Sunday, January 08, 2012

Catch The Wrong One Out

Having realized over the past decade that going to the cinema had become a less than pleasant experience, at the beginning of last year I’d decided to give it all a miss. It didn’t seem to be a big deal now that the DVD release is usually in the shops well before, say, a hardback book becomes available in paperback. If I can wait to read a book I can certainly wait to watch a film. Equally weary of the ramped—up propaganda that goes into selling every new release, it was refreshing to catch up with it long after the attendant hullabaloo had died down, so I could watch each movie on its own terms without it being made out to be such a big deal.

It all worked out rather well. Worse than being lumped in amongst an unruly bunch of patrons that have lost the ability to sit still and pay attention, or having to cope with a sound system designed to favour whopping great explosions and other such nonsense over important things like dialogue, was the feeling of wasting so much time trekking off to the nearest cinema to watch some mediocre piece of nonsense. At least at home, if the film proved to be not up to much I could get on with the crossword, waiting for it to pick up, or leave it running in the background while I got back to work. But as we moved into the latter half of 2011 two movies appeared that intrigued me so much that I couldn’t wait to see how they had turned out. One experience was better than the other, in the cinema itself and on the screen, although neither film ticked both boxes. But then you can’t have everything.

It was during the BBC’s Big Read, years ago now, when lists started doing the rounds of the 100 books everyone should read. I suppose because the public had initially been asked to nominate their favourites that the likes of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy rubbed shoulders with Anna Karenina and Jude the Obscure lagged behind The Da Vinci Code as Tolkien and Jane Austen battled it out for the top spot. Whenever I’d tot up my score of titles I’d read down the years it would invariably come in between a quarter and one third of the total listed simply because not only had the Russian contingent always defeated me but it appeared that I’d made the appalling mistake of opting for Henry Fielding when I obviously should have gone for Thackeray while my A—level syllabus had chosen the wrong Thomas Hardy novel all along.

The same was true for John le Carré because I hadn’t actually starting reading his books until the late 1990s, beginning with The Tailor of Panama, which meant I’d breezed right past his celebrated Cold War—set oeuvre, ignoring it completely. It was probably because I had been hooked on Len Deighton instead. I’ve always had it in my head to get around to reading the earlier books when I had the chance, but it hasn’t happened yet. Of course when you haven’t read a book, the cop—out explanation was always to say that you’re waiting for the movie to come along. Or, when it comes to any number of the classics, the BBC adaptation. Over the years they have certainly served Dickens, Austen, the Brontes, Thackeray and George Eliot well, and in fact the same can be said for le Carré’s classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, which made up the first and third part of his celebrated Karla trilogy.

Over three decades since their initial transmission, both titles remain exceptional examples of television drama at its finest. So when Working Title announced that it was making a film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I couldn’t quite see the point. Of course there’s no reason for them not to finally turn the book into a movie. A good number of le Carré’s novels have already been adapted for the screen, starting with Martin Ritt’s film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1965. But with any book—to—film adaptation there’s always the issue of just how much of the source material will fit into the movie’s running time and, perhaps more importantly, what has to be omitted and how that will affect the tone of the finished piece. The worry with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was that if it just came down to the spycatcher out to catch the spy, will little else, it would be no different from, say, a Mission: Impossible movie without all the flash bang, car chases and over the top stunts.

Still, I was further intrigued when it was announced that Tomas Alfredson had been brought on board to direct. Admittedly I still haven’t seen his well—received vampire movie Let The Right One In, but letting a foreign director bring an outsider’s perspective to a country and in particular its institutions can usually benefit an already intriguing story, as films like The Ipcress File and Point Blank have shown. Then a reasonably solid cast of character actors was signed up for the roles, and they’d even cajoled Kathy Burke out of retirement to play Connie Sachs, which suggested things were on the up. Finally, just prior to the film’s release came the series of ecstatic reviews that tumbled over each other to give it the full—on Jam Gush. So off I went, paid for the ticket and took my seat. Just over a couple of hours later, after the end credits had rolled, I headed home wondering if it had been worth all the effort to make, let alone go and watch.

Obviously having not read the book, all I could do was compare it to the BBC adaptation, which I’ll still find myself watching at least a couple of times a year when heavily—promoted new television drama turns out to be an utter disappointment. And when it comes to the two versions I think the comment Stephen Gallagher left a few posts back in relation to the original 219—minute cut of Heaven’s Gate and the bowdlerized studio version:

“...I’ve always thought [the full—length Heaven’s Gate] had a grandeur and a texture that the shortened cut lacked. Whatever it had going for it, those qualities largely vanished when just the story was pushed to the fore”

could just as easily be applied to comparing the seven—part BBC adaptation to Tomas Alfredson’s much shorter film. Maybe the glowing reviews held it in such high adoration because in the summer months, when the movies are usually filled with CGI—spectacle and all the other usual base nonsense, now retro—fitted for unwelcome 3—D, along came a movie appealing to a more adult sensibility. Unfortunately it was severely malnourished in terms of story and character. Even if an additional half hour (or more) had been added to the running time, which it certainly needed, the film would still only have been half the length of the seven—part BBC adaptation. And given some scenes that provided necessary narrative tissue had so few frames they were like strands of gossamer, quickly blown off screen, it showed.

