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There is great appeal to the world of espionage: international travel, funky spy toys, the opportunity to seduce beautiful women and save the world from devious villains! It is a rich world for storytellers, whether telling fantasy tales of megalomaniacs trying to take over the world, realistic threats of foreign agencies and terrorists or personal dramas about what life as a spy would really be like. There has been a lot of great spy fiction over the years and now is the time to look at some of the best the genre has to offer.
2015 is set to be the year of the spy movie with eight action-thrillers being released. Kingsman: The Secret Service has already delighted audiences earlier this year and Spooks: The Greater Good, the movie spin-off of the popular TV show Spooks is coming out in the UK this weekend. Two big spy franchise have new entrances coming out later this year, with two other movies wanting to start a series.
10. Harry Palmer
As well as producing the James Bond series, Harry Saltzman had another British spy series to his name, “Harry Palmer”. Based on a series of novels by Len Deighton, Harry Palmer appeared in six novels and six movies. Two of the movies were not based on novels and one of the adaptations changed the name of the character due to a different actor taking on the lead role.
Michael Caine stars as Palmer and the series was designed to be the opposite of the Bond series. Palmer came from a working class background, lived in a Notting Hill flat and the stories were set in downbeat locations. Despite the more realistic setting, the Harry Palmer movies still have ridiculous plots, from scientists being kidnapped and brainwashed to a supercomputer trying to overthrow communism.
Spooks (or MI-5 in some countries) was a long TV series on BBC, airing from May 2002 to October 2011, having a 10 season run. Created by David Wolstencroft Spooks is set in MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, particularly Section D, the Counter-terrorism Unit. The Spooks team have had to face many threats during their run time, Islamic terrorists trying to blow up a nuclear reactor, an extremist pro-life movement starting a car bombing campaign in the UK, the risk of a biological attack, the list is endless.
When the series was first broadcast it was praised for its realism with its look at serious threats, the character drama as their careers as spies takes its toll on their personal lives. But as the show progressed the storylines became more ridiculous: plots included elements of the British government supporting a Christian fundamentalist using homeless people as assassins, the NHS nearly being sold to a Russian oligarch and MI5 basically being at war with MI6, the Joint Security Committee and the CIA. The show also gained controversy with its second episode with a seemingly major character being killed off by having her head shoved into a fat deep fryer.
Many big name actors have had roles on the show, Matthew Macfadyen (Pride and Prejudice), David Oyelowo (Selma), Keeley Hawes (Line of Duty) and Richard Armitage (The Hobbit) just to name a few.
A spin-off show Spooks: Code 9 was made in 2008, set in a near-future where London is devastated by terrorist action and young agents are recruited as Britain falls into chaos. The show was poorly received and only lasted one season. Another spin-off, Spooks: The Greater Good, is set to arrive this weekend in the UK with Peter Firth returning as Harry Pearce and Kit Harington leading the movie.
Lasting five seasons from 2001 to 2006, the spy-action series Alias boasted plenty of talent in front and behind the camera. Created by J.J. Abrams, the series focuses on Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), a woman who acts as a double agent for the CIA when the organization she works for kills her fiancé. It was a series that became known for incorporating sci-fi and fantasy elements using a Nostradamus like figure, Milo Rambaldi, who prophesized revolutionary technology.
The series had excellent action sequences and plenty of globetrotting James Bond-esque espionage shenanigans as Bristow dons many disguises and uses many gadgets as she fights numerous threats to the world. Season Two ended on a hell of a finale, having a well-choreographed fight and a massive twist.
Alias however suffered a drop in quality after the third season: Abrams moved onto other projects and taking less of an active role with the show. The fifth season suffered from numerous casting changes and Garner’s pregnancy forcing the show to cast a new lead, Rachel Nichols.
Alias helped land Abrams the Mission: Impossible III gig and started his career as a blockbuster director. As well as Garner, the show had the talents of Bradley Cooper and Melissa George and the series had the likes of Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Drew Goddard Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec on the writing staff. Guest stars included Quentin Tarantino as psychotic torturer, Ricky Gervais as an IRA terrorist and Roger Moore heading a secret evil organization.
Along with the television series, there have been 25 novels based on the series and PS2, X-Box and PC game back in 2004.
Created by Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, 24 was a big hit when it was first broadcast. It lasted for eight season, had TV movie, a TV mini-series revival and is the longest running American espionage show. It also won many Golden Globes and Emmy Awards during its run.
