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The Smiley Novels of John le Carré

November 5th, 2018
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I’ve enjoyed quite a number of movies, over the years, that were based on the novels of John le Carré.  Films such as The Tailor of Panama, The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, and, of course, the terrific adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I also watched and loved the 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, starring Sir Alec Guinness.  For a while now, I have been interested in diving into le Carré’s novels, and I decided to focus on his Smiley books.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold — I started with this relatively short novel, and it was a good place to start.  The cover of the edition I read identified this as a Smiley novel, but that’s not really the case, as Smiley is barely in the book.  Instead, the novel focuses on a broken-down spy named Alec Leamas, recruited by Smiley and Control for an undercover mission in divided Berlin.  This is a great, taut little Cold War thriller.  The plot is complex, but the novel’s short length prevents things from ever getting bogged down, and le Carré’s plot zips along well.  The novel is dripping with the tough, dirty, no-happy-endings tone that I expected from le Carré, based on the films I’d seen adapted from his work.  The spies in le Carré’s novels are not glamorous James Bond types.  No, these spies are very fallible, very mortal human beings.  There are no elaborate action sequences, mostly just comversations, and occasional violence, in small, closed rooms.  I don’t really know if le Carré’s stories are actually realistic, but they certainly feel realistic.  I was bummed that there wasn’t much Smiley in this book, but Leamas was so compelling a main character that I didn’t mind.  My only real complaint was that the novel’s ending was very abrupt, and rather confusing.  I had to re-read those final few pages several times, in order to suss out exactly what happened.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — I moved on to le Carré’s most famous novel, the first of his “Karla trilogy,” in which le Carré’s most famous character, aging spymaster George Smiley, matches wits with his Russian counterpart, Karla.  I loved this book!  It was everything I’d hoped it would be.  Reading the novel, I was impressed by how faithful both adaptations of it had been.  Somehow, the two hour film adaptation managed to fit most everything important from the book in… while the Alec Guinness BBC miniseries was almost a page-for-page adaptation.  Wow!

There is a reason this story has been so influential in the decades since it was published.  It’s a near-perfect spy tale, depicting the hunt for a mole deep inside … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Night Manager

The Night Manager is a six-episode mini-series based on the novel by John le Carré.  The adaptation was directed by Susanne Bier (who just won an emmy for her work directing this mini-series) and written by David Farr (a writer who also worked on the British TV show Spooks, called MI:5 here in the U.S.).

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Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is a former soldier who now works as the night manager at a fancy hotel in Cairo.  One night, the beautiful mistress of a powerful Egyptian man gives Jonathan evidence that her husband is involved in arms sales to terrorists.  Jonathan manages to pass this info on to an old friend in the British military, but this action winds up getting the woman, with whom Jonathan has fallen in love, killed.  Jonathan flees Cairo, adopts a new name, and tries to forget everything that happened and begin a new live in isolation in Switzerland.  But a chance encounter brings Jonathan face to face with the man he believes responsible for his lover’s death: the wealthy British CEO Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie).  Believing that this man who purports to be a social justice warrior is actually someone who profits off of death and destruction across the globe, Jonathan agrees to work with an outsider British intelligence officer in an attempt to infiltrate Richard Roper’s organization and bring him down.

As can be expected from a story based on the work of John le Carré, The Night Manager is a wonderfully tense, twisty spy caper.  It takes a little while for the story to get moving, but once Jonathan has come face to face with Roper and begun to earn his trust and get inside his operation, the show really comes to life.  The charisma and chemistry between Mr. Hiddleston and Mr. Laurie is tremendous, and it’s great fun watching these two intelligent men cagily circle one another.  This sort of story only works if you believe that a) the mole is smart enough and clever enough to have a chance to actually succeed in infiltrating the bad guy’s operation without getting immediately found out, and b) that the bad guy is smart enough and clever enough to be fully capable of discovering what the hero is really up to, thus giving the story exciting dramatic tension.  The Night Manager succeeds on both counts wonderfully.

