For a fantasy fan, J.R.R. Tolkien reigns supreme, with C.S. Lewis his junior as genre trendsetters.
They have counterparts in other genres though. Spy fiction for instance. Such is my understanding that Ian Fleming is one, and the other is John le Carre, whose best-known work, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I have heard described as the Lord of the Rings of spy fiction.
Much like LotR, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has been adapted a few times. The first was a television miniseries produced by the BBC in 1979, starring Sir Alec Guinness.
In 2011, a feature film was produced featuring Gary Oldman.
So having experienced both at last, I shall compare them. I should mention in the name of full disclosure that I haven’t read the book. The few times I tried getting into it, I found the dialogue to match the miniseries word for word at many points. Since Carre did the 1979 adaptation himself, this is not surprising.
In either case, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is set in Cold War-era London and features George Smiley (Guinness/Oldman), a retired officer of the Circus, the in-story manifesation of MI6. He’s called back into service by the government when fugitive spy Ricki Tarr reappears bearing news that the Circus has, and has had for some time, a Soviet agent in its upper ranks, an idea long-dismissed as an attempted last hurrah by Smiley’s disgraced-and-deceased former boss Control.
The title refers to the nursery rhyme, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief, several of which were used by Control as codenames for his suspects in the hunt for the Soviet mole.
Smiley begins the process of eliminating the remaining suspects, assisted by his protégé Peter Guillam, playing a long-range game of wits against his counterpart in Moscow Centre, the cunning and ruthless spymaster Karla.
Both lead actors play their parts exceptionally, not surprisingly. The movie seems a bit like a showcase insofar as many of its actors are A-list in Britain and beyond, and the rest are highly-recognizable character actors; the suspects are played by the likes of Colin Firth and Ciaran Hinds; Control is John Hurt; Tarr is Tom Hardy, who not unlike Oldman himself I believe to be deliberately trying to confuse me by looking totally different every time I see him. And lest we forget, Peter is played by Britain’s current reigning fan girl magnet, Benedict Cumberbatch. The series, by contrast, has maybe three highly recognizable actors, and more only if you spend a lot of time watching British TV dramas.
On the flipside, the movie made a very interesting choice with respect to Karla. In the miniseries, Karla appears once, played by Sir Patrick Stewart, for about two minutes and never says a word. In the movie, Karla is not only silent but we never even get a good look at him. This could arguably enhance his mystique, making him an unseen villain, but for my taste at least the film doesn’t work hard enough to exploit it. One thing the miniseries absolutely nailed was atmosphere. Keeping Karla unseen seemed like part of a plan to build an atmosphere of omnipresence, the sense that Karla was always watching you. Part of it in the miniseries is only a few characters even use his name, whereas people mention it often and casually in the movie. If it was used only sparingly or reluctantly (like saying ’Voldemort’ in a Harry Potter book) it might have had more punch. That said, both versions wait a long time between mentioning his name and explaining who he is, which does create this sense of an an unseen shadow over things, and of course it might have been lessened since I already knew who Karla was.
The movie certainly uses the talent; Control gets a lot more characterization under John Hurt’s mastery than he did in the miniseries for one thing. Unfortunately, having deployed these great actors around the cast causes one fatal flaw which is at least milder in the miniseries: it makes it pretty freakin’ obvious which one is going to turn out to be the mole!
The process of discovering who it is is streamlined a lot for the movie’s shorter run, which certainly makes it easier to digest. I had to watch the miniseries three times before I was sure I had the logic of it worked out properly. One thing I definitely liked better in the movie was that the office politics that plague the Circus and allow the mole to flourish are much more dramtic, with emotionally charged meetings, whereas the miniseries relied a lot on anecdotes, significant glances and pregnant pauses that can be hard to interpret unless you memorize them for later. I do think that both versions narrowed the field inadvertently because in the miniseries, only three of the four suspects get characterized to any great degree, and in the movie it’s only two. Considering his talent, Ciaran Hinds really got left out in the cold in my opinion.
Some would argue, however, that the discovery of the mole isn’t really the main point of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. A crucial theme of the story is that, far from being an adventurous, or even dangerous and suspenseful lifestyle, for most people involved intelligence work is a soul-crushing grind. Sir Alec and Oldman both express it masterfully purely by the perpetually exhausted expressions they wear. By the end of the miniseries, you’re left with a real sense of being emotionally drained and weary. The movie also did something that you couldn’t have done in 1979, which is recast Peter as gay, and as they prepare to go up against their own organization, he’s forced to throw his boyfriend out to protect them both (as a government agent, being gay could get you in a lot of trouble in those days). The heartbreak he suffers as he does this was very intense, as is Smiley’s when we see him witness his wife’s unfaithfulness, whereas it’s merely mentioned in the series.
Sir Alec’s Smiley also had to miserably endure the assaults upon his principles, and to confront his wife at the end for her possible involvement. It left every professional triumph hollowed out somewhat by the cost in friendships, relationships and ideals that had to be paid.
This is further reinforced in the miniseries by the mole’s explanation of why he did it, the human cost of the damage he’s done, illustrated by the character Jim Prideaux, and the dreary process of picking up the mess afterward.
The movie loses something outright by not having time to show you how the nuts and bolts of intelligence actually works, but does go some way towards this. Prideaux’s suffering is very graphic although it is sadly carried by what I felt was a far weaker performance than his 1979 counterpart’s, and Ricki Tarr is left literally out in the rain. Smiley’s need to check his own home for infiltration every time he comes in also helps. But the mole never gets to fully explain himself, and the finale rushes through his fate, that of Tarr, and then abruptly shows Smiley seemingly reconciling with his wife, then walking past a triumphantly grinning Peter to return to his duties as if everything will be lovely forever. The past tragedies and betrayals are touched on in montage form, but it marks such a jarring shift in tone that I was having flashbacks to Mass Effect 3.
So while the movie is well-constructed, well cast and well acted, my vote still remains firmly with the miniseries. It’s longer and more intricate and intellectually demanding, but the characterization is a lot better and gives its cast more to work with. Sir Alec has more material with which to express Smiley’s inner pain and anger, whereas all Oldman gets to do is raise his voice slightly. The plot problems of the movie remind me of the English Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in that the writers occasionally seem to forget what they’ve done in previous scenes to set tone and themes and start all over again.
Both are worth a look, but the movie excels at being a mystery/thriller and not much else, whereas the series might have fewer make-you-jump moments but also takes the time to ensure high quality in more ways.
Remember, there are three of them, and Alleline.