Tinker, Tailor on screen: adapting Le Carré.

“For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation”, Nunc dimittis, or Cantile of Simeon, Book of Common Prayer, 1662.

There is no salvation to be found in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, his classic tale of betrayal at the heart of Britain’s Cold War secret service, inspired by the real-life uncovering of a spy ring.  Published in 1974 and adapted for television in 1979, Tinker, Tailor has found its way to the cinema screen in a new version directed by Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson, best-known for Let the Right One In.

The story centres on the efforts of former Circus man George Smiley – the Circus being Le Carré’s name for M16 – to uncover the Mole planted by the Soviets at the top of the service.  In effect, Smiley is retracing the steps of his former and now deceased boss, Control, whose efforts to uncover the mole ended in failure following a botched operation that precipitated both his and Smiley’s departure.

In Le Carré’s original description, Smiley is a rather diminutive figure, but on screen, Alec Guinness in the 1979 version and now Gary Oldman make him a figure of overwhelming, almost priestly authority – to cross Smiley feels like calling down the wrath of God.

The disenchantment at the core of the story is found in the words of Connie Sachs, the former head of research pushed out after Control and Smiley.  Interviewed by Smiley about what she knew about the Mole, Sachs refers to the “halcyon days” and asks Smiley not to come back if there is bad news so she can remember the Circus as it was.  In the movie, Smiley reminds Sachs, played by Kathy Burke, that her “halcyon days” were a war, referring to World War II, to which she replies that at least it was a proper war.

The feeling that England, and the stress is on England, no longer “rules the waves” and has instead become a pawn in a game between the U.S. and Russia lies at the heart of this disenchantment. The Circus intends using the material it has gathered through its so-called Source Merlin, really just a cover for Moscow’s infiltration, to curry favour with the Americans and buy back prestige.   When Le Carré published his book in 1974, a sense of decline had begun to permeate British life and by the time the 1979 television adaptation screened the country was gripped by economic and social inertia.  Lit at times as if in permanent dusk, the movie seeks to capture this, although the distance in time makes it feel more like a period piece and any immediacy is, of course, lost.

At 127 minutes, the movie cannot hope to capture all of the intracies of the densely plotted book, something that the 1979 television version was able to do, with its almost 5-hour running time.  Some of the characters are little more than sketched out, but such are the constraints of cinema and Alfredson is not to be blamed for that.  It is a largely faithful adaptation that has received the blessing of Le Carré himself, who even appears in a cameo during a Christmas Party scene.   Oldman’s Smiley dominates the movie, just like Guinness did in the television version.

However, the movie ends on a bit of a bum note, with a hint of optimism.  Admittedly, Le Carré’s ending is somewhat neutral in that respect. In the television version, Smiley is seen visiting his estranged wife, Anne.   Like Connie Sachs, Smiley finds it difficult to have a life outside of a career that offers no rewards, only disillusionment.  He struggles to understand the motivations of an erstwhile colleague, turned Moscow plant, and is somewhat shattered by the experience.  Anne has the final word for him – “Poor George, life’s such a puzzle to you isn’t it?”  Cue the end credits and Nunc dimittis, used in the liturgical night office of some Western Christian denominations, including Catholicism and Anglicism.  But there is no redemption for those caught up in the preceding events, neither for the hunted nor the hunters.

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3 responses to “Tinker, Tailor on screen: adapting Le Carré.

  1. Pingback: Cinema North West: celebrating Le Carré. | Wordy discussions

  2. Very good summary. I interpreted the use of Nunc dimittis as a reference that Smiley (Simeon) was now released, having completed his task (seeing the Messiah, for Simeon and finding the mole for Smiley). A very dark interpretation, but in keeping with the character of the book…

    • Thank you. Yes, your interpretation certainly puts a new light on the use of Nunc dimittis for me. The book is of dark character – I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve re-read it so much.