Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Ok this isn’t a book review but watching the new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation gave me plenty to think about yesterday. The first thing to say is that I’m a huge fan of the book and an even greater admirer of the 1979 TV adaptation starring Alec Guiness. However, if I’m going to do the film any justice I think I’ll have to set aside any comparisons and discuss the film as it stands, given that adaptations rarely better their sources.

First the positives: Gary Oldman as George Smiley is excellent. He makes the part his own, relevant to both the period portrayed and to the 21st century viewer. I’m a huge fan of Oldman anyway, I had my doubts about his suitability as Smiley but I though his portrayal gave the essence of the character. There was some other good acting too, notably from Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr and Toby Jones as Percy Alleline. I also liked the pace of the film – thoughtful and reflective. Getting the essence of what is a complicated plot in 2 hours 7 minutes is no mean feat and the director essentially stripped the book down to its key narratives.

But some things did jar. For a start, the setting didn’t feel like 1970s London. I’m afraid that I have to admit that I remember the 1970s and the outside locations, office and hotel settings and even the hairstyles didn’t seem real. I know I am in the minority here – the film has been widely praised for its 70s feel but it felt at times like a film set and not real life. The drabness of the Cold War era seemed to be lacking.

Some of the characters were poorly developed, most notably the ‘inner circle’  where for example Ciaran Hinds is given no opportunity to show off his acting skills as the disillusioned working class spy, Roy Bland. There were also some hiccups in the narrative. I didn’t care enough who the circus mole was and when he is eventually revealed (no spoilers here) it is in a casual fashion with only a slight sense of the cataclysmic repercussions it will have on the espionage world.

There have been some rave reviews of this film and it is nice to be treated to an intelligent thoughtful thriller. I have a feeling that we are likely to see more of Oldman as Smiley which will be no bad thing. And, hopefully the film will introduce a new generation of readers to the spy novels of Le Carre – I notice that the book is ranking #2 in thrillers on Amazon at the moment. However, the film didn’t quite do it for me in portraying the claustrophobia and paranoia of 1970s espionage.

8 thoughts on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

  1. I very much agree with your perceptions. I actually re-watched the Alec Guinness version about 6 months ago before I realised this re-make was in the works, so it was rather fresh in my mind when I saw the Gary Oldman version the other day. I am also a fan of John Le Carre (though not so much of his recent novels – the trilogy TTSS, Hon Schoolboy and Smiley’s People is great, I think, also The Little Drummer Girl. But I digress!

    I did not think Oldman as natural for the role as Guiness though I agree he was good. But so many small aspects jarred, though I did enjoy the film as a whole I felt it could have been even better by not using them. Peter Gwillam gay? (And though Cumberbatch good, not a patch on the lovely Michael Jayston!) Jerry Westerby, the Hon Schoolboy of the next book, is absolutely wrong (good actor, just not Jerry Westerby by miles). Smiley swimming? Change to the subplot of Ricky and his girlfriend as an excuse for a horrible violent scene? Why do we have to see a corpse in a bath with its intestines hanging out? and so on.

    I agree that the image of London was not anything like my memory of the 1970s, and that the ending was perfunctory, who could care about the mole?Too little characterisation of the suspects (though this was also a weakness of the book and the earlier TV version).

    I felt Tom Hardy as Ricky was one of the best actors (Hywell Bennett also vg in the earlier version), perhaps as he was the most recognisable to people today? I also was disappointed that the sexism highlighted by Le Carre and the TV version was missed out here – the fact that the women were all bright and worked hard, unlike the “upper circle” but were completely snubbed and partronised (if even noticed).

    I don’t mean to carp – I agree that it is a good film and I did enjoy it, because before I saw it I determined to put the book and the TV version out of my mind. It’s only since seeing it that these things have annoyed me in retrospect.


    1. The TV series holds a special place in my heart and I knew the film couldn’t live up to it. As you say, Michael Jayston is superb, as is Ian Richardson and Anthony Bate as Lacon.

      I can forgive some tinkering with the text. For example the film merges the characters of Sam Collins and Jerry Westerby. I suspect this is for brevity and if they’re going to film The Honourable Schoolboy they need to introduce the character of Westerby. But as you say, why make Peter Guillam gay?

      I didn’t pick up of the absence of the sexism highlighted by Le Carre. The film only hints at the sacking of Connie Sachs whereas the wonderful Beryl Reid in the TV adaptation is suitably bitter at her treatment by her male bosses. It’s a good point.

      I might watch the film again when it comes out on DVD. I’m sure it will hold up to another viewing.


  2. I ve not watch film yet but have both the tv series thgis and smileys people ,I find it hard to see how the film can get as much as the series did due to time ,but hoping to go see it soon my self to find out ,all the best stu


  3. I haven’t seen the original TV series but as it’s months before we can see the film here in Oz maybe I’ll find it on DVD and watch that instead. I did like the book very much (so much better than le Carre’s most recent thing which was barely a shadow of TTSP).


  4. Bernadette – I’d be inclined to watch the film first and then the DVD series after. It’s difficult to see the film without comparing it to the excellent tv adaptation.


  5. I saw the TV version of Smiley’s People after TTSS and I think it is even better. I went back and read the book again and that stands the test of time so well. I think the book more satisfying that TTSS because SP does not have that “which of four is the baddie” plot but is rather allows one to know more about Karla, if at a distance, so the whole is more rounded.

    (Another irritating bit in the TTSS film – Smiley is shown watching TV! It makes me wonder what they will do to him in Smiley’s People assuming they remake that, as in the book post-retirement he does historical research and writing, would he have even owned a TV?)

    Funny what Bernadette writes about time delays, there was a time when one had to wait ages for films released in the US to come out in the UK, but that is no longer the case. Then one had to wait ages and ages for them to come out on (as then was) video, but that isn’t the case any more for DVD/TV runs – probably due to piracy.


  6. I agree about Smiley’s People. The character of smiley is much more embittered in that book, and there’s a sense of the old world order shifting. Another adptation worth mentioning is the BBC Radio 4 The Complete Smiley. I thought Simon Russell Beale excellent although very much in Alec Guiness mode.


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