Spy thrillers have been around for over a century. Novels such as Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, published in 1905, and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy, published in 1821, paved the way. The spy thriller is typically contemporaneous to the time it’s published. Stories written in the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair, where French artillery officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly convicted of espionage by France, with the actual spy, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, being protected by Army brass, led to readers being more interested in spy stories, along with splitting French society over the treatment of Dreyfus.

The spy thriller evolved as international affairs developed, wars waged, and superpowers developed. The Cold War was a war of spies, as various nations, primary the US, the USSR, and the UK, tried to get an edge over the others without necessarily starting a nuclear war. The threat of nuclear war meant that spy thrillers of the era had high stakes for their protagonists. Spy thrillers run the gamut from pulp stories to literary excursions, with characters like Ian Fleming’s James Bond, John le Carré’s George Smiley, and Craig Thomas’ Mitchell Gant. As the Cold War continued, the question of what happens to spies who want to leave the business came up. Le Carré answered that question with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, published in 1963. Even Bond was questioning himself by the time Fleming wrote “The Living Daylights“.

In 1975, thirty years into the Cold War, Brian Garfield published Hopscotch, which details how a retired spy, Miles Kendig, dealt with his retirement and how his former employers, the CIA, reacted. The novel starts with Kendig already retired, his last position being a desk job after being injured on a mission. Retirement, though, doesn’t kit Kendig well. Even his usual pastimes, like gambling, don’t enthuse him. It’s only after a meeting with senior KGB agent and former rival Mikhail Yaskov, that Kendig realizes that he needs to get back into the game.

Kendig’s re-entry to the game is to send the first chapter of a tell-all book to a publisher he knows will alert both the CIA and KGB. Both agencies are interested; Kendig has information about affairs that would blacken the eyes of the US and the USSR if it gets out. Over at the CIA, Joe Cutter, Kendig’s former protege, is assigned to bring in Kendig. Cutter recruits Leonard Ross as a fresh pair of eyes to the goings-on and as a protege. Together, they start to figure out what Kendig is up to.

It’s not quite a cat-and-mouse chase. Most mice haven’t written the procedures, the counters to the procedures, and the counters to the counters to the procedures. Kendig used his time on the desk job to remove anything that could identify him from the CIA’s files. He chose the first publisher knowing that the CIA and KGB would get copies. To make sure that the CIA is after him, Kendig calls Cutter directly, using a phone booth in Langley, Virginia, to do so. That one act creates some extra problems for Cutter. Sure, Kendig is in the CIA’s backyard, but the CIA isn’t supposed to act within American borders, and a manhunt would involve a large number of agents. Cutter is forced to turn to the FBI for help.

The chase involves false trails, doublebacks, hideouts, and a European tour. Cutter sees through one of Kendig’s ruses, but Kendig was expecting Cutter to do so. As more of Kendig’s book is released to publishers, with the juicy parts being withheld until he gets a deal, multiple agencies get nervous. If the CIA doesn’t stop Kendig, the KGB will, with finality. When the chase winds up in England, one slip by Kendig brings the CIA in closer, leading to Miles taking the ultimate chase-ending move.

Hopscotch won the Edgar Award in 1976 for Best Novel. Award winning novels gain attention, which lead to being a viable choice to be adapted. The film version of Hopscotch was released in September of 1980 and starred Walter Matthau as Miles Kendig, Glenda Jackson as Isobel von Schonenberg, Ned Beatty as GP Myerson, Sam Waterson as Joe Cutter, David Matthau as Leonard Ross, and Herbert Lom as Mikhail Yaskov, and was directed by Ronald Neame. Brian Garfield worked with Brian Forbes to adapt his novel for the Silver Screen.

The movie opens in Munich, Germany, during Oktoberfest. Kendig is wrapping up a two year investigation to shut down a Russian spy ring. Armed with a camera, he’s up in the rafters of a bierhalle watching out for a handoff of American microfilm. On Kendig’s signal, CIA agents move in on the spies involved, but it is Kendig who witnesses the final hand off to Yaskov. Kendig follows Yaskov out and gets the microfilm after talk with the Russian about the absurdity of them getting into a chase. Successful project wrapped up.

The problem is the new head of Kendig’s department, GP Myerson. Myerson comes from the CIA’s department of dirty tricks and is upset that Kendig didn’t apprehend Yaskov. Kendig tries to explain that removing Yaskov is futile and time would be lost discovering who the KGB would send in as a replacement and more time after that getting to know how the replacement behaves. Myerson refuses to listen and reassigns Kendig to the filing department.

Kendig is unhappy with the reassignment, to say the least. He heads to the file room, signs out a file close to his own, swaps the info, then leaves to shred his own file. No photos. No fingerprints. No notes at all. Kendig then leaves for Salzburg, Austria, where he meets up with an old lover, Isobel. They catch up on old times and spend the night together. In the morning, Kendig notices that a window was left open and a new gift, vodka and two shot glasses, was left with a note.

