An Elegy for England: John le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Now Adapted for the Big Screen, Is Much More Than a Cold War Whodunnit

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John le Carre has said that Tomas Alfredson's absorbing adaptation of his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not the "film of the book" but the "film of the film", not a means to an end but an end in itself. You could equally say that it is the film of the television series - the BBC dramatisation, adapted by Arthur Hopcraft (author of The Football Man), directed by John Irvin and starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, the disenchanted spymaster who is drawn out of retirement to spy on the spies and lead the search for a double agent at the heart of the "Circus", le Carre's name for MI6. The film faithfully follows several of the reworkings of the television series - it begins urgently with the shooting of a British agent behind the Iron Curtain, rather than more prosaically with his arrival at a prep school, as in the novel.

First broadcast in September 1979, when our cold war paranoia and anxieties were, perhaps, most acute, the BBC series attracted 11 million viewers at its peak, at a time when we had only three channels and something resembling a common culture. Back then, you could be assured that your friends and neighbours were likely to be watching the same television programmes and listening to the same radio shows as you, and were probably also reading the same newspapers and magazines. They would certainly have been watching and talking about the BBC's Tinker, Tailor, so seductively did it seem to capture a period of darkness and disquiet in British culture.

In this first film adaptation of le Carre's 1974 novel, Gary Oldman seems less to be playing Smiley than Guinness-as-Smiley, in all his mellow, low-voiced inscrutability. Smiley in the novel is "small, podgy and at best middle aged ... His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting and extremely wet". He has "plump hands linked across his generous stomach".

Oldman is taller, much leaner, with blond-grey hair swept back from a smooth, pale forehead. He always moves slowly, as Guinness did in the role, and conveys well through mannerism, tone of voice and posture what le Carre describes as Smiley's "spiritual exhaustion". Like Guinness, Oldman wears thick-framed and thick-lensed spectacles, which are just as they should be: Smiley may have poor eyesight but he can often see what others cannot and is never wilfully blind. Oldman purses his lips like a disapproving headmaster and seems often to be sucking on a boiled sweet. Like Guinness, Oldman's Smiley is always watchful and seems to be mourning something of which nothing can be spoken. When he does speak, it is with exaggerated deliberation, after Guinness.

Smiley, le Carre writes, "had that art, from miles and miles of secret life, of listening at the front of his mind; of letting the primary incidents unroll directly before him while another, quite separate faculty wrestled with their historical connection". Guinness and Oldman, in their studied pensiveness and distraction, seem able to show just how it is and what it means to listen at the front of your mind.

Smiley is le Carre's most resonant and resilient creation. He appears in eight novels yet will always be most associated with Tinker, Tailor and Smiley s People, BBC series both. As a result, for most of us, Guinness has become Smiley, as John Thaw is Inspector Morse and Anthony Hopkins is Hannibal Lecter; the character is inextricable from the actor playing him. You can no longer think of one without thinking of the other.

Colin Dexter has said that for the duration of the copyright of his novels, he will allow no other actor to play Morse. Thomas Harris has made no such stipulation about Lecter; indeed, the most convincing Lecter so far is surely not Hopkins but Brian Cox, who played the serial killer, gourmand and snob in Michael Mann's visually ravishing Manhunter, an adaptation of Red Dragon, the first novel in the Lecter series. Cox's Lecter was far less a camp pantomime act than a sadistic misanthrope, who offers no motive or explanation for his crimes. …