I watched the old BBC version with Sir Alec Guinness in my childhood. Soon after I had my first experience with Eastern Germany, en route to West Berlin. Luckily Le Carré had prepared me for terror and intimidation! Still, it terrified me and intensified my respect for Le Carré (the pen name of Bernard Cornwell).
As a linguist and former intelligence agent whose cover was blown by famous double agent Kim Philby, Le Carré knew his subject matter with an intimacy that spills from the pages. His hero, the outwardly bland George Smiley, is the antithesis to James Bond: his Circus is more populated with ambitious pen-pushers and analysts than dazzling charmers with a licence to kill.
Book: The Plot
The year is 1973, the height of the Cold War. Smiley’s retired … Or rather he’s been forced out from the Circus after a botched mission that cost his dying mentor Control his post. An agent Control sent out to meet a potential defector in Czechoslovakia, a general who was supposed to know the identity of a double-agent in London, was caught and shot by Russians.
As a result, Control is deemed past it. The reins are passed into the hands of wildly ambitious Percy Alleline, as well as his vain sidekick Toby Esterase, the stolid Roy Bland and flamboyant intellectual Bill Haydon. (The latter is the lover of Smiley’s wife Ann at the time of the infamous operation and possibly also the lover of the shot agent, Jim Prideaux).
But then another field agent appears with a story about a mole at the heart of British intelligence … It’s Smiley he trusts with his information. When his minister asks him to find the truth Smiley accepts, partly to take his mind of his notoriously unfaithful wife Anne, who this time might have left him for good.
But he’s got to be careful who to rope into his investigation. All the usual avenues are closed to him, and if his suspicions prove correct, there will be hell to pay for the Circus. Control had seen it coming, and he left a little bit of information behind for Smiley. He’d narrowed the suspects down to five, code-named Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poorman and Beggarman. The last name stands for Smiley himself. The rest are the four men now in charge.
With most avenues closed Smiley turns to another man who found his role diminished when Control was sidelined: Peter Guillam. Together they unravel the truth about the betrayed operation in Czechoslovakia that led to Prideaux’s capture, discredited Control and left the mole with easy access to all intelligence. It’s a truth that taints everyone.
The Film Plot
The film stays true to the plot, cutting what little flab there is from it. Le Carre knew his stuff – a likely inspiration was Kim Philby, who defected to Moscow in 1963 when he thought exposure was imminent.
It opens with a trap for Prideaux (an always reliable Mark Strong) who is intercepted and shot by Hungarian police, much the dismay of their Russian handler. This differs a lot from the book, which is set in the snowy forests around Brno, but none of the changes interfere with the story.
Instead the tenseness is strengthened, ably supported by a muted colour scheme that adds to the bleak atmosphere. Smiley’s world, and that of the whole spy machinery, is a shabby, drab one, and there’s nothing colourful or spectacular about it. The only bright spot belongs to Haydon, whose flapping suede coat and appearance riding a kid’s scooter into the creaking office is the best executed character-reveal.
The Characters: The Book
George Smiley is outwardly bland scholarly gentleman, but his Achilles’ heel is his enduring love for his promiscuous wife. The illusion-less man’s illusion, as Russian spymaster Karla described it, is one of the most enduring creations in spy literature. But because Le Carré uses him before and after, the reader needs to know the other Smiley stories to give him his full due.
What does come out strongly, much stronger than in the film, is the recurring theme of love or the lack of it, romantic or not. It’s what makes Smiley vulnerable. None of the other men have love in their life. They have lovers they don’t care about; families who are side-lined. Their allegiance is their ambitions or their jobs.
Even the formerly missing agent, whose story sets Smiley in motion, is astonished to find himself care for the Russian agent who trusted him – a decision that gets her killed. Most like Smiley is Jim Prideaux, the loyal spy who paid for his love when he is sold by the one person he cares about most.
The Film: Characters
Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a character whose strength is his mind and he is portrayed accordingly. Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) has the distinction of being the only truly colourful man in this circle of shabby, grey men; this makes the hints at his bisexuality as subtle as they are effective.
Percy Alleline, Toby Esterhase and Roy Bland on the other hand have lost most of their individuality. They blend in well with all the grey and brown that suffuses the atmosphere, but a little more personality would have served them better.
The one person undergoing a small, but interesting change, is Peter Guillam. In the novel he’s having an indifferent affair with a much younger student; in the film an impossibly blonde Benedict Cumberbatch is seen breaking up with a man and being heartbroken about it. That makes him the only one capable of having a loving relationship who does not end up being betrayed (he ends it to protect his partner). It’s a small scene, mostly subtext, but it’s a nice little addition.
Overall, some characters gain in the film others, while others are diminished.
What works perfectly is the ending. In both film and novel, the mole is shot. But where Prideaux’s revenge is implied in the novel, in the film he is shown with his rifle, and the cross-hairs on the silencer. I preferred the film version on this point.
The cinematic version, while streamlined, is still an intellectual feat. The antithesis of special effects and bikini-clad Bond babes, the movie relies on its nuances, as well as well-crafted dialogue and rich subtext to make it thrilling (as long as you can overlook Cumberbatch’s hair!).
The book feels less than 420 pages. Some passages are eerily beautiful. Even so, I still believe there are also lots of places where a cut or two wouldn’t have hurt. With this all in mind then, the author was well-served by this adaptation. Everyone did their jobs properly, from the cinematographer to the wardrobe people who clad Smiley in an old-fogeyish cardigan without turning him into a caricature. Add to that a cast that reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of British acting and it’s clear the film keeps its slight edge.
BIO: Carmen Radtke is a screenwriter and novelist. Her debut novel The Case of the Missing Bride, a Malice Domestic finalist, is published by Bloodhound Books. She also writes under the pen name Caron Albright. A Matter of Love and Death is out now with Bombshell Books. Follow Carmen on Twitter as @CarmenRadtke1.