(On-demand video, July 2012) As the Cold War recedes from popular consciousness, it’s slowly taking on a nice historical patina. Judging from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the color palette of that patina is going to be made of dull browns with the occasional flash of garish orange foam. Well-adapted from John le Carré’s classic novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole within the British spy establishment, it faithfully sticks to the author’s portrayal of English spies as dull grey bureaucrats fighting for the realm from little drab offices. It’s a refreshing antidote to the overblown portrayal of spies as action heroes, but it does require a willingness from viewers to adjust their entertainment expectations. This is a slow film, and it doesn’t have much in terms of conventional thrills: The biggest suspense sequences of the film (sneaking documents from the archives, waiting for the mole to show up) are moments that would have been glossed-over in an action film. So it’s no surprise if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy works best as an atmospheric period piece, featuring two handfuls of capable actors and a mature view of the reality of the intelligence game that is far closer to reality than most other films. Information here is far more important than bullets. Gary Oldman is mesmerizing as George Smiley, a spy who does his best work by interviewing people and then thinking really hard about what he has learned. The surrounding cast is very strong, from Mark Strong’s atypical performance as a wounded ex-spy to Colin Firth’s unrepentant seducer to Toby Jones’s slimy ladder-climber. The adaptation from the novel is skillful, as it seems to completely re-structure the chronology of the story while keeping much of the plot points intact. The result may not be up to everyone’s favored speed, but it’s a skillful film, and one that does wonder in terms of pure atmosphere. It works much like the novel does, as a counter-point to espionage fantasies.
Penguin, 2012 movie tie-in reprint of 1974 original, 381 pages, C$15.90 hc, ISBN 978-0143120933
I’m hardly the first one to note the fact, but as I age, I understand that some books are best read by older readers. Tastes change, our knowledge of the world evolves and we come to appreciate atypical takes on standard material.
I first read John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in my early twenties, and it may be better to say that I tried to read it. I was on a thriller binge at the time, and had to sample le Carré’s fiction. Alas, I still vividly remember being so disappointed by the conclusion of A Small Town in Germany, and not quite knowing what to make of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s dull and dense accumulation of details in non-linear chronology.
Flash forward twenty years, and some things have changed in the meantime. By 2004, I was able to give a lukewarm review to The Russia House. By 2007, I was positively enthusiastic about The Constant Gardener, helped along by great memories of the film adaptation. When I watched the 2011 big-screen version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I knew I had to give another chance to the novel. (I have no shame in leveraging movie adaptation in order to improve my reading experiences. With time, by brain has learned how to use visuals in order to make the reading experience even more enjoyable.)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy certainly feels a lot more interesting than it did two decades ago. I’m no longer necessarily opposed to le Carré’s meandering style, or his dedication to presenting a view of the intelligence establishment that favors analysis and reflection over over-the-top action heroics. My own years within a bureaucracy make it easier to appreciate the inner working of the British intelligence service as described in the novel, and the emphasis on adult themes seem to resonate more strongly now than they did before. At last, I’m at a point in my life where reading about a humble public servant uncovering a Soviet spy through conversations and deductions fits my definition of a cozy thriller.
The story is archetypical spy stuff: There’s a Soviet agent working within the British Intelligence Service, and it’s up to disgraced/retired intelligence analyst George Smiley to uncover him. A predecessor has narrowed down the possibilities to four people, all of whom have suspiciously ascended to the top of the national spy establishment. But it’s up to Smiley to work outside the system and assemble the pieces of the puzzle: gently interrogating witnesses, poring over documents, reminiscing about the past with past colleagues and thinking really hard about what he has learned are the tools of his trade. le Carré makes it clear that Smiley is a gifted interrogator, able to tease secrets out of his interlocutor without them even realizing it. When comes the time to take action, Smiley’s methods are as subtle as they are efficient, leading to a terribly British climax in which he sits in a chair and waits for the arrival of the unknown traitor.
