If you want an impossible task, try making John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into a two hour film.
Le Carré is an exceptional case of literary man meets genre writer and his novels are deep and wide on characterization. He also knows how to make a scene go and go and go until you think he cannot make it go any further and, yet, he does. Readers become absorbed into his secret world. It is a world that takes a lot of words to create and is, therefore, difficult to compress into a two hour film.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is his masterpiece and the BBC adapted it into a seven part, 290 minute series in 1979. It was one of those uniquely British adaptations that stays true to the novel, almost a scene-by-scene medium transfer. Granada Television performed the same trick with Brideshead Revisited two years later, taking eleven episodes and 659 minutes to bring Waugh’s masterpiece to the small screen. It is a kind of literary cinematic fidelity of which easily distracted Americans are incapable of making.
The star of the BBC adaptation was Alec Guinness, the reluctant Obi Wan Kenobi. Of Star Wars, he wrote, “I began to be uneasy at the influence it might be having.” In his last years he shrivelled every time Star Wars was mentioned and used to throw all the Star Wars fan mail into the rubbish bin. He hated that it was probably what he would be best remembered for, but loved the money. Alec Guinness of the long and storied stage and film career. Alec Guinness, who delivered a pitch perfect Our Man In Havana. Alec Guinness was often called the man without a face for his ability to melt into roles. He was George Smiley of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Le Carré tells some very funny stories about how Sir Alec transformed himself into George Smiley (and, incidentally, one of the funnier stories about Peter Sellers, a man whose very breath was hilarity).
More than thirty years later the classic is unearthed for the Hollywood Treatment, apparently because an Anglo-French Hollywood has very few new and original ideas. Gary Oldman is selected to play George Smiley and here we have casting that is truly remarkable. Gary Oldman is our generation’s Man With No Face. Nor voice. Nor body. He physically melts into a part. He becomes George Smiley, the only screen character he has ever missed. Oldman knew what was ahead of him. He’s English. He had watched Guinness’ George Smiley when he himself was twenty-one years old and living in London. How could Guinness not cast a shadow over the role? But Gary Oldman pays an early homage to Guinness with a change of glasses and then makes the role all his own. Look at how Oldman’s Smiley confronts the Minister about their enormous Witchcraft mistake. The lines are delivered with a strength and boldness that reveals the steely core of the quiet and retiring Smiley. It is a moment that stops the film.
You could spend a longish book comparing and contrasting the BBC series and the film. For example, the claustrophobic dingy locations and sets of the BBC series is discarded for an imagined 1970s in the movie, where orange is used in an infrared manner. Much of the feel of the BBC series can be attributed to it being shot on a small budget and four years after the novel was published. They didn’t have to create the look and feel. They were still living in the period. The movie is a whole different creature.
Or compare the superb cast of both. Could you really say that either Michael Aldridge or Toby Jones played Percy Alleline better? Not really. But they are very different. There are a few exceptions, but the two productions are extraordinary in the richness of their variations. John le Carré is a very lucky man to have so much lavish talent invested in these adaptations. Most surprising was Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Peter Guillam in the movie. His star is just now rising and you can already see something magical about his performances. How could anyone prefer Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes to Benedict Cumberbatch’s?
I think my favorite line created for the movie must come from Connie Sachs, a boozy geriatric who looks at George Smiley after they witnessed two undergraduates mashing. She says, “I don’t know about you, George, but I’m feeling seriously underfucked.”
What is missing from the movie is the depth of character for the title roles. The book and the BBC series go into a great deal of explanation about who the mole suspects are and why they might be guilty. Here is the tension and the puzzle and the rocket fuel. After Smiley interviews Roy Bland on Hampstead Heath, you know what Smiley is thinking, you know why Smiley might suspect Roy Bland (at that point he no longer does) and you know an awful lot about Roy Bland. This is completely missing in the movie and so the denouement, when the mole is uncovered, is an anticlimax.
Far truer to the spirit of le Carré is a different film, The Good Shepherd, which was a kind of passion of Robert De Niro. Because the writing is so good and because it is not a literary adaptation, you’ve got to wonder if it wasn’t also a passion of the screenwriter, Eric Roth. It too is about a mole, a word that le Carré indoctrinated into the real intelligence world. Le Carré has that power; his language is adopted by the culture. “Stranger in our house” is what the CIA of The Good Shepherd calls a mole. Edward Wilson is the American equivalent of George Smiley and is played by Matt Damon. Joining Damon is a cast so illustrious that you get the feeling that De Niro called in a lot of favors for his pet project. And they all step up with nuanced performances, even William Hurt and Alec Baldwin. Look at Angelina Jolie playing Edward Wilson’s wife, Clover! Restrained and true and nothing at all like you’d expect from the paparazzi- and gossip-haunted Lara Croft. There are some images from The Good Shepherd that are strikingly beautiful and symbolically potent. One of a woman falling from a plane sums up the nature of the Cold War. The irony is that Matt Damon plays such a different kind of spook in the Bourne movies. Le Carré used to thank Ian Fleming for creating James Bond. In a way, Bond opened up the opportunity of Smiley. Without the slick impossibility of James Bond, the tragic poetry of Smiley would not have been appreciated. In a similar way, Jason Bourne opens the door for Edward Wilson. Unfortunately the moviegoing public is not as interested in the subtleties of De Niro’s vision. The Bourne trilogy has grossed almost a billion dollars to date, whereas The Good Shepherd has grossed one tenth of that. Fortunately De Niro has persisted and the follow up to The Good Shepherd is reportedly in the works.