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The Secret Agent

CritiqueQuotes • At the movies

1936, 1992, 1996, 2016

The Secret AgentFirst U.S. edition, 1907
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

Original title
The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale

First publication

Literature form

Literary, crime, espionage

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 93,500 words

Scene from The Secret Agent, 2016
Stevie and Verloc carry the bomb on a sunny day in the dark 2016 adaptation of The Secret Agent.

Hearts of darkness

The Secret Agent (2016): TV miniseries, four episodes, 174 minutes: director Charles McDougall; writer Tony Marchant; featuring Toby Jones, Vicky McClure, Charlie Hamblett, Stephen Graham

Since Alfred Hitchcock used Joseph Conrad's novel as the jumping off point for an entertaining story of suspense in 1936, at least three more major adaptations have been made of The Secret Agent. The most recent—made well over a century after the book was first published—may be the most faithful.

However, the reaction to the 2016 BBC miniseries would seem to indicate the public and the critics don't particularly appreciate such close hewing to Conrad's dark vision.

At the same time, some complain the series deviates too far from the work it's based on—which is mind boggling as it seems to this reader, at least, the series is superlatively faithful not just to the author's story but to the dark atmosphere, complex characters and pessimistic understanding of the human condition he presents.

Perhaps what throws people off is how the story is told in this series, using a more modern, straightforward cinematic style than is found in Conrad's more layered novelistic approach and some of the denser, older-fashioned retellings in other adaptations.

Yet a Conrad aficionado canb find this take on The Secret Agent entirely gripping.

For one thing, despite the novel's subtitle,  A Simple Tale, the story in this adaptation is far from simplistic. In this series, the characters are as complex as Conrad created them.

The lead character Anton Verloc (the given name "Adolf" has been ditched again) is particularly shown in all his contradictions. Toby Jones transparently plays the conflicting shades of selfishness, sentimentality, bitterness, fear and laziness that pass through the double—triple?—agent as he maneuvers among police, diplomats and fellow anarchists, seeking to accomplish his bombing mission without actually upsetting his own life.

A short trailer for the three-hour miniseries of Conrad's The Secret Agent on BBC.

All the other characters, except for maybe the-simple minded Stevie (Charlie Hamblett), are also multi-faceted, both heroic and fatally flawed at times. Especially noteworthy are Verloc's loving wife (Vicky McClure) who is the still centre of the passionate, violent drama as she turns a blind eye to her husband's activities, which ultimately destroy her, and the seemingly cynical inspector (Stephen Graham) who shows surprising twinges of conscience on the trail of the anarchist plotters. 

No prominent figure in the swirling drama of intrigue and betrayal is left as a one-dimensional hero or villain. All have their motivations—both personal and professional. It must have been a great temptation to reduce most of them to caricatures in order to focus on the central figures. Especially given how much complicated plot had to be encompassed in the series' three hours.

The characters are all in there along with all of Conrad's plot points—somehow without making the narrative seem rushed or confused.

This story of cynical politics, conflicted personalities and ambivalent morality is surprisingly affecting, both in disturbing and satisfying fashion

— Eric


CritiqueQuotes • At the movies

1936, 1992, 1996, 2016