Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Translating a book to movie presents its own unique challenges to story. There are problems concerning how to be faithful to the characters and plot. But the medium itself has its own unique challenges. Just as a single word can change the meaning within a sentence—and through that the meaning of a paragraph, a chapter, a character, the story—the way that a movie scene is edited can affect the same things.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is about a mole hunt within the highest levels of the British intelligence. The original novel is by John le Carré, and the recent movie adaptation is directed by Thomas Alfredson. The climax of both novel and movie is when Smiley, the awkward middle-aged retired intelligence officer, discovers just exactly who the mole is. The climax of the movie is relatively faithful to the same scene in the novel, except in one very important way.


In the novel, we have both Smiley’s point of view, and the point of view of Smiley’s assistant Guillam. Smiley discovers who the mole is when he hears the mole’s voice through a planted microphone, and Guillam makes the discovery a few seconds later when they both enter the room the mole is in. We are given Smiley’s disbelief, his “angry doubt,” his resentment, how he is “deceived in love and impotent in hate” at this mole’s betrayal of him both as a man and as a spy. Guillam’s feelings are simpler, but still given to us: Guillam had looked up to the mole as a role model, only to discover that he had been responsible for the deaths of people under Guillam’s command.


The movie stays with this general sequence of events—Smiley hears the voice, Guillam makes the discovery when he enters the room. But in the movie, it is not clear whose voice we are hearing, nor are we shown Smiley’s reaction to it. Instead, we are given the discovery solely from Guillam’s point of view in a slow-motion camera pan showing a stunned Guillam, a very calm Smiley already present in the room and, finally, the mole himself. The emotions are no longer there, the physical action of entering the room is absent, and we lose the point of view of Smiley entirely.


The feeling we are left with is one of being unsatisfied. Such a crucial moment in the story has been reduced to merely being glossed over. The buildup is left unfulfilled. While the time devoted to the reveal is proportionately more in the movie compared to a few quick pages in the novel, it is the novel that has the emotional punch.


I have few complaints about the movie otherwise: the acting is superb, especially Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, and Mark Strong, and Gary Oldman certainly gets a nod as Smiley. It also stays relatively faithful to the overall storyline, though some arbitrary changes are made that only take up more screen time than necessary. But if there is a cinematic rival to le Carré’s novel, it is not this movie but the BBC’s 1979 adaptation with Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley.


One word of warning: if you plan to see the movie, don’t watch the miniseries first. While Gary Oldman is wonderful, there’s no comparison to Alec Guinness’s awkward, aging, yet brilliant Smiley.


–Alexandra Little



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