Book to Screen: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

David Conrad

David is the author of a forthcoming book on Japanese history and film. He has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas at Austin and loves period pieces, classics, and arthouse. He has also read nearly every word J.R.R. Tolkien ever wrote. @davidaconrad

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3 Responses

  1. I went with several friends to see the 2011 version. I was the only one who’d read any le Carré at that point, and I think the only exposure any of them had had to his universe at all was that a few had seen the film adaptation of The Tailor of Panama. After the movie was over, I remember everyone seemed to be processing what they’d seen. They were reserved and quiet, not because they had been bored, but because there was just a lot to follow and consider.

    If any singular characterization befits le Carré, it must surely be “slow burn”. His tales demand attentiveness and patience, but reward those investments with complexities aplenty. Even taken out of context of any other Smiley episodes, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is rich with in-story history. Take, for instance, the relationship dynamics between Smiley and Bill Haydon. One could watch just one of these two screen versions and learn enough to get the gist of it and to fill in the blanks from their own life experiences. The character is outwardly reserved and guarded, never volunteering anything to anyone, and Guinness and Oldman both nailed that aspect. Consequently, there’s no way for either actor to have really done much to share with us any of Smiley’s inner thoughts and feelings; it would have been a betrayal.

    However, for those who explore beyond Tinker, there’s quite a bit to learn about the effect that the end of his marriage to Ann had on Smiley. He worshiped his wife and, given the chance, would have continued being subservient to her simply to still be with her. He’s a puzzle solver by nature, drawn more to concepts than to human beings (save Ann). The final confrontation between Smiley and Haydon at the end of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is graspable without any of this extracurricular knowledge, but it’s all the more intense if you have it. That’s the genius of le Carré.

    • David Conrad says:

      I enjoy a lot about the miniseries casting, but most of its actors didn’t find their way into this piece. The one I especially wish I’d had occasion to mention, so I’ll do it now, is Siân Phillips, who played Ann Smiley. She’s exactly as I imagine Ann. Being a member of a landed family on the Cornish coast, Ann also relates to the rural settings and class dimensions of TTSS, the latter of which in particular deserves more attention than I gave it here.

      Complexity is an understatement! I saw both of these adaptations before reading the novel, and it was only after I read it that I finally grasped how the Circus had gotten pulled so thoroughly “inside out” and how Smiley had put it right. The same was true of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which is built around a similar though simpler ruse, but the movie was still somewhat opaque to me until I read the book.

      On another note, I noticed this time around that the 2011 film combines the characters Gerald Westerby and Sam Collins into one character with the personality of Collins and the name of Westerby, which seems to be a pretty clear indication that “Karla Films” doesn’t intend to adapt The Honourable Schoolboy. I think that’s a shame, I think it would make a pretty fascinating period piece at this point. I’m just not too keen to see Oldman continue in this role, though, I don’t think he conveys enough intellectual depth.

  2. On one hand, I kind of appreciate that they refrained from inventing some kind of expository scene of Smiley telling us how devastated he was by the end of his marriage. On the other hand, I do feel that Cinematic Ann has none of the heft of Literary Ann. She’s a character who looms large over Smiley from the very first page of Call for the Dead. Their divorce is ultimately the real reason that he eventually agrees to return to the Circus; there’ll never be another Ann, and at least the Circus affords Smiley a way to apply his aptitudes at something constructive. Literary Smiley would bail on the Circus the moment Ann would ask him about reconciliation. Cinematic Smiley conveys none of these things, so viewers don’t fully appreciate what his return means to him. Agreeing to become Control’s successor at the end isn’t just about the Circus. It’s about Smiley finally letting go of Ann — which is why it matters that the mole turns out to be Bill Haydon.

    It was never a crusade to get revenge against Haydon for Smiley, and that’s important. Cinematic Smiley shows the proper outward restraint and composure at all times, and I give Gary Oldman credit for that, because it’s a lot harder to create a character without being given either expository dialog or the leniency to be demonstrative in other ways. For people who haven’t acted, I would suggest just trying to have a conversation — doesn’t really matter with whom, or about what — without letting themselves explain anything verbally while also keeping a tight leash on their tone, pitch, volume, facial expressions, and body language. It’s difficult! It also has the effect of frequently making the other person feel uncomfortable and intimidated, which of course services Smiley.

    I think the miniseries sidesteps most of this because of Alec Guinness’s age at the time of production. His Smiley is weary and just wistful enough at times that we get the sense this is a guy who’s got a lot of history and baggage. Oldman’s Smiley seems younger and more virile, despite the conspicuous silver/gray hair. I don’t quite feel Oldman’s Smiley has as much water under the bridge.