Home >Opinion >Online-views >Views | Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy disappoints

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the film of John le Carre’s seminal Cold War novel, has garnered huge critical acclaim. Even The Economist, which takes note of any specific movie about once every decade,decided to review it—and you could almost see the reviewer’s stiff upper lip tremble for a moment.

The film is a fascinating case study of the classic problem of translating a novel that is both very popular and of high literary value into film.

Tinker Tailor, the novel, is a strange beast, though the story can be told in one sentence: There’s a Russian mole high up in the British Secret Service, and George Smiley is brought out of forced retirement to find who that is.

Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

It is great spy fiction, but set in a world of unrelieved gloom, with despair a watermark on every page. It also has a hero much-loved by readers across the world, but who seems unheroic in every way possible.

So, first, the director cracks the gloom-and-despair part by making sure that every shot is dimly lit. All outdoor sequences are shot in sunless brownish-grey, and not a single person in the film believes in a well-lit room or office, even when they are reading old government files. I am sure it’s an unwitting coincidence, but the only character in the film who opens the curtains to her balcony to let in the sun is immediately kidnapped by the KGB.

Even the denouement scene, when we finally see who the mole is, is shot in such low light, and the director cuts away so quickly, that I wouldn’t be surprised if many in the audience who haven’t read the novel, are left asking his or her neighbour: “Who? Who was that?" (Fortunately, later scenes clear up any such doubts)

Now, the sprawling narrative. So you cut mercilessly, which is absolutely the right thing to do, especially the back stories of the characters (by getting all those over with a throwaway piece of dialogue here and there), while diligently preserving the basic plot.

Peter Jackson did it brilliantly with The Lord of the Rings trilogy (with much more at stake, given the millions of rabid Tolkien fanatics): if you examine closely, you’ll find that Jackson actually filmed only about 10% of what Tolkien wrote, yet managed to send the fans home happy, through extraordinary CGI effects and the simple principle that there should be a big action sequence every three minutes.

But Jackson didn’t have to deal with depth of character. Tinker Tailor has to, and applies a one-size-fits-all solution: everyone looks tense and tired all the time. Which is something of a disservice to le Carre’s finely detailed construction of every principal—and even not so principal—character.

In fact, the film barely scratches the surface of the man who turns out to be the mole, whereas a vital aspect of the novel is the contrast between his personality and Smiley’s—one a handsome, flamboyant, upper-class man who is also a gifted painter, and the other a bookish, mousy, unimpressive middle-class plodder.

Next, the complicated plot. Like the novel, the film throws bits and pieces of the jigsaw at you, but sometimes with almost anal subtlety, and sometimes in scenes so flitting that they are gone even before you have grasped what exactly happened.

The trouble is, in a book, you can always go back and read the relevant part once more; you can’t do that in a film you are watching in a hall. I can bet my hat that no one who doesn’t remember the novel in detail can put all the pieces together with one viewing of the film.

The most distinctive characteristic of the Cold War novels of le Carre is moral ambiguity, that one side is no better than the other. One of the key reasons why George Smiley is loved so much by readers is that Smiley knows this, and does his duty with a stoicism devoid of all illusions, and never feels any pleasure when he “wins".

This entire aspect of Tinker Tailor, indeed the fundamental point that le Carre wants to make, is done away with just one piece of dialogue, a drunk Smiley recalling asking his arch-enemy, the Russian spy chief Karla: “Don’t you think it’s time to recognize there’s as little of worth on your side as there is on mine?"

There is a great passage in the novel when Smiley is about to arrest the mole: he falters and stops for a moment. “The wave of angry doubt that had…pulled against his progress like a worrying tide, drove him now onto the rocks of despair, and then to mutiny: I refuse. Nothing on earth is worth the destruction of another human being. Somewhere the path of pain and betrayal must end. Until that happened, there was no future; there was only a continuing slide into still more terrifying versions of the present."

The film believes that it’s covered all those angles by having Gary Oldman as Smiley look permanently stoical, and make a promise he knows he cannot fulfil to one of his own men.

Oldman’s performance has been universally acclaimed and I don’t see how he could have done any better, given this script. But I doubt if any Smiley fan would accept him as that jaded Cold Warrior.

Quite simply, he does not look like Smiley. Here’s how le Carre described him when we get the first glimpse of him in the novel, walking in the rain: “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." Oldman is tall and thin. I am sorry, but it’s like having a man with a walrus moustache playing Sherlock Holmes.

The film works as pure cinema. The cinematography is brilliant (yes, dim lights and all), the editing is top-class, the set pieces are thrilling, the spook world is captured in all its grime and shiftiness. But the skill and virtuosity with the medium don’t accomplish the goal they should serve.

Anyone who isn’t too aware of Cold War realities and hasn’t read the novel may end up dismissing it as an unnecessarily arty spy film. Those who know about the Cold War but haven’t read the novel will come out confused on several plot points.

And many people like me, who have read, and loved the book, will feel that the makers should have gone much easier on art and subtlety. Less cinema as form and technique, and more accessible story-telling.

And I really don’t care that le Carre is credited in the film as one of its executive producers.

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