Thu
Mar 15 2012 1:00pm

Too English? Espionage Authors Discuss Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Author Olen Steinhauer (left) talks with author Charles Cumming (right) about one of our favorite subjects here at Crime HQ...spies, spy novels, and spy movies. In particular, John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy!

If you haven’t seen the film or read the novel, there may be spoilers ahead—be warned!

CC: Why do you think Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy fared better in the UK and Europe than it did at the US box office?

OS: I think that can be explained largely by the fact that Smiley doesn’t say his first word until the 17-minute mark; Tinker, Tailor is a quiet film, unlike the thriller fare regularly served up in our cinemas. It is, by American standards, an art film; I mean, all those gorgeous, static shots, those scenes where nothing is said, those jump-cuts requiring viewers to fill in the blanks in order to play catch up along with Smiley… It’s not mainstream in any sense of the word.

Also, I don’t think the book has the same hold here as it does in the UK and Europe. When I foist it on friends, I’m regularly told that they like it...but...all the English class-system commentary feels beside the point to them. In the UK, I imagine, this is part of the novel’s appeal. Add to that the BBC’s masterful miniseries (largely unknown in the US), and I rather expected it would do fantastic business in the UK.

CC: Why do you think George Smiley exerts such a hold over readers?

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarréOS: Someone recently asked me this and I referred to him as “the wise old man that we all hope is keeping watch over our security,” and I think that’s true. He’s a kind of ideal father-figure: calm, reasonable, possessed of a deep intelligence, and emotionally sensitive. He suffers at the hands of others (his wife and colleagues), but continually absorbs the blows and moves on, just as an idealized father suffers so that his family (or, in this case, his country) can live peacefully. At the same time—and this is what separates him from many of the spies we read in fiction—he never raises the system he defends onto a pedestal. Yet he’ll deceive in order to defend it. Why? Because it’s his family, warts and all; it’s what he was born into. Like a good father, it never occurs to him to step out for a pack of cigarettes and never return.

CC: Did you agree with the decision to make Peter Guillam homosexual?

OS: I can’t say I agree or disagree. It was a peculiar choice, but I don’t think it took away from the film at all. And it might have added to it, for it layers on another level of secrecy. I did the same thing in one of my novels, making a central spy character a homosexual (coincidentally, it took place in 1974), and I saw it as a way to show that secrets permeated this world down to the bedroom. In the book, Guillam has a flute-playing hippie at home, over whom he’s constantly puzzling, and to use her would’ve required dialogues—the benefit of the homosexual relationship is that it is, by virtue of the setting, instantly full of complications (only legal since 1967, after all). And for a modern audience, Alfredson may have been trying to lay the groundwork for the homosexual history between Prideaux and Haydon, which is never entirely spelled out in the film.

I was amazed by many small moments in the film, and one brief scene that still sticks to me is when Smiley and Guillam have just gotten Fawn from his house, where he’s keeping bees, and they’re leaving in Guillam’s car. As we watch them through the rear windshield, a bee begins flying around. Fawn swats it away. At the wheel, Guillam panics, flapping his hands manically. Then the bee heads toward Smiley, who does nothing except gradually roll down his window, and we hear the bee being sucked out of the car. It’s brilliant in its simple portrayal of the three men in the car, and one of the rare funny moments.

CC: This is embarrassing to admit, but all I could think of while watching that scene was: “That bee is CGI generated.” Having said that, I agree, it was a brilliant example of telling a story through images rather than dialogue. The old screenplay rule: show, don’t tell. My favourite Smiley moment in the film was when Guillam assaults Tarr at Smiley’s house. Oldman just does a patient little nod and a flick of the eyes, instructing a colleague to break up the kerfuffle. “No hurry,” he seems to be saying. “I’ve seen it all before.”

OS: I found myself reflecting on humor a fair amount in this adaption. The book and the BBC series are riddled with humor, usually at the expense of social types, whereas this new version depends more on gloom. How well do you think this works? Do you think it’s another compromise to a contemporary audience less used to comedy in their serious espionage fiction?

