I confess – I was never a fan of le Carré. I don’t doubt that he’s a superb writer, but the Cold War tales of espionage never appealed to me. I find the terms, multiple characters, and interwoven spy plots terribly confusing. I actually began to read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a few years ago, maybe even before my degree, but it got so confusing that I gave up on it. A few years later I had to read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold for a third year module and I remember telling my tutor that I hated it and found all the terms of espionage confusing, which he scoffed at. However, not long ago I caught the recent 2011 film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Gary Oldman and pretty much every other British actor alive today, and I fell in love with the story. I enjoyed it so much that I actually watched it two nights in a row (the second time round sitting my dad down and forcing him to watch it with me) and it encouraged me to give the book another go. So now, a few years down the line with an English degree and general love of books under my belt, it was time for a re-read. No spoilers here, so read on if you’re curious.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy follows George Smiley, an agent from the Secret Service in London, nicknamed the Circus. Le Carré visited this particular batch of fictional spies throughout many of his novels, but tends to alter the protagonist depending on what the focus of the story is. Smiley is perhaps his most famous spy, immortalised in popular culture numerous times. In Tinker Tailor we catch up with Smiley after he has been sacked, along with Control, head of the Circus, after a botched operation in Czechoslovakia resulted in the shooting of one of their best spies. Control has died at some point before the story begins, but Smiley begins to investigate what Control had long suspected and was being confirmed through various sources – that there is a Russian mole at the top of the Circus, feeding information to Moscow. Smiley himself was a suspect and as a result Control never directly shared his suspicions with him, but after Control’s death, Smiley, still raw from a recent split with his wife, dutifully takes up the investigation and focuses on debunking exactly who is the ‘rotten apple’ in their midsts.
My overall verdict of the book? Confusing. Still confusing as hell. If I hadn’t seen the film and therefore had a very vague idea of what was going on, I suspect I would have ditched it even quicker than last time (and I’m not particularly surprised I gave up on it before). Unfortunately, I think that’s just me. My sister read it a couple of years ago and had no problem deciphering what was going on, and I seemed to be the only one in my class who struggled with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (as I said, my tutor was flabbergasted). I don’t know why that is; I do consider myself a fairly intelligent person, but perhaps espionage just isn’t for me. I suspect, however, if I was to read all of le Carré’s novels in order, the terminology might become a bit clearer. I skim-read Tinker Tailor to avoid the amount of complex (and often pointless) spy detail, but despite all that, it was still a very enjoyable read. Le Carré is undoubtedly a fantastic writer, always injecting a warm sense of wit and humour in his words that adds a nice touch to the dark tale of betrayal and tension. I also think it has one of the best endings I’ve ever read, though I won’t say any more about that to avoid spoilers.
It has been put on the screen a few times – Alec Guinness played Smiley in a famous BBC adaptation in 1979 – but I’m going to focus on the recent version now, the 2011 film I saw that made me fall in love with the story, and one with lashings of critical acclaim (including Oscar noms).
Gary Oldman takes the role of George Smiley, looking quite unlike any other role he’s been in (so far, so Oldman). I wouldn’t have thought he was old enough to pull of the bespectacled-greying-gentleman look QUITE that well, but he brings Smiley alive in a way that only he could. Alongside him you have John Hurt as Control, who appears mainly in flashbacks but still leaves a lingering impression of his downcast figure sitting against the garish wallpaper of the Circus’ discussion room. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Peter Guillam, Smiley’s right hand man, looking fantastically ’70s with his blonde mop and three-piece suit – I took the liberty of including a picture of him above, any excuse to look at the Batch – who is of course freakishly watchable and makes political espionage sexier than James Bond (I hadn’t seen Sherlock or any of his other roles when I first watched Tinker Tailor, so this really was an introduction to the weird fanciability of Cumberbatch). Alongside them you have Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong… the list goes on. Talk about a dream cast.
The film, directed by Tomas Alfredson, gave the story much more of a noir feel than it came across in the book – a result of the missing witty and often humorous writing from le Carré, I expect – but overall, it was exactly what a decent adaptation should be. It took the skeleton of the story and fleshed it out in its own way, adding a unique flair to the characters to make it a respectable companion to the iconic novel. Die-hard le Carré fans might disagree with me, but I think it was a fantastic adaptation. If I had thought the film was confusing before, it actually seemed like light refreshment compared to the book. The editing is very interesting, with long lens shots and particular focus on spectacles and appearance, which is a nice touch for a spy film. The characters were a little more compassionate than they came across in the book; Ricki Tarr in particular, excellently played by Tom Hardy, seemed much more tapped into his emotional side than the literary Tarr, and Peter Guillam was given a twist by secretly concealing a homosexual relationship unlike the womanising Guillam from the book (although I am now wondering if Cumberbatch has some kind of contractual obligation to only play gay or asexual characters on screen).
Smiley doesn’t actually have any dialogue for quite a long way into the film, which works very well. In the book you get the sense that every word Smiley says carries a lot of weight, and Oldman has a certain charisma as the silent, discerning spy. There aren’t many women in it – this film fails the Bechdel test spectacularly – but Kathy Burke does a good job of turning Connie Sachs, a character who is wet and rather dislikeable in the book, into a charming companion for the spies. Plus, she gets the best line in the film (‘I don’t know about you, George, but I feel seriously underfucked.’)
The film plays up the slight homoerotic edge to the book, in particular the bond between Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) and Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong). A relationship between the two is hinted at in the novel but the film takes it to another level, with long, lingering gazes between the characters at key points. I suppose when your cast is primarily made up of men, you have to shoehorn some romance in there somehow.
To conlude, then. On Goodreads I gave the novel three stars. It probably deserves four or maybe even five, but as a personal review, I just found the plot too tricky to keep track of. That said, I thoroughly recommend you give it a read. Then laugh and point out how easy you found it…
[Coming next: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan]