- Author: John Le Carré
- Published: 1974
- Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
- Pages: 317 (Pan paperback)
- First Line: “The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.”
- Last Line: “The gun, Bill Roach, had finally convinced himself, was after all a dream.”
- Film: 1979 TV series (****), 2011 (**** – dir. Tomas Alfredson)
- First Read: December 2011
The Novel: By the time John Le Carré began his career as a novelist, the James Bond books were going strong. The eighth Bond novel, Thunderball, had come out just before Call for the Dead, the first of Le Carré’s books and the one that would introduce his master character, George Smiley and the films would continue the legend of the glamorous spy beginning the next year. Bond was athletic, quick-witted and, of course, a master with the opposite sex. George Smiley is none of these things. He is, according to some, designed to be the more accurate measure of a member of MI-6, the real kind of man who was fighting the Cold War, down in the trenches holding the line. He had gone into retirement once before, starring in two early novels (Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality), then coming out and playing a key, but peripheral role in the next (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) and a small role, walking in at the end of The Looking Glass War to tidy things up. Then comes the Karla Trilogy, the first of which, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is the best that Le Carré has ever given us, a masterful piece of work about the slow intricacies of intelligence gathering and how such work is done in the mind and with research, rather than shooting a spear gun while in the water. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy the Bond books (I have all the original Fleming novels) and I love the films. But Le Carré is a much better writer and these are a much better portrayal of the world of the spy. As much fun as it would be to be Bond, I feel much more akin to George Smiley.
He is not physically impressive: “Mr George Smiley was not naturally equipped for hurrying in the rain, least of all at dead of night. Indeed, he might have been the final form for which Bill Roach was the prototype. Small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting and extremely wet.” The description goes on for several more lines (and if you don’t catch it, my Pan paperback of the book has four pictures depicting Smiley and they really earn the adjective rotund.
It is not just the descriptions that show Le Carré at the top of his craft. Look at the way that he so perfectly captures the working of Smiley’s brain: “It passed through his mind with a speed which has no place in time that since the umbrella was dry it must have arrived there before six fifteen when the rain began, for there was no moisture in the stand either. Also that it was an elegant umbrella and the ferrule was barely scratched though it was not new. And that therefore the umbrella belonged to someone agile, even young, like Ann’s latest swain. But that since its owner had known about the wedges and how to put them back once he was inside the house, and had the wit to lay the mail against the door after disturbing, and no doubt reading it, then most likely he knew Smiley, too.” That these men are all British, is of course, implied, in that the man has broken into Smiley’s house but had the decency to put his umbrella in the umbrella stand.
This is a book when things happen slowly, as Smiley is brought back into the world he has been forced out of in order to find the mole at the center of its workings. He moves slowly, much more Sherlock Holmes than James Bond, and even then, his is more of an endurance slog than the sprint that Holmes usually finds going towards the answers: “No explosive revelation, no flash of light, no cry of ‘Eureka’, phone calls to Guillam, Lacon, ‘Smiley is a world champion’. Merely that here before him, in the records he had examined and the notes he had compiled, was the corroboration of a theory which Smiley and Guillam and Ricki Tarr had that day from their separate points of view seen demonstrated: that between the mole Gerald and the Source Merlin there was an interplay that could no longer be denied.”
This is a book which rewards multiple readings. Your first time through, you might stumble on all the spy-talk, you might struggle trying to remember which character is which and what is going on with the one character who seems separate from it all: the new teacher at the boys school. But once you have been through it you realize precisely why the book begins and ends with him, why it keeps returning to him and what has happened to him, where those scars on his back came from. It presents a human face on what has happened here and reminds us that these, after all, are people, just like you and me.
The Mini-Series: How successful was the BBC mini-series based on this novel? When it aired in 1979, Alec Guinness so embodied the idea of what Le Carré had in mind for George Smiley that he actually re-wrote some passages in Smiley’s People (the third book in the trilogy), which he was writing at the time to describe Smiley more in the manner of Guinness.