CC: It’s a good question. I think Alfredson, as a Swede, was fascinated by British emotional reticence, the decline of Empire, a once-great country going to pot. High-functioning spies, riddled with personality flaws, obsessing about their opposite numbers, as well as their sexuality. These themes are present in the book, but le Carré’s high style is heavily ironic, even supercilious at times, and that humor doesn’t come across in the film. I don’t think it was a conscious choice to suck the humor out of the film as a sop to audiences; I just think Alfredson wanted to make a serious, European art-house movie that just happened to be about espionage. 

OS: Tom Hardy’s Ricky Tarr is an incredibly intense and nuanced performance. Why wasn’t he nominated for an Oscar? (This is my whiny question.)

CC: I agree. He was the stand-out performer, even more so than Oldman. But it’s a great part and Tarr is the only character in the movie who really gets “out and about.” Exotic location, beautiful girl, intrigue, sex, murder. Lots for him to chew on and the audience loves it. Meanwhile, the boys back at the Circus are just trading on glances and inference; harder to make an impression. Apparently Hardy is a very tricky customer, but a bona fide movie star without doubt. I was told that he was terrified at the prospect of working opposite Oldman, an actor he reveres. But he came good in the end.

OS: Another difference was the lack of class-consciousness in the film. While there are moments (as when Alleline is dealing with his contemptuous superiors in the gym, or Connie Sachs’s famous speech about her boys), it’s largely missing here, and as a result we lose some of the great individual character-types from the book and mini-series (for example, I kept waiting for Roy Bland’s ideological contradictions to come out). While I imagine this was in part to reach a larger audience, I wonder if it took too much away from the story, as class-consciousness forms a philosophical backbone to the story. What’s your take?

CC: As I said before, I think they could have spent longer on the backstories of the four suspects, and not solely for reasons of suspense. Le Carré’s oeuvre amounts to a sustained attack on the entitled, old Etonian “officer” class in England, for whom he has very little time. It might have been more interesting to see more of Haydon’s lifestyle and background in this context, not least in contrast to Bland’s; or to sketch more of Alleline’s throttling ambition, this clever, educated, middle-class Scot on the make. But how much can you cram into a two-hour movie?

CC: If le Carré was our age, what changes do you think he would have made to his fictional style, writing in the post-9/11 world? Do you think a book as rich and as complex as Tinker, Tailor be as well-received and widely read today?

OS: I taught the book recently to undergraduate students in Leipzig, Germany, as part of a spy novel course. I was excited about it, proclaiming that this was my favorite of all the books we would be reading that semester, and I was shocked by their reaction: they were bored. Endlessly bored. Part of it was the English class-consciousness, which wasn’t of interest to them, but primarily they were put off by the layer-upon-layer of stories and background, which they saw as an overly complicated storyline. Although I argued that it’s an incredibly simple story that only seems complex because of all the backstory required, I could do little to sway them, and I was crushed by my ineptitude. (As a side note: My Leipzig students’ favorite of the ones we read was The Miernik Dossier by Charles McCarry, an admittedly breathtaking book.)

The fact is that readers of thrillers in the seventies had longer attention spans than today, and while I think a book as rich and complex as Tinker, Tailor would be well-received today, it would be framed as a literary novel, largely losing the thriller audience that’s primed for action-packed tales, since the majority of today’s espionage novels are actually action/adventure novels that happen to occur within the espionage subculture.

How would le Carré have changed his style to tap into a modern audience? I really don’t know. To me, the book is timeless in its appeal, but I’m obviously prejudiced. It’s the book that taught me that literary style needn’t be compromised in order to write a definitive genre novel.


Charles Cumming is the author of the New York Times bestselling thriller The Trinity Six, as well as others including A Spy by Nature, Typhoon, and his newest, A Foreign Country (coming August 2012). He lives with his family in London.

Olen Steinhauer is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, including The Tourist, The Nearest Exit, and his newest, An American Spy. He is also a two-time Edgar Award finalist and has been shortlisted for the Anthony, the Macavity, the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and the Barry awards. Raised in Virginia, he lives in California.

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1 comment
Donna Dale
1. awoaca
Le Carre's exquisite literary style made the anticipation of a new work all the more pleasurable. The Constant Gardener, a much later novel, earned an Academy Award for Rachel Weisz in its screen adaptation. The appeal is in his facility with words and convoluted story lines, requiring concentration and the commitment of a certain amount of time, perhaps more than our Internet age is willing to give. The audiobooks read by the author are equally enjoyable.
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