will always be there.
Consider the detail contained in the following paragraph from Granger’s There Are No Spies in which he describes the British town of Dover, an iconic location Granger may or may not have visited. Always the consummate newspaperman, he researched the topic at hand enough to know the material as if he had been there, he wrote in such a way the reader could feel confident the facts were indisputable, the setting undeniably accurate.
Dover was having a British spring with drab days and the threat of rain in the air. The Channel was choppy and gray, the way it always seemed to be. The great gulls groaned madly above the waves crashing into the seawall and the chimney pots of the town boiled up with curls of smoke. It was a day of hot tea and cold sandwiches and the huddled conversations of the public house. It was a day for dampness, wet wools, and the red noses that come with sniffles and deep spring colds.
According to recently printed comments attributed to Granger’s widow, Lori, inquiries had reached the couple more than once to explore the possibility of adapting her late husband’s novels for the screen. Nothing tangible came of the calls until 2008 when Granger’s agent was contacted by Dream Time, the production company co-owned by the Irish-born Pierce Brosnan, who optioned the series’ seventh novel for film.
“What I liked about him is that Bill Granger really gave him a sense of heart and a complexity of sophistication, and yet he was lethal. And the name The November Man is such a sexy name,” the actor explains of the name change. “The November man has a certain ring to it. I love the title. There’s thirteen books, and we stole from each and every one of them in little ways.”
The man who for seven years took over the role of the iconic British agent James Bond knew a thing or two about drab rainy Dover days as much as he did the business of playing a spy in a Hollywood movie. But it would take another five years of re-writes for cameras to roll on a finished screenplay.
“It was a great idea. You go on guts and inspiration most of the time. Bill Granger’s work was solid,” says Brosnan of the book his company chose to develop for the screen. “His character of Devereaux is well-defined and the writers we found to be part of this — Michael Finch and Karl Gadjusek — you know, they really gave of themselves to the material and invested in every kind of nuance of the books, so the Bible on this is really extensive.”
As with any book adapted for film, story lines change, and in this instance, so does location. The screenwriting team set much of the film in Belgrade, a European capital once part of the now-defunct communist buffer state of Yugoslavia. Today, Belgrade is part of Serbia, a nation tainted by fallout from the bloody Balkans war, irrevocably-linked to the atrocities committed throughout Bosnia. That conflict put stories about ethnic cleansing in headlines around the globe.
As with most wars throughout the twentieth century, the Cold War provided more than its own share of horror stories. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the toppling one after another of Cold War buffer states surround what had been the Soviet Union, a dramatic shift in the balance of world power took place. Long-held convictions and certainties no longer could be relied upon, a fact that colors the fiction of the world Granger’s man Devereaux faces in the evolving environment of the 2014 version of The November Man.
Devereaux inhabits the skin of a man who’s walked away from the game. Granger’s creation had became something of a reluctant Cold Warrior to the point he no longer wanted any part of it — circumstances tied to this new World Order force him back in the line of fire against his will. Screenwriters Finch and Gadjusek felt the need to showcase Devereaux’s inner turmoil, that tug-of-war experienced by a man who’s been called upon once too often to turn a blind eye to the traits that fight against whatever conscience remains in a hardened killer.
“This is something that’s very true in Granger’s books. Granger’s books show the toll of being one of these agents, one of these operatives,” Gadjusek maintains. “Read one of Granger’s books and you’ll see someone sitting in a hotel room for a month waiting for a phone to ring, and you’ll realize how little of life is left in that person even though they may be very, very skilled at what they do.”
The geopolitic events spanning that period — 1979 to 1986 — included the last year of the Jimmy Carter Administration, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the attempt on the life of Ronald Reagan, and Reagan’s entire first term. Unknown to Americans at the time, the Iran-Contra guns-for-hostages scandal was taking shape as the second Reagan Administration unfolded. The Cold War was very much in play and three years would pass before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The film’s producers felt the understandable need to shoot from a script that reflected the present-day realities of a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world. Somehow, presciently, the on-screen plot embraces an awareness of the often ambiguous ground tread by governments, their diplomats and the people who carry out their often-dirty business.
The on-the-money nature of the newly-realized film may have been a stroke of luck considering few, if any, screenwriters could have predicted the present situation regarding the break-away rebel crisis underway in Ukraine near the shared border with Russia. Still, the producing team made a concerted effort to revitalize the plot sufficiently to shape what Brosnan and his colleagues see as a timely, compelling thriller.
Says Brosnan, “There’s a sweet irony of luck on our behalf in that The November Man is very relevant in the landscape that we live in today.”
The November Man runs 108 minutes and is rated R.