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May 15, 2013 BOOKLIST
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For years, I’ve thought that Alec Guinness as George Smiley in the PBS versions of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982) represents the most perfect bit of casting in movie history. One look and you realize that, without knowing it, you were imagining Guinness as Smiley all along. And when he starts talking, it just gets better—Guinness’ slow, tentative speech is the ideal aural manifestation of le Carré’s equally tentative prose. Guinness, of course, was superb in many, very different roles—Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth (1958), Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977)—but in George Smiley, I believe he found the role of a lifetime.
Given that position, I greeted with mixed feelings the news that Tinker, Tailor was being remade as a feature film starring Gary Oldman as Smiley. On one hand, the appearance of any movie based on a le Carré novel can never be bad news, but the idea of another actor, even a good one, attempting a role so indelibly stamped with Guinness’ imprimatur left me feeling, well, a bit melancholic, much like Smiley himself. As a run-up to watching the new movie, I decided it was time to revisit the Guinness version, and thankfully, Acorn Media has recently released the six-part PBS series on DVD. But before reporting on my reactions to both films, let’s take a quick look at the character of George Smiley, certainly a seminal figure in the history of the espionage novel.
Smiley appears in several le Carré novels, beginning with the author’s first two books, Call for the Dead (1963) and A Murder of Quality (1964), but his star turns occur in the first and third novels of the Karla trilogy—Tinker, Tailor (1974) and Smiley’s People (1979). In the beginning, le Carré needed to make clear that George Smiley was no James Bond. Hence, this early description of the unassuming Smiley: “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” With those few words, we enter the age of the realistic spy novel.
Early on, too, we see the sources of Smiley’s world-weary melancholy, the fundamental aspect of his character and the trait that Guinness brings to life so convincingly. “Everything he admired or loved had been the product of intense individualism,” le Carré tells us, explaining Smiley’s commitment to wartime intelligence work and his aversion to communism. Even early in his career, though, we see the beginnings of his gradual disenchantment with his own profession. The turf-hungry bureaucrats—men “who could reduce any color to gray”—have begun their long march to power, and George is quick to realize that intense individualism stands to be undermined as much in the corridors of Whitehall as in the backrooms of the Kremlin.
By the time Tinker, Tailor begins, the gray men have taken control. (Warning: spoilers coming.) George and his boss and mentor, the legendary Control, have been ousted, and a quartet of gray men, led by the unctuous Percy Alleline, is now in charge. Then word surfaces of the existence of a double agent at the top of British intelligence, and George is summoned back to ferret out the mole. He does so, of course, but the victory is fraught with ambiguity, as all victories are in le Carré’s world. Unfortunately, the new movie gets this wrong, portraying George returning to work after exposing the mole almost as a conquering hero, rather than reluctantly taking the assignment to help “clean up the mess” that is British Intelligence, a mess that George is beginning to think can never be cleaned up.
There are no unattenuated victories in le Carré’s world, and the ending of the new movie feels too much like one. It doesn’t help that, in the film, George’s unfaithful wife, Ann, who had an affair with the mole, returns to her husband, seemingly setting George’s personal life back on course. But George’s life can’t be righted so easily. His wife is a serial adulterer, and George, a spy whose own sense of self has been subverted by too many secret identities, is engulfed in his own sadness. The movie gives us a triumphant George, at the top of his profession and having reclaimed his wife. It is a far less rich, less resonant characterization than le Carré and Guinness offer.
For all that, though, Gary Oldman does good work. He knows how to be quiet, and to suggest a tempest of conflicted thoughts lurking behind his stillness, but his eyes lack the burning intensity of Guinness’ windows to a troubled soul. Further, the supporting cast—the tinkers, tailors, and soldiers at the top of British Intelligence, so code-named by Control in his search for the mole—seem small fry compared to the formidable bureaucrats in the PBS version. In addition, the shorter feature-film may leave viewers with no previous knowledge of le Carré struggling to follow the plot, much less grasp the subtlety of the characters’ interactions.
Le Carré’s readers know that there is a linear evolution in the mind-set of the author’s spies over the years—from agonizing over the moral ambiguity of the craft set against a quavering belief in its necessity (the Smiley novels), through opting to place individual values over national ones (A Perfect Spy, 1986, and The Russia House, 1989), to recognizing that bureaucracy has completely poisoned the intelligence business from within (the post–Cold War novels).
But enough of quibbling. Finally, I applaud any film that makes a game effort to bring the tortured humanity of George Smiley back to the screen and hope that its viewers move on to the Guinness versions and, above all, to the novels.