In a 2002 interview John Le Carré described the 1997 BBC/Arthur Hopcraft dramatization of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy as perhaps the best realized adaptation of any of his novels. The interview is included as a bonus feature on the DVD release of the BBC adaptation of this quintessential Cold War spy novel.
Too often authors are disappointed with what happens to their work in the hands of others. The demands of popular cinema and television are rarely the same as those of fiction; changes are inevitable. Though there are those times when the adaptation is better than the original, the real question for the author at least is how well those changes keep to the spirit of the original, and there is little question that this six part mini-series is just about as close to the original as any author could reasonably expect.
Of course fidelity to source is no guarantee of dramatic quality. Sir Alec Guinness and an ensemble cast of fine British actors provided with a taut script and stylish direction are the guarantee of that. The story concerns the search for a mole in the upper echelon of the Circus, the secret British spy agency. The title refers to the children’s rhyme which is used as a code for the four major suspects. Guinness plays George Smiley, forced into retirement after what seems like a major foul up with an agent sent behind the Iron Curtain, and brought back to investigate the agency for the government. As spy thrillers go, <i>Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy</i> lacks the kind of up tempo violence that characterizes the genre today, opting instead for a more intellectual character driven approach to the material.
Smiley, the hero of other Le Carré novels, is not the swashbuckling James Bond stereotype. Old and weary, he is as unlikely a hero for a spy thriller as you’re likely to find. He seems more like a mild mannered civil servant than a secret agent. What he lacks physically, however, he makes up for with brains and dogged determination. Like Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” though over the hill, he is still ready “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” It is a role made for Guinness, and he is masterful. His performance alone is worth the price of the DVD set.
He is not alone. From the opening prelude of the first episode, when the four main suspects individually make their entrance into a meeting room, each actor making the kinds of specific choices that go to the heart of their characters, it is clear that this is a cast that knows what it is doing. The names may be less familiar to American audiences. Ian Richardson, Michael Aldridge, Bernard Hepton, and Terence Rigby, but they are typical examples of the high quality so often characteristic of British acting. They manage to invest their characters with both a lifelike realism and an indelible individuality, and this is true for the rest of the cast as well. You can even get a look at a bearded Patrick Stewart as a Russian agent in a scene where he never utters a line of dialogue in the series’ fourth episode.
The 28-minute Le Carré interview, which also features the author’s comments on the conflict between loyalty to individuals and loyalty to one’s country as well as complicated relations between the superpowers during the Cold War is a highlight of the three-disc set. Additional bonus features include production notes, a glossary of terms with biographical information on characters, cast filmographies and a biography of the author with a list of his other books.
A contemporary remake of the novel with Gary Oldman as Smiley and with a cast including Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, and John Hurt among others is already a box office hit in England, is scheduled to open in the U.S. in December. With the great success of the TV mini-series, it has a lot to live up to. It does get an R rating for some sexuality and nudity, both qualities absent from the ’97 production, but there are certainly elements in the novel that might justify their inclusion. More importantly, it seems to have avoided turning Le Carré’s novel into a thriller of the Bourne variety. And although some may complain that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in both the 1997 and 2011 versions are both thrillers without thrills. If the new version is as adept in its creation of character as its ancestor, it will go a long way to demonstrating the dramatic value of a more adult take on the espionage genre.