Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [film/ book/ radio/ telly]



Still reading? Well, if you learn something you didn't want to know, you've had fair warning! Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré is one of my three favourite books. (The other two are The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald and Anno Dracula by Kim Newman.) I was quite apprehensive when I heard there was a film version coming out. The book is superb, a slow, relentless drawing towards an unpleasant conclusion, a tale of subtle betrayals within betrayals. Would there be time to reproduce its intricacies in a film?

At this point I should mention that when I was LA Confidential at the cinema, I was gutted because I was a big fan of James Ellroy's LA Quartet and the film was far less intricate and nuanced than the book. I'm rarely a fan of books translated to the big screen.

There have been excellent version of Tinker made in the past. In the late 1970s the BBC made an absolutely fantastic television series. If you think the current film has a dream cast, the cast list for the programme knocks it for six, with Alec Guiness as Smiley, Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon and Patrick Stewart as Karla. I'm a big fan of the television show, which has some bits missing but on the whole is faithful to the novel. In December 2009 the BBC broadcast a radio version over three episodes. Simon Russell Beale was Smiley in that version, and both Mr Robot and I felt he was consciously playing Guiness' version of Smiley, with very similar voice mannerisms.

And so to the film. I wasn't a fan. To begin with, it was incredibly dark and stylised. The television version has the advantage of being made at the time the novel was set, and so the makers didn't have to try to make everything look like the 1970s. The makers of the film tried far too hard. I found that in the clothes, in particular, which were often louder than people of Smiley's age and class would actually have worn then. They also made some sets far too big and industrial looking, such as the floor of the building where Control's office was based, and the filing stacks. Bill Haydon, posh, Oxford-educated Bill, is drinking his tea out of a utility china cup, ffs! He'd have his own cup.

Then there was the crudity of some pieces. Tinker, Tailor does not need spicing up. In particular, it does not need Connie Sachs swearing, scenes where women get beaten up or people getting killed in completely pointless ways (slit throat, gutted in a bathtub, shot in the head) just so the filmmakers can slap a bit of gore on the screen. I'm fine with location changes, I accept that there may have been financial reasons why the locations in the book cannot be used, but sticking in a new mum with her baby at her breast and a bullet in her forehead is just exploitative rubbish. Don't even get me started on the bit where Smiley sees Bill making out with Ann. The ending blows completely. Jim's final act needs to be hands-on, and Smiley should not have a happy ending. I've never read a le Carré - and I've read most of them - with a happy ending.

There were some aspects I liked. John Hurt was a perfect Control. Colin Firth, who I had extreme doubts about when I heard he was playing Bill Haydon, managed to display Bill's charm perfectly, although I wish they hadn't downplayed the character's complexities so much. I still prefer Ian Richardson's Bill. Gary Oldman was pretty good as Smiley, although possibly too tall and strong-looking.

It's not a bad film, just so much less satisfying than every other version of the story to date. I think there's just too much in the book to make a really good film, and the film-makers had some strange ideas about how much sex and violence a film needs in order to hold the audience's attention. If you want to watch a version of Tinker, Tailor, pick up the BBC TV version on DVD, and if you want the story at its best, read the book.


  1. I haven't seen the TV series or read the book, though I have heard both the 2009 radio adaptation and the one from 1988 with Bernard Hepton as Smiley. I enjoyed the film, though it was obviously cut down a lot and I didn't understand the rather odd pronunciation of 'Esterhase' they used.

    As for the ending, I honestly didn't see it as a happy ending for Smiley - I thought it was fairly clear that both running the Circus and Ann's return were as likely to bring misery as anything else. And I'm sure that the radio adaptations ended the same way - I certainly remember Ann's return, at least.

  2. Yes, he meets up with Ann at the end of the book, but I felt the film suggested it was a happier reunion than it actually was. (For one thing, it's in their London house.) I guess that one's a matter of interpretation. Jim not being 'hands-on-' at the end annoyed me far more.

    ARGH to 'Esterhouse'!

  3. Is Esterhase's accent still as entertaining in the film?

    I was really looking forward to the film until I learned Colin Firth was in it. Now I'll wait until the blu-ray goes below £10.


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