There’s a scene midway through the television serial where Smiley and Peter Guillam stop for a meal during which Smiley recounts his sole encounter with the Russian master spy Karla. Sat down at the restaurant table, before he begins, Smiley stops the waiter from pouring their wine, instructing him to “let it breathe a little”. That I suppose is the real luxury of the television version. With a running time of five—and—one—quarter hours, it gives the labyrinthine story, punctuated by numerous flashbacks, the chance to breathe. Alfredson’s film, on the other hand, simply takes a series of big gulps. As a spy thriller the movie worked probably worked well enough for anyone with little or no knowledge of the source material, but with the much shorter running time short—changing every last character, there really wasn’t much meat left on the bone to make much of a feast for anyone who did.

It wasn’t a complete disaster. There were nice touches like Bill Haydon surreptitiously sliding his feet into his unlaced shoes at Smiley’s house, and the moment during the drunken revelry at the Circus Christmas party when, reminiscent of the submariners in Das Boot enthusiastically singing along to It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, the English spies break into a rousing rendition of the old Soviet national anthem. But aside from that there was little else going for it. The most egregious sin of all was just how much Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon, Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase – the quartet who make up the new regime once Control is ousted, one of which is suspected of selling the Circus out to the Russians – were relegated to the periphery to such a degree that their mere existence in the piece was virtually worthless. Their faces taped onto Control’s chess pieces may appear early on, but their designated codenames – “Tinker” Percy Alleline; “Tailor” Bill Haydon; “Soldier” Roy Bland; “Poorman” Toby Esterhase – were voiced so late in the day that they sounded like an afterthought rather than making up the actual title.

Back in 1979, watching the BBC adaptation, I had no idea which of the four men Smiley is sent to investigate was “Gerald”, the mole until the final denouement. They may not have appeared every step of the way but when they are on screen, especially in the flashbacks of Smiley’s initial enquiries into the Operation Testify debacle, they make their presence felt and leave a lasting impression. I’d say the opening scene of the BBC adaptation, lasting only a couple of minutes, tells you more about the pompous Alleline, devil—may—care Haydon, blustering, chain—smoking Bland, and finicky Esterhase that the film ever does.

Because they get so little screen time in Alfredson’s film, if the actual mole hadn’t appeared slightly less often than the other suspects, the writers could just as well have casually plucked one of them names out of a hat as they were gearing up for the last dozen pages and pinned the blame on them. Certainly when Guillam bursts into the safe house to discover who the traitor neither he nor Smiley seemed particularly bothered by the revelation. It was if everyone in the film had been dosed up on more than their fair share of horse tranquilers.

One of the things I liked best in the television version, which comes up in some of le Carré’s later books and usually gets a mention in the odd documentary on the author, is the correlation he makes between the working of the secret service and public school. On more than one occasion the controllers of both the Circus and Moscow Centre are referred to as “Head Boy”, and when Alleline takes over from Control, Haydon, Bland and Esterhase certainly act like prefects. So by design, once repatriated and let go by the Circus, Prideaux disappears to teach at a minor prep school in the Westcountry. Spotting Mendel loitering outside the school grounds while teaching his charges to drive in his old Alvis, he gathers the boys together, warning them to watch out for “ju—ju men wandering around” who had broken in to the “last place” he was at and cleared the place out. Setting up his own spy network, it’s the chubby young Roach, the outsider, who he relies on most. “Best watcher in the unit, ‘Jumbo’ Roach. As long as he keeps his specs clean,” Prideaux declares, and even the dimmest viewer, mystified by the serpentine plot should know of whom he is talking about.

I can’t recall if Smiley ever stopped to clean his glasses once during the movie. On television, one of the delights was watching him patiently listening to everyone tell their tales and questioning them with just a look. If the BBC came up with a special DVD that added extra footage of Alec Guinness simply watching, listening, and quietly processing the facts, I’d snap that up in a jiffy. In the film, there certainly wasn’t time for any of that, nor to make use proper use of Smiley, the great inquisitor and a solid operator in his professional life wrestling with an even greater deception on the domestic front. “Have you noticed Peter that when I really trouble one of our acquaintances with my questions, he’ll raise the matter of my failure as a husband to confound me,“ the cuckolded Smiley observes in the television adaptation, and throughout the seven episodes the most loaded remark was the oft repeated “Give my love to Ann!” An otherwise innocuous remark under different circumstances, but used to try and bring Smiley down a peg or two or throw him off the scent.

