Book to Screen: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
As fictional British spies go, John le Carré’s George Smiley does not have quite the hold on the public imagination that Ian Fleming’s James Bond enjoys. Yet while shorter and portlier than Bond, Smiley is no slouch. Five actors have portrayed him over a period of five decades, and his most famous adventure, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, has been adapted twice. The first was a 1979 BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness, that elder statesman of English actors, and it had six hours in which to get to the bottom of Le Carré’s mystery. The next was a 2011 film starring Gary Oldman, and it got to the core of the double-agent drama in just over two hours. Exponentially different runtimes and different visions rooted in different filmmaking eras make Tinker, Tailor an illustrative case study in book-to-screen adaptations.
The novel’s opening chapter positions the story in time and place with more precision than either of the screen adaptations. An awkward boy named Bill Roach living at a rural English boarding school becomes intrigued with a new teacher. The new teacher, Jim, is well-travelled and fluent in several languages, has a winking manner, walks with a peculiar gait, and lives alone in a dismal trailer at the edge of the school grounds. He dotes on a vintage automobile, an Alvis, which he describes as the “best car England ever made,” and they don’t make them anymore “thanks to Socialism.” Through Bill’s eyes, Le Carré describes the distant hills, the cloudy skies, the school’s church, its football field, and its backbiting, provincial staff. Even the boy’s adventure books, Biggles and the like, that populate its library shelves. It is a picture that must have been intimately familiar to generations of English readers who had grown up during the war or in the early postwar decades. Tinker, Tailor is set in the early 1970s, but its settings, more often than not rural or at least suburban (the opening sentence contains a reference to a horseracing track in Somerset) are quaint and coated in the decaying patina of history. On film, such wistful geo-cultural vistas tend to be reduced to establishing shots, so it’s difficult for viewers to appreciate just how much passion Le Carré brings to their description.
Literary parallels are not hard to find between the pastoral settings and the spy story, between the B-plot at the boarding school and the A-plot about a traitor in the British intelligence community. At this juncture in the Cold War, England’s days as a great power are well behind her. “The Circus,” Le Carré’s euphemism for British intelligence, is a rusty organization playing second fiddle to “The Cousins,” the Americans. The head of the agency, Control, has recently passed away after many years at the helm, most of the last of which were unproductive, and his second-in-command George Smiley is in retirement. So is the brilliant but eccentric Connie Sachs, whose institutional memory for all things Circus has no peers; she can give you the biography of every Russian agent Moscow Center planted in the West from 1945 through the 1960s, but nobody wants to listen to ancient history anymore. There are still some old hands in high places, most notably Smiley’s colleague and rival Bill Haydon, but for the most part, the change of guard is complete. The bright young people the Circus recruited out of Oxford and Cambridge before and during the war — people like Smiley, Bill Haydon, and the mysterious schoolteacher Jim — have grown old. Much like the Alvis automobile, the like of them will not be made again.
The past, though, had not been without problems. For several years prior to the events of Tinker, Tailor, Control’s spy network had suffered one catastrophe after another. Missions failed, agents got shot or went AWOL. Except for an anonymous Russian source dubbed Merlin who regularly passed information to the Circus, Moscow was winning the espionage war. And Control didn’t even trust Merlin. He sent Jim to Czechoslovakia to chase a lead, but Jim had gotten shot, forcing him into retirement as a boarding school teacher. Around the same time, a low-level British agent named Ricky Tarr got a tip-off about a double-agent in the Circus, but went into hiding when his informant, a Russian agent named Irina, wound up in a coma and was bundled back to Moscow.
The novel explains all this backstory, and the backstories of each principal character, through a series of interviews conducted by the patient, long-suffering Smiley. In both screen adaptations, Smiley’s interviews are bookends for extended flashback sequences. In the 2011 movie, Tom Hardy plays Ricky Tarr. As he narrates to Oldman’s Smiley, we see him and Irina carry on their fateful romance in Istanbul. His flashback sequence ends with Tarr’s local branch chief dead, a victim, presumably, of one of Irina’s cohort. There are two key differences between the 2011 version of Tarr’s story and the novel’s: first, the novel sets Tarr and Irina’s story in Hong Kong, not Istanbul; secondly, Tarr’s boss doesn’t die in the novel. Perhaps Istanbul is more alluring to 21st-century filmgoers than Hong Kong, or perhaps filming sites for the Turkish city are easier to come by. Certainly, viewers are kept more alert by the tacked-on violence.