Kiefer Sutherland’s career was revitalized when he took on the role of Jack Bauer, the Los Angeles based Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) agent, facing threats from right wing extremes, Islamic terrorists, Mexican drug barons, rogue MI6 agents and a secret organization within the American Government. Each series takes place over the course of 24 hours and each show has a large death count of federal agents, American presidents and civilians. Attacks the states have suffered included nuclear, biological and chemical attacks, Air Force One being shot down and many nuclear power stations suffering a simultaneous meltdown.
However 24 has suffered accusations of a right-wing bias, showing torture as an effective shortcut for information, negative portrayals of Muslim people and terrorists using a human rights group subtlety named Amnesty Global to protect one of their agents.
As well as the TV show, 24 had two spin-off shows, 24: Conspiracy and The Rookie, a computer game and there has been talk for years about the show having a feature film spin-off.
6. The Sandbaggers
The Sandbaggers was a British TV show produced by Yorkshire Television broadcast on ITV from 1978 to 1980, lasting 20 episodes. It was created by Ian Mackintosh, a former Royal Navy officer turned TV writer and novelist.
The Sandbaggers focused on a small black-ops team, The Special Operations Section, within the Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6. The Special Operations Section does all the dangerous missions you would expect from an intelligence agency: assassinations, handling defectors and rescuing agents from beyond the Iron Curtain.
The series aimed for realism and it provided because of suggestions that Mackintosh was a former intelligence officer or at least had links to the intelligence community. Action scenes were down played, the series avoided the glamour of fast cars and The Sandbaggers wanted to act as a counter point to the Bond series. The Director of Special Operations Neil Burnside does not drink, his top operative Willie Caine avoids using violence as much as possible and the series is as much about the internal politics of the intelligence services as it was about spy operations. Despite this, The Sandbaggers still racked up a big body count.
The series ended on a cliff-hanger due the tragedy of Mackintosh dying in a plane crash near Alaska.
5. Jack Ryan/Tom Clancy
Tom Clancy was the novelist being one of the first writers in the techno-thriller genre, combining espionage, military and political fields into a thriller hybrid. Clancy’s most famous character was John “Jack” Patrick Ryan Sr., who starred in 11 of his novels (though his later novels were co-written with Mark Greaney). Starting with The Hunt for Red October, published in 1984 it became a best seller and was given a boost when President Ronald Reagan praised the book.
In the novels Jack Ryan is a naval historian, a successful banker and an analyst for the CIA as well as an ex-marine. During his career, he has faced many threats, from the Soviet Union, a Marxist IRA splinter group wanting revenge, the drug cartels in Colombia and ends up becoming president of the United States after a terrorist attack kills the President, most of his cabinet, most of Congress and the entire Supreme Court.
Clancy did know how to write a gripping story. His novels were detailed and filled with numerous plotlines. But Clancy only knew how to write stories set during the Cold War because his novels took a downward spiral after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Plots included America going to war with Japan (Debt of Honor) and China and Russia going to war, with Russia joining NATO (The Bear and the Dragon). His right wing views were more forcefully presented with Ryan’s legislative program, the series version of Ted Kennedy made out to be a date-rapist and a hypocrite about his political views and eco-terrorists trying to kill most of the world’s population. As a Brit I can say his portrayal of Britain is inaccurate to put it mildly.
Because the Ryanverse was a bestseller, some of the novels were adapted into movies. The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger were critical hits and The Sum of All Fears was met with mixed reception. Because of the dense plotting and most of the adaptations being made after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the movies did have to make big changes from the novels.
2014 saw a reboot of the film series with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Ryan was updated to a post 9/11 world and the only movie in the series to not be based on a book. But the movie underperformed and it is unlikely that we will see a sequel.
Outside of film and books, Tom Clancy lent his name to video games with many popular franchises being made, Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon and the most espionage like of them all, Splinter Cell.
4. John le Carré
The work of John le Carré is so much a franchise, it is a brand, sold on the name of its author. Le Carré, real name David Cornwell, is one of the most highly regarded novelists in the espionage genre, with his books being praised for their realism. Le Carré was a service intelligence officer, working for MI5 and MI6 and was MI6’s station chief in Germany.
Le Carré has written 23 novels, ranging from novels set during the height of the Cold War to the change role of espionage after the fall of the Soviet Union, politically edged novels about the War on Terror and even detective stories with an espionage twist. Le Carré’s most famous character is George Smiley, an intelligential spymaster who is described as having a frog-like face and has marital troubles with his aristocratic wife. He was the main character in six novel and had a minor role two other novels.
