By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
THE Englishman David Cornwell, who writes under the name John le Carré, has been a best-selling novelist for nearly five decades, and he has been, right from the start, an unusually perverse member of that select class: he writes books that practically beg not to be turned into movies. Of his 22 novels nearly all of them about the perennially popular and movie-friendly subject of espionage, a mere 7 have made the perilous border crossing to the big screen. (Three others have been adapted as television mini-series and one more as a stand-alone television movie.)
An eighth le Carré feature film, Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” will be released on Dec. 9, and it’s a fair illustration of the fiendish difficulties this sly, subtle storyteller’s work presents to moviemakers. Mr. le Carré’s tales always take place in a kind of no man’s land, in the disputed territories of reason, morality and even simple truth. That’s a terrain that major-studio films are almost entirely unfamiliar with these days: it’s too dangerous, too unpredictable, like the wilder reaches of Afghanistan.
The world of “Tinker, Tailor,” which was originally published in 1974, is, though fearsomely murky, at least one with recognizable coordinates. The action takes place during the cold war, when East was East and West was West, and the point of intersection was a wall in the divided city of Berlin. That wall is the scene of the melancholy climax of the first movie made from a le Carré novel, Martin Ritt’s “Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (1965), in which a British intelligence agent named Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is asked by his masters to pretend to defect to the other side.
The novel, Mr. le Carré’s third, had been a publishing sensation; it was on The New York Times’s best-seller list for over a year, much of that time at No. 1. Part of the book’s appeal was its apparent realism about the sordid details of international espionage. Mr. le Carré’s rumpled, depressed-looking spies didn’t much resemble Ian Fleming’s impossibly suave James Bond. (David Cornwell, before he became John le Carré, had worked in British intelligence, where he seems not to have encountered any 007s.)
And the film, shot in black and white and equipped with a moody jazz score, lived up (or down) to the novel’s clammy atmosphere. It didn’t sell tickets like “Goldfinger,” but it made an impression, and it holds up. Watching “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” now — the Criterion Collection released an excellent DVD in 2008 — you can still feel the grim, gray slog of the cold war in your bones.
In retrospect it seems miraculous that the movies did so well by Mr. le Carré on that first go. The next couple of attempts, Sidney Lumet’s 1966 “Deadly Affair” (based on the novel “Call for the Dead”) and Frank R. Pierson’s “Looking Glass War” (1969), were largely bungled operations, though “Deadly Affair” benefits from the casting of James Mason as a version of Mr. le Carré’s most famous character, the mild-mannered and deceptively wily spymaster George Smiley. After “The Looking Glass War,” an adaptation roughly as successful as the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, Mr. le Carré withdrew from the field for better than a decade. He knew when it was time to come in from the cold.
What the failed adaptations of his books had made clear was that even in his relatively straightforward early novels his narrative techniques were a little too tricky for the movies to handle. Mr. le Carré is maybe the most eccentric constructor of fiction in English literature since Joseph Conrad. His stories are full of digressions and long flashbacks; he circles around his plots for the longest time, as if he were doing reconnaissance on them before deciding to go in for the kill. And the verbal textures of the books can be challenging too, because his spies tend to speak in their own special jargon, which seems like normal speech, but isn’t quite. It’s like one of those maddeningly elusive regional English dialects: you need to get the hang of it, and it always takes longer than you would have thought possible.
In the ’70s Mr. le Carré’s novels became yet more daunting: denser, more complex, more stubbornly ambiguous. It’s as if he had determined to make them movie-proof. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” his sixth novel, dates from that era, and at the time it was the twistiest, most labyrinthine act of narration he had ever perpetrated: a novel in which Smiley, in the course of an operation to sniff out a high-level Soviet mole (i.e., double agent) in the British intelligence service, hears story after story about his agency’s failures and apparent successes, and finds himself constantly doubling back on his own history, reinterpreting everything he thought he knew. This is a remarkable performance, both by the writer and by his troubled hero, and one that only an exceptionally intrepid filmmaker would try to wrangle into a two-hour movie. None did.
But in 1979 the BBC did the sensible thing and turned “Tinker, Tailor” into a six-hour mini-series, directed by John Irvin, which allowed Mr. le Carré’s intricate plot to unspool at a pace that didn’t do violence to either the story or the audience; even at leisure you have to be pretty agile to keep up. The casting of Alec Guinness as Smiley was beyond sensible; “inspired” is the word that comes to mind.
A second mini-series, “Smiley’s People,” directed by Simon Langton and again starring Guinness, followed three years later; this time Mr. le Carré had a hand in the script. The expansive serial form was clearly the right approach for his more demanding books. Unfortunately the makers of “The Little Drummer Girl” (1984), one of Mr. le Carré’s densest novels, chose instead to try to condense all the nuance and detail of that rangy story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a single feature film. The movie feels hasty, like a message scrawled on a napkin.
By the late ’80s the cold war was winding down at last, and Mr. le Carré would begin to turn his attention to different sorts of conflicts. (John Boorman made a lively 2001 movie of the Central American story “The Tailor of Panama,” and one of Mr. le Carré’s books about Africa, “The Constant Gardener,” was filmed, beautifully, by Fernando Meirelles in 2005.) But as a kind of valediction he wrote an uncharacteristically simple novel called “The Russia House,” which the Australian director Fred Schepisi in 1990 turned into perhaps the best feature film ever made from one of his books.
It’s about a Soviet scientist named Yakov (Klaus Maria Brandauer), who offers top-secret military information to a book publisher (Sean Connery) whom he once met, briefly, at a party. British intelligence brings the full weight of its formidable analytic skills — augmented (or perhaps diminished) by those of the C.I.A. — to the task of figuring out whether the scientist’s information is real. The espionage pros wind up looking a little foolish, because for once, at this moment not long before the fall of the Soviet Union, everything is exactly as it seems to be; Yakov is, to the shock of the veteran spooks, perfectly sincere. You know the cold war is over when somebody actually tells the truth.
But it’s back, in all its gloomy, paranoiac glory, in the new “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” which views the bygone world through a very dark glass and yet feels, somehow, nostalgic. Mr. Alfredson’s visual style is moody, muted, crepuscular, and his rhythm is contemplative. And as if managing the novel’s many temporal shifts weren’t challenge enough, he and the screenwriters, Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, have added a flashback that doesn’t appear in the book, a Christmas-party sequence that shows the main characters drinking and singing and laughing in the good old days when they (almost) trusted one another.
The film returns to this scene, which doesn’t advance the plot, again and again, and the effect is, helplessly, elegiac. It’s an odd tone; Mr. le Carré, who can be spotted among the party guests, never struck this note in any of his novels. But perhaps for those who lived through the cold war, as he did, it may still feel at least passing strange that it’s really over, dead and gone these 20 years.
And it may be possible, in the lingering glow of the West’s victory, to experience a fleeting rush of pride: a sense that, even out in the cold, the lonely place where spies and writers ply their trade, one knew — once — exactly where one stood. What does it say about the muddle the world’s in today that the cold war now looks clear?
From: The New York Times