The people to ask about the change of venue and the additional bloodshed might be Karla Films, one of the production companies behind the 2011 movie. “Karla” is the codename of the head of Soviet intelligence at Moscow Center. He is Smiley’s archnemesis, and the story of their feud’s origin is one of the most significant differences between the Oldman version and the 1979 miniseries. In the Guinness version, Smiley and Karla’s 1950s meeting in a Delhi prison is told in a flashback. The totally silent Karla was played by a then-largely-unknown actor named Patrick Stewart — yes, that Patrick Stewart! In the newer Oldman version produced in part by Karla Films, the Karla backstory is one of the few not given the flashback treatment. Instead, Oldman’s Smiley leans forward in a chair, speaking ostensibly to his protégé Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) but in actuality speaking to the empty chair in front of him, as though seeing Karla himself. Throughout 2011, it was rumored that Tinker, Tailor could result in a first Oscar win for Gary Oldman, and his Karla monologue might have been intended to seal the deal. Oldman ultimately lost to Jean Dujardin – and given the memorable tension of the 1979 Guinness/Stewart pairing (Star Wars’ Obi-Wan Kenobi and Star Trek’s Jean-Luc Picard in the same scene!) the absence of Karla in the 2011 version is regrettable.
Guillam, whose perspective Le Carré often uses to describe and analyze Smiley, is shown to be gay in the 2011 film. In the novel, he is something of a womanizer, and in the 1979 miniseries, only his characteristic short temper is emphasized. Le Carré’s novels — including this one, as we shall see — do feature canonically gay or bisexual characters, but perhaps in 2011, this was the most convenient way to add depth to Guillam’s character.
Deviations aside, the existence of a production company called Karla Films raises intriguing questions for fans of the Le Carré novels. Did they intend to adapt Le Carre’s next two books in the so-called Smiley vs. Karla trilogy? If so, they would become the first to adapt the second entry in the series, The Honourable Schoolboy, but it takes place largely in Hong Kong. They wouldn’t be able to switch the setting to Turkey this time, as the proximity of Red China and the Vietnam War are crucial to that book. Theirs would be the second adaptation of the trilogy’s final piece, Smiley’s People, which had its own six-episode BBC miniseries starring Guinness in 1982. (Incidentally, the late Alan Rickman had a bit part in that series.)
The folks at the BBC must have felt they had no reason to jazz up the text. Tinker, Tailor wasn’t yet a period piece in 1979, and the obvious and subtle rifts the story depicts between East and West, England and America, and England’s various generations and classes were all readily apparent to the miniseries’ audience. The series is aggressively opaque at times; there is nothing here for the dilettante or the thrill-seeker, just a slow-and-steady procedural about a dour old spy interviewing his colleagues. Yet Guinness has an undeniable, quiet charisma that surpasses even Oldman’s chameleonic quality; like the textual Smiley, Guinness’s version speaks seldom, but with self-deprecating wisdom and a considered finality. Oldman, by comparison, seems more inquiring but less knowing. Not all authors enjoy the screen versions of their creations, but Le Carré has highly praised Guinness’s Smiley. Of course, the 2011 film received his support as well; he appears in it as an extra at a Circus holiday party.
It’s time for the spoiler. The traitor in the Circus is Bill Haydon. He is a member of the old guard, a contemporary of Smiley’s, but vastly different in personality. Haydon is written to have had a prodigious, bisexual love life, and both adaptations stay true to that concept. He carries on an affair with Smiley’s wife, a carefully-considered betrayal of his colleague that parallels his exquisitely-crafted betrayal of his nation. But he had been in love with Jim, too, decades earlier when the two were students. The novel ends with Bill’s arrest and merciful assassination by Jim, followed by an exeunt that illustrates Jim’s bond with his young student Bill Roach. One Jim, two Bills; a cycle set to repeat, or a second chance? Smiley’s ascension to Control’s old position, which closes the 2011 film, is undoubtedly a cause for optimism, but Karla remains at large, a white whale to Smiley’s Ahab. Neither the 1979 version nor the newer film really nail the Bill Roach scenes — they demand a novelist’s touch — but both adaptations do well enough with Bill Haydon, who is loosely based on real-life double-agent Kim Philby. In the 2011 movie, Colin Firth’s Haydon is an obvious villain from the start, but the pathos when a weeping Jim (Mark Strong) shoots him bespeaks the betrayal’s many facets and is creatively accompanied by a nostalgic French rendition of “Beyond the Sea.” The 1979 movie handles the climactic murder clinically, without the 2011 movie’s blatant emotionality, while the novel describes it only indirectly, after the fact.
For committed Le Carré fans, the 1979 version is the clear favorite. It is faithful, unhurried, and Guinness remains the definitive on-screen Smiley. Yet the supporting cast in the 2011 film is effective. Its aesthetic is slick and tidy where the miniseries’ is shadowy and rather grubby; there are tableaus to enjoy in each. Despite two good adaptations, Tinker, Tailor’s dense plot, thematic schema, and careful, economical portraits of people and places are still best enjoyed in writing.