The film was bereft of those marvellously acidic mentions of Ann, and her appearance were only fleeting: briefly seen from behind during the Christmas party where at one point the camera lingers on her behind, groped as she’s in a clinch with her Circus lover which might be its most fatal flaw. If the television adaptation had pulled that trick she would have only been one step removed from joining the ranks of harridans like Captain Mainwaring’s wife or Maris Crane in Frasier. Whether it is taken from the book or not, Arthur Hopcraft’s script wisely introduces her in the final scene of the BBC adaptation, affording Siân Phillips to land the absolute killer blow with her piteous: “Poor George. Life’s such a puzzle to you, isn’t it?” All Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s screenplay gives us is Julio Iglesias’ rendition of La Mer. Merde, more like!

Stripped of so many of the relationships, both private and professional, past and present, that bound the narrative together on television, leaving just the spycatcher out to catch the spy, the film is like a once—healthy animal gutted and hung in a butcher’s shop leaving just the flesh on view. Obviously Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was going to be no different from the film version’s of Paul Abbott’s State of Play or Troy Kennedy Martin’s classic Edge of Darkness, with whole chunks of the story reduced or radically altered to squeeze it into a far reduced running time. Here the new angle was about Moscow Centre using the Circus to get its hands on US intelligence. But what made it so infuriating this time around was to hear fragments of le Carré’s familiar dialogue, displaced and isolated, as if the novel and BBC scripts had both been shredded and the film’s writers had half—heartedly scrambled to tape them back together before giving up and pissing off to the pub.

I suppose I could say more but it would mean giving the game away and revealing the identity of “Gerald”, which is a bit rotten. Although it’s a shame that whoever designed the film poster didn’t think along the same lines. What a muppet!

And if there was a quote that needed to go on the poster I can think of nothing better than the tweet from author Anthony Horowitz:

Tinker Tailor Soldier Why


At 1:49 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Pretty much my own feelings, having rewatched the Hopcraft/Irvin adaptation just a few months ago - and wondering why the DVD image has such a worn-out, edge-faded look when contemporaneous fare like The Sweeney is looking better now than it ever has - in transfers that were made in the BBC's own telecine suites.

(We all know of the BBC's ignominious history when it came to preserving its taped material, but I can't believe that the DVD represents the best elements available. It has the look of an old print rescued from somebody's shed.)

I did think the movie version handsomely made, but I pity anyone going in without a good idea of the story already in their minds. You might care to check out Roderick Heath's review on This Island Rod - he's less impressed with the mis-en-scene than I, but his disappointment is comparable.

At 4:43 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


It really is a quite tragic print now that you mention it. A shame the BBC didn’t get its act together and give it a good going over in time to attract the film’s audience rather than simply repackage Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People as a double bill.

I’ve probably watched this Hopcraft/Irvin adaptation about three times in the last three months, most recently between Christmas and New Year. Every time it washed away more of the memories of the film so I had to scrabble around to find the notes I’d made after seeing the movie – scribbled down in one of the six spiral bound notebooks I have on the go -- hence the delay in writing the post. Oddly enough, I hadn’t realized the closing scenes at Sarratt, where Haydon is held, were filmed at Inglis Barracks in Mill Hill. So the bus that took me home from the cinema in Finchley motored right past the entrance while I was jotting down my thoughts. I still can’t remember what: ‘Why didn’t Smiley draw the hotel curtains? Window cleaner?’ means. Also there’s: ‘Stop bloody swimming!’, which was jotted down inside the cinema. I suppose I should watch the film again when the DVD comes out at the end of the month but hopefully I’ll be reading the book instead.

That’s a really great piece from Roderick Heath, especially when he suggests the casting has turned it into “the upmarket equivalent of a Harry Potter film”. The movie does include some of the best British acting talent, all working at the top of their game, but having seen the BBC adaptation again and again – which had an utterly amazing cast of great, great character actors – I still think there were some poor choices made when it came to casting the roles. Toby Jones, with his wandering accent, was spectacularly miscast. Although I did see recently that Jared Harris was meant to play Percy Alleline but was still tied up with the Sherlock Holmes sequel when it came to filming. One or two others didn’t seem right, like Roger Lloyd—Pack as Mendel, but they had so little screen time that in the end I suppose it didn’t matter.

At 9:04 am, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

You've said what needs saying for me, too. But, oh how I agree with you, about the TV series and that SUPERB opening which is pure, cummulative, genius!


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