The story is leisurely paced but that works well in allowing us to gradually discover these characters and the world they live in.  Once Jonathan is in and the screws start to tighten, I was thoroughly hooked.  Six episodes feels like the perfect length for this story.  It’s long enough to allow for greater complexity, and a more … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I was absolutely taken with the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Sir Alec Guiness, which I watched just a few weeks ago.  It was terrific preparation for the equally wonderful feature film adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel, starring Gary Oldman and a phenomenally robust ensemble.

The film, directed by Tomas Alfredson (who also directed the fantastic, creepy Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In) is a delightfully taut, twisty tale of spies and spy-masters.  I was stunned by how much of the story from the six-hour miniseries made it into the two-hour film.  The script by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan is stuffed full to overflowing with plot and incident, but the film never feels rushed.  In fact, under Mr. Alfredson’s steady hand, the story unfolds at a carefully measured pace.  As in the mini-series, the scope of the story builds gradually, as scene after scene of conversation (often between men who we, the audience, don’t quite know who they are, talking about things that we’re not sure we quite understand) accumulates and comprehension gradually dawns on the audience as it does on George Smiley himself.

This is a spy story, but it is not an action film.  It is very much a drama, and a drama in which the tension is drawn not from gunplay or chase-sequences, but from quiet conversations in dark rooms.  I’ve read many rave reviews of this film in which the reviewers commented that the film was good on first viewing, but GREAT on second viewing, at which time you could really understand who everything was and what was going on.  I certainly was glad to have watched the mini-series before seeing the film, as that enabled me to follow the story without any confusion right from the beginning.  (It also gave me the delight of seeing characters and scenes from the mini-series reprised and reinterpreted by these new performers.)  I certainly don’t think one has to have seen the mini-series, nor have any prior knowledge of the film or the story, to be able to really enjoy this film.  But it helps!  This is a movie that is built for repeat viewings.  The film (like the mini-series before it) does not spoon-feed the audience any information.  There’s little-to-no exposition to spell-out who people are or what their relationships are to one another.  You need to figure those things out for yourself.  In this way, the film draws in the audience, and puts you, in a way, into George Smiley’s investigative shoes.  As in the mini-series, I found this for-the-attentive-viewer style of story-telling to be tremendously compelling.

Smiley, so memorably portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979)

I’m very excited for the new film adaptation, starring Gary Oldman, of John le Carré’s 1974 spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. (I haven’t seen the film yet, but really hope to get to it soon.)  But the release of this new film adaptation spurred me to at last track down something that had been on my “to-watch” list for years: the BBC’s 1979 six-part television adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring none other than Sir Alec Guinness in the lead role as George Smiley.

(I wrote six parts because that was how the show was presented in the DVD that I have.  I am aware that the show was aired in seven parts on the BBC, and re-edited into six parts for the American release back in 1980.  I actually didn’t know that until reading up on the mini-series after I’d watched it and, while watching it, I didn’t notice anything that would have lead me to suspect that the series had been re-edited.  Nothing seemed to be truncated, and the end-points of each of the six episodes felt natural to me.  In hindsight, the film-purist part of me wishes I’d seen the original British seven-part version, but the six-part American version certainly worked for me so I have no complaints.)

George Smiley is a getting-on-in-years British intelligence expert who was forced out of the British secret intelligence service (which all the characters refer to as “the circus”) following a power-play in which his mentor, the head of the agency who was known as Control, was pushed out.  But Smiley is brought back into the game when a government official becomes aware of the existence of a possible mole deep within the Circus.  It turns out that Control had been aware of the existence of the mole, and had narrowed down the possibilities to five suspects, nicknamed “tinker,” “tailor,” “soldier,” “poorman,” and “beggarman” (from the words of a British children’s rhyme).  Smiley is given the near-impossible task of spying on the spy-masters.  He must infiltrate the circus and uncover the identity of the mole, all under the noses of the current head officers of the circus, any of whom could be the mole.

I absolutely adored this mini-series, but it’s not for the casual viewer.  One has to pay very close attention to the story to suss out who everyone is and what exactly is happening.  Although it’s very languidly paced, the mini-series doesn’t stop to hold the viewer’s hand to explain who the different characters are, or what the heck they’re talking about.  All of the information you need to understand the story is there, but the viewer has to do a lot of the work to … [continued]