I read John Le Carré’s classic spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a few months ago, and found it difficult but brilliant. (The same can be said of most of his books).
Back in 1979, the BBC made a highly regarded TV mini-series adapted very faithfully from the book, starring Alec “Ben Kenobi” Guinness as protagonist George Smiley. I was keen to see it, and to compare it with the book.
I’m glad to have seen it, but not in any hurry to see it again. I had three difficulties with the series.
First — like all 1970s TV, viewed from 2017 — it is terribly slow. There are long, long passages where nothing happens. We watch George sitting in a car waiting for someone. We watch Peter Guillam looking out of a window. We watch Jim Prideaux walking along a road. I had the same problem recently when I watched the TV adaptation of R. F. Delderfield’s novel To Serve Them All My Days. For that matter, I have the same restless feeling when I watch old Doctor Who episodes where we spend a significant amount of time just sort of looking at Tom Baker. It would be harsh to criticise TTSP for this — it’s just what TV was like then.
Second, the cast consists entirely (bar a couple of short one-off appearances by two women) of middle-aged white men in suits smoking cigarettes. I don’t object on political-correctness grounds: this is simply the way things were in the British secret service in the 1970, and I am not one for rewriting history to be as ethnically and sexually diverse as we now think it should have been. But the uniformity of the cast does mean I have terrible trouble telling who is who. I’m not great with faces at the best of times, and this made it hard for me to follow what was happening — which leads me to …
Third, this is a complicated story, and difficult to follow even in the best of circumstances. The TV adaptation doesn’t make it any easier than the book. Much is left unsaid, implied. The watcher is expected to do plenty of work to put it all together.
But, oddly, that last difficulty turns out to be a plus. It seems appropriate somehow to be constantly bewildered by what transpires, unsure of identities, lost in the flow of events. This is how it would have felt to the participants, and there is something compelling about being a part of that rather than watching omnisciently.
Also: Alec Guinness is just perfect in this role. The George Smiley of the books is a smallish, unimpressive man, outwardly rather ineffectual or even a little foolish; but with a truly brilliant mind working away under the surface. Guinness captures that exactly. He is one of those rarest of actors who can do almost nothing and be absolutely in the role by doing it. (Martin Freeman is about the only contemporary actor I can think of who does this; Mark Williams comes close.)
Putting it all together, what we have is complex, difficult, confusing but richly rewarding TV adaptation of a complex, difficult, confusing but richly rewarding book. Which I think is the best we could have hoped for.
(I also plan to watch the 2011 film, which has a stellar cast, and see how it compares.)