Many of le Carré’s novels have been adapted into movies, TV programmes and radio plays. Many top actors and directors have had roles in some form: Richard Burton, Sidney Lumet, Sean Connery, Fernando Meirelles, Ralph Fiennes and Gary Oldman to name a few. Alec Guinness is seen as the definitive George Smiley in the BBC’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. Many of the film adaptations have been critical successes, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Constant Gardener, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and A Most Wanted Man being examples.
3. Mission: Impossible
Mission: Impossible is a franchise that has been a success on television and film and one of the most popular spy series. The original series was created by Bruce Geller, lasting seven seasons from 1966 to 1973, having 171 episodes. Set during the Cold War, the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) had to face many threats, the Communist Block, dictators in Africa and the Americas and crime lords. This series gave us the iconic theme tune and the cliché of messages self-destructing. The series was revived in 1988, lasting for two seasons.
Mission: Impossible was turned into a popular film series for Paramount with Tom Cruise leading as Ethan Hunt. The film series has made over $2 Billion worldwide and seen big name directors Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird taking on entries. The series had a shaky start, the first movie in 1996 upset the original cast because it recast the TV show’s main character Jim Phelps as a villain, resulting with a TV cast refusing to appear in cameos. The second film saw John Woo being locked out of the editing process resulting in the movie resembling a Bond clone.
The film series found its footing when J.J. Abrams became a director and producer, giving the series a consistent world and focusing on teamwork. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was the best received film of the series, having a 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating and a fifth entry: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, is out this summer.
Jason Bourne was the creation of thriller writer Robert Ludlum following the CIA assassin who goes on the run after suffering from retrograde amnesia and having to piece together his past. The original novel, The Bourne Identity was published in 1980 and was met with critical praise: Peter Cannon of Publishers Weekly listed as the second best spy novel with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold just beating it.
The original trilogy ended in 1990 and the series restarted when novelist Eric Van Lusbader wrote The Bourne Legacy – which was published in 2004. The series has continued for another nine novels, the most recent being The Bourne Ascendancy.
The Bourne Identity was adapted into a two-part TV movie for ABC back in 1988. Richard Chamberlain was the first actor to play the spy and the TV version was known for being faithful to the novel. The TV movie running time is 185 minutes.
The series became the blockbuster series we know and love when The Bourne Identity was adapted again by director Doug Liman and screenwriter Tony Gilroy in 2002. The second adaptation was a looser adaptation of the novel, updating the setting to the post-Cold War world. It was Matt Damon’s first action role and the movie was praised for its more gritty, realistic take to the action-spy genre. It was the first movie to get the 12A rating in the UK.
Paul Greengrass directed the following two movies and injected his left-wing politics into the series and intense action sequences. The success of the series forced some of its competitors to change. But one curse Greengrass has inflicted on the action genre is many action movies trying to copy his shaky cam style.
Tony Gilroy kept the series going with his sequel The Bourne Legacy with Jeremy Renner taking on the role of a superspy. It was the poorest received movie in the series and Greengrass and Damon are set to return to the series. Fans do want to see Damon and Renner team up and Renner is also attached to star in a sequel to ‘Legacy’.
The Bond franchise was always going to top this list, it is the longest running movie series and one of the most successful, making a collective $5.9 Billion. It is the series that is a model for other series to follow, being able to evolve with the times, adapting to events – from the end of the Cold War to the War on Terror. The series is based on the novels by Ian Fleming, who worked in the intelligence community during the Second World War. Fleming wrote 14 novels, including a collection of short stories and five short stories from 1953 to 1965. Many other authors have written Bond novels including Sebastian Faulks and Charlie Higson. His life was adapted into a BBC America miniseries Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond.
In the world of cinema, there have been 23 official movies, with Spectre set to become the 24th. There has also been two unofficial films, the spoof Casino Royale (1967) and 1983’s Never Say Never Again. There was also a TV adaptation of Casino Royale back in 1954 where James Bond was an American CIA agent.
Six actors have played Bond in the official series, coming from all four corners of the British Isles as well as an Australian. The series has ranged from seeing Bond getting revenge against the head of a drug cartel (Licence to Kill), falling in love (Casino Royale, 2006 and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and going up into space (Moonraker). The series has endured, being a influence on filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Matthew Vaughn to being parodied by the Austin Powers series.
Beyond film, Bond has appeared in numerous video games including the classic Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64, a comic strip in the Daily Express and a spin-off cartoon, James Bond Jr. The legacy of the franchise cannot be overstated.