Middle-Aged Spread

Simon Fraser studied history at Oxford and spent twenty-odd years working in public relations and advertising in England and Sweden, before deciding to chuck it all in and try writing a novel.  He is about 80,000 words in but keeps getting pleasantly distracted by his wife, two children and dog.


In his rather excellent campus novel, Changing Places, David Lodge invents a parlour game which he calls Humiliation.  Players take turns to name a famous work of literature which they haven’t read, and score a point for each of the other players who have read it.  In the book, an American professor of English admits to not having read Hamlet.  He wins the game, but loses his job.

I am a great admirer of the English novelist John le Carré.  But until a few weeks ago I had never read his most famous book, and the one that established his reputation:  The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1963).

It was le Carré’s third novel, his first two having had little impact.  It won the Somerset Maugham prize, and its commercial success enabled the author to give up his foreign-office career and do whatever he liked.  By 1977, worldwide sales exceeded 20 million copies.  (For comparison:  Last time I looked, Fifty Shades had sold 60 million, in a world that contains more than twice as many people as there were in the 1960s.)

It was a big success then, and made le Carré’s reputation.  I read it over two or three evenings this winter, and a cracking read it was.  Just 240 pages; I estimate 65,000 words.

In 1977, five books later, le Carré published The Honourable Schoolboy.  The hardback first edition is 532 pages long, and (as was the fashion of the time) the pages are bigger, containing about one-third more words.  At about 190,000 words it’s almost three times as long as The Spy who Came in from the Cold.  Le Carré’s books got even longer, but have shortened again now as he reaches old age.

Both novels have similar themes and a similar plot.  The Spy who Came in from the Cold has 26 chapters averaging 2500 words; The Honourable Schoolboy has 22 chapters averaging more than 8500 words.

What does the extra length do?  Where’s the meat to sustain what is not going to be a short read?  Is longer better or worse?

A big clue comes right at the start: a two-page foreword in which le Carré thanks those who have assisted his research.  Much of the action is set in Hong Kong, with additional scenes in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as the US was finally pulling out in 1975.  From the foreword one imagines a leisurely few months flitting around the Far East, chatting to people.  And there’s a lot of travel writing in the text that follows.

In contrast, The Spy who Came in from the Cold was set in London, the Netherlands and East Germany, and there’s no real attempt (or need) to establish a sense of place.

The other clue is people.  Each scene has a chorus of minor characters tripping on and off the stage, some speaking, some just snoring delicately as they lie against the insomniac body of our hero.  Where we had dialogue before, we now have multi-party conversations.  Boy, do they love to talk.  It’s like listening to a symphony after a chamber piece.  And most of the talk is expository.

The tendency to write at increasing length is not uncommon among highly successful writers (look at the Harry Potter books).  Authorial self-confidence, however misplaced, must be one of the main causes.  It might also be a result of lighter editorial touch:  the publisher knows that the author’s brand guarantees sales, so why bother to expend the effort to trim a bloated book and risk alienating the golden goose?

One must also think of the reader, who might make a crude value-for-money calculation which will always tend to favour fat volumes (“Can I get a Venti John Grisham?”), and can at least hope for an immersive, almost Tantric, reading experience stretching over days or weeks.  Preferably on a warm and sunny beach.

So there you are, folks!   Want to write a blockbuster with literary pretensions?  Take one part taut plot, one part exotic travelogue and one part cast-of-thousands, then layer them into a Scooby snack of a size that suits.

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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