If there were nothing to this mini-series other than the performance of Alec Guinness as George Smiley, waddling down the street, slowly making his way to all the necessary people, piecing the puzzle together, that would be more than enough. Even when he actually catches the man he is after, there are no heroics, no fight scene, not even the need to threaten. He has solved the case and both men know where things go from here. He knows when to ask questions, when to sit and let the others do the talking and when to ponder back through everything he has learned. He even knows when to have a little dangerous work be done, who to have do it, and how to plan it. You know instinctively that he must be bad at the bureaucratic side of things because how else could someone who is so good at keeping track of things, of figuring out how it all pieces together, ever get forced out in the first place?
But there is more to it, of course. There is the supporting cast – some of them familiar from other works (while watching this, we would turn it off having watched Ian Richardson as Bill Haden only to find, on the television, Richardson starring in the original House of Cards), all of them doing a fantastic job. There is the pace – you don’t necessarily need 6 hours for an adaptation of a book that’s only a little over 300 pages, but it allows you to not have to rush things. The first episode is a good example of that, as we very slowly get our bearings, with the whole story of the failed operation in Czechoslovakia. The series never skimps in showing us what it sometimes only briefly described and really fleshing out the action and the relationships.
The mini-series also has time to show us two people that we never see in the film and that provides an interesting example of how something can be done two different ways and be fantastic both times. Here, we get the scene where Smiley meets Karla, the stand-off between the two in which Karla never says a word (but has the indomitable presence of Patrick Stewart) and a final coda between Smiley and his wife (played by Siân Phillips, who, like Stewart, would have been well known to American viewers from I Claudius). Both scenes are effective, especially given who plays them and the time available in a mini-series allows those scenes to come to life.
The Film: As mentioned above, Karla and Ann do not appear in this film (well, Ann does, but you never really get a good look at her). And yet, that does not diminish the scenes which hint at their presence. At the end of the film, after hearing about Ann’s affair (in the mini-series everyone harps on Ann, but in the film it is handled much differently, and the added scenes of the Christmas party highlight the personal betrayal rather than the constant betrayals), we see that she has finally returned home. As for Karla, while the mini-series shows the meeting between the two adversaries, in the film, we simply get Smiley’s description of it, a brilliant scene that gives Gary Oldman one of his best (and longest) speeches in the film, telling his young protege of their one brief meeting, ending after he is asked what Karla looks like and his answer: “I don’t remember.” Things were always going to have be different from the mini-series, cut down to make things not only fit in a feature film, but also be coherent, and these choices highlight how brilliantly the filmmakers do this.
And yet, in spite of the time limitations of a feature film, this particular film manages to move slowly into the story and immerse us in the experience. Watch the film carefully. George Smiley, the lead character, the character with by far the most lines in the film, doesn’t actually say a word until almost 20 minutes have elapsed. We are getting his looks (the great one, especially, when Control mentions that Smiley will be leaving with him), his reactions, but not a word for quite a while. And when he does speak, it is slowly, deliberately. The scene where he explains about his meeting with Karla is brilliantly done, allowing Smiley to slowly build up to it, and then lingers just a minute longer, so he can tell young Peter what needs to be done.
While the mini-series stays fairly true to the book (the scenes with Ricki Tarr are moved in location for budget reasons), the film makes a number of changes. None of these changes are drastic and all of them stay in the spirit of the book. Peter’s problematic relationship is no longer with a woman (the relationship was dropped from the mini-series entirely), Jim is now thought by most to have been killed, the final killing is handled differently (though brilliantly), some scenes are compressed and some characters dropped entirely. But we also get the Christmas party scenes added in, one that helps to establish a great number of the relationships and we learn much about the characters without ever hearing a word of dialogue between them in those scenes.
This film is intricately plotted and it might be confusing to those who have never read the book. But it rewards a second viewing, as we realize more about the relationships between these men. And there are all these amazing performances; not just the career-best performance from Gary Oldman, but strong supporting turns from John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Colin Firth, all of whom inhabit their roles perfectly.