At the time indicated on the note, Kendig arrives at the meeting place with the vodka and the glasses, expecting Yaskov, who does not disappoint. Yaskov has heard that Kendig has retired and tries to recruit him. Kendig isn’t interested; he may not like Myerson, but he has no reason to be a double agent. Yaskov, jokingly, asks Kendig what he’ll do in free time, write a memoir? That gets Kendig thinking.

After the meeting, Kendig return’s to Isobel’s and starts writing. The first chapter is sent to the heads of various intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the KGB. Myerson wants Kendig killed, but Cutter manages to be the voice of reason. Tracking Kendig becomes the difficult part. Myerson wants agents to blanket Salzburg but Cutter points out that Kendig would be long gone by the time anyone arrived. Cutter is correct; Kendig was on a Concorde to New York when Myerson got the first chapter.

To add insult to injury, Kendig calls Cutter late in the day, as Cutter and Ross are wrapping things up. Cutter tries to get Kendig to turn himself in, but Kendig just stays on the line long enough to be traced. His location was a phone booth in Washington, DC. Of course, the CIA doesn’t have the manpower to do much within the US, being mandated to activities beyond the borders, so the FBI are brought in.

Kendig uses the confusion to rent a house to continue writing his memoirs. It’s not just any house, though. Kendig chooses one that belonged to the mother of Myerson’s wife. He keeps a low profile to get through the writing process. With only the last chapter to go, he re-emerges and arranges for an airplane charter. He then calls Isobel at home in Salzburg, knowing full well that her line is being tapped, and stays on the call with her just long enough to be traced. Myerson flips out, but the FBI are in charge of going to the house.

Just being at the house is enough to tweak Myerson’s nose, but Kendig isn’t done yet. He sets things up to provoke the FBI into shooting into the house. Myerson realizes that the shots from the house are fireworks, but while the FBI is focused on suppressing the fireworks with gas and return fire, Kendig kidnapped Ross, taking him to a prepared truck with oil barrels. The chase is short; the oil being used to force the FBI’s cars off the road. Ross is let out further down the road, without his passport and credit cards.

With the latest chapters sent out, Yaskov calls to meet Myerson. If the CIA can’t reel Kendig back in, the KGB will. Yaskov’s methods would be far more brutal than Myerson’s, with the KGB wringing out all the useful information Kendig knows. The KGB agent offers Kendig’s current location, London, for quid pro quo. Cutter recognizes what Yaskov means, though Myerson doesn’t.

In England, Kendig finishes the final chapter, then calls Isobel to come meet him in a village near the White Cliffs of Dover. Kendig has his final play set and is waiting for the other players to arrive. Cutter calls in Yaskov, the quid pro quo, once he figures out where Kendig is heading. The final play ends with a Belgian variant of a Tiger Moth exploding while Kendig was flying it. With Kendig apparently dead, the hunt is over. Kendig’s death pushes his novel, Hopscotch to the bestsellers’ list for fourteen weeks. Kendig, in disguise, checks on how the sales are going in a bookstore, only to be pulled aside by Isobel.

The novel takes on a different tone from the novel. The novel was an adventure book, a thriller with a cat and mouse chase as seen mainly from Kendig’s point of view. Brian Garfield realized that a serious adaptation couldn’t work; all the characters involved are hypercompetent, able to counter each other with multiple layers of moves. For the movie, Garfield made the story lighter. Having Walter Matthau as Kendig helped; Matthau has a deft touch with comedy. When stuck, Garfield and Forbes turned to Matthau for help, leading to such scenes as Kendig and Isobel discussing wine but not really talking about wine. The scene establishes that they were former lovers and are still friendly with each other.

Clip from *Hopscotch* (1980), with Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson. Sometimes wine is not wine.

Matthau also wanted some Mozart be added to the soundtrack. Director Ronald Neame thought about it and came up with Kendig being a big fan of Mozart to the point where, other than one song at a bar, the entire soundtrack is Mozart. Matthau himself provided the music for the writing montage. The end result is a cozy spy thriller, one where the stakes are personal, the sex and violence is reduced and off screen, with a small enough cast to be intimate.

Isobel’s role grew from what it was in the novel. In the novel, she was a dalliance met over a game of cards. In the movie, she’s a former lover and a confidante, the anchor Kendig needs while he’s off playing the game one last time. Myerson’s role also changed, from being management completely clueless about how things work in the field to the movie’s villain, imposing processes and procedures from on high that just don’t work for his department.

The core of the novel remains in the film. Having the original novelist work on the script ensured that the story was more or less intact. Garfield also realized that adapting one-to-one wouldn’t have worked, so the change of tone mentioned above, along with expanding Isobel’s role. In the novel, explainign Kendig’s thought processes is easy enough by being able to get into his hear. On screen, he needed someone to explain the processes to, like Isobel and Cutter.

Ultimately, the novel and the film mostly agree with each other. Both feature men with the experience to counter each other on multiple levels in a cat-and-mouse chase, with the stakes not Earth-shattering but still critical to the intelligence community. It is easy to picture Walter Matthau as Kendig when reading the novel. The tone of the book easily leads to the tone of the film. It’s not a perfect adaptation, but the film’s script takes into account why a perfect adaptation isn’t possible.


This article was originally published at THE REMAKE ZONE.

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