Stylistically, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a dense accumulation of details about its characters, chronology-hopping subplots, personal issues and trade jargon. Le Carré’s literary style is low-key to the point of downplaying even important events, something that may unsettle readers with higher expectations of action. (Again; see the movie first, and only read the book if you liked the film.) Every conversation is described in subtle nuances, the narration barely tipping its hand when something important has happened. Readers sometimes have access to Smiley’s inner monologues, but usually not: the voice of the novel floats around the plot without getting involved at all times.
The result can feel detached, cold, lengthy or meandering; all valid charges against this kind of procedural, reality-based spying suspense novel. On the other hand, it succeeds at what it tries to do. The result is interesting in its own right, and the fact that the novel was published in 1974 now tends to give it a nice patina of historical charm: it has aged well by remaining a reflection of its time. Ultimately, what works best about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the change of pace is presents from much of the spy fiction genre: it’s still, nearly forty years later, a fairly unusual novel in this regard, and readers who have seen everything in the thriller genre may come to this novel (or, indeed, much of le Carré’s fiction) seeking something different. While the novel won’t please all readers, it remains a quasi-definitive Cold War thriller, plunging us even today in a different time and place. Is it any coincidence if it took me until my late thirties to appreciate that intention?
Penguin, 2001, 570 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-14-100169-0
Hello John Le Carré. It’s been a long time.
I first tried to enjoy Le Carré’s fiction as a teenager, and almost invariably bounced off of it: Too long, too dull, too bleak, too ponderous. In still remember some of the titles: A Small Town in Germany? Eek. Never mind Le Carré: I just read something else.
But parallel development can be healthy. On one hand, Le Carré has successfully weathered the end of the Cold War, reportedly having tremendous fun with its New World Order aftermath (The Tailor of Panama), and even getting angry at the state of the War Against Terrorism (Absolute Friends). But it took me a movie, a really good movie to bring me back to Le Carré’s prose.
Seeing the pitch-perfect adaptation of The Constant Gardner on the big screen remains one of my favourite birthday memories so far: With its blend of contemporary geopolitics, growling anger, strong emotional content and low-key thrills, THE CONSTANT GARDNER landed near the top of my list of 2006 movies and got me thinking that I really should re-visit Le Carré’s latest fiction. Hence the call of the cheap paperback.
For all the usual vitriol directed at book adaptations, it truly seems as if the last decade or so has seen a marked improvement in the quality of such adaptations. More and more, screenwriters and producers seem to understand how to preserve the nature of the story as it makes its way from one medium to another. If everyone does their job properly, if the producers are confident enough not to meddle with the original material, the resulting adaptation can feed back into the novel by providing another framework for the reader: It’s easier to portray the characters, follow the structure of the story and enjoy the style of the writing without worrying so much about the story.
So is the case with The Constant Gardener: Reading the film after seeing the movie is like getting and second, more complete run at the story. In light of what we already know about what happens in The Constant Gardener, Le Carré’s choices in telling the story seem even more surprising than if we’d encountered them for the first time. The first section, for instance, is told almost entirely from a would-be adulterer’s point of view: a secondary character in the film, here given first point of view. The novel also gives more time to some of the film’s most intriguing characters: I was particularly happy to see Ghita get more screen time, as it were, in this version of the story.
Reading the novel only increased my admiration for the screenwriters who adapted it, as much for what they kept than what they didn’t: the weakest part of the novel, a trip to Canada, has been almost completely excised from the finished film –though a radically reworked but no less ridiculous version of the sequence subsists in the DVD’s cut scenes.
But what’s also obvious, regardless of whether you’ve seen the film or not, is that The Constant Gardener is a superb example of the modern thriller, freed from the usual terrorists and old-fashioned villains: It tackles issues of contemporary sensibilities, with a resigned but not impotent rage at the ways the world is designed. Character-wise, it will stun you. Writing-wise, Le Carré’s never been better.
But then again, you knew I’d say that. After fifteen years, it may just be time for me to go back and take a look at the rest of Le Carré’s fiction.