I went to the cinema the other day – for the first time in quite a loooooooong time. (The last movie I saw was the excellent Senna biopic called…er…Senna! See earlier blog post of the same name for a review). This time I saw the screen adaptation of John Le Carré’s Cold War era spy novel; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
I was both keen and curious to see this film. I read the novel at school as a young teenager back in the early 1980s (along with Call For The Dead – another Le Carré novel featuring George Smiley as protagonist). It impressed me then – although, at that age, I must admit I didn’t fully comprehend all the nuances of the espionage game or the overarching context of the two political superpowers’ precarious stalemate. However, I did recognise some masterful writing in terms of crafting a novel – and Le Carré remains one of those few writers from my formative years whose influence persuaded me to want to pick up a pen and write novels myself.
John Le Carré is an interesting character. He was a spy himself at one stage – enabling him to follow the age-old (but not always sage) advice to us writers to ‘write what you know’. Born David Cornwell in Poole, Dorset in 1931 – John Le Carré is a pen name (French for ‘John the Square!’ and required because Foreign Office employees were forbidden to publish in their own name). Le Carré was initially a teacher at Eton – where he taught the man who, for a time, became my own English teacher at my boarding school (Tim Suter). It was Mr Suter who got us all reading Le Carré as a class – Call For The Dead being one of his set texts at the time. After Eton, Cornwell/Le Carré joined MI5, moving to MI6 two years later. In total, Le Carré spent six years in the service before leaving to write novels full-time. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was published ten years later, in 1974.
So, what of the movie? It has a stellar cast – including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kathy Burke. The director is Tomas Alfredson – the Swedish director who directed the highly atmospheric vampire movie, Let The Right One In. Accordingly, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is brilliantly acted, superbly shot and diligently accurate in terms of period detail. It is a movie that definitely benefits from being seen on the big screen rather than simply waiting for the DVD to appear. It stays pretty faithful to the novel – the principal deviation being switching the initial doomed undercover operation from Czechoslovakia to Hungary (presumably for logistical film-making reasons).
Of course, having read the novel, I knew the ending – but that in no way spoiled the film. No spoilers here btw! I won’t be telling you the identity of the senior Soviet mole that Smiley eventually unmasks! If you don’t know the story – you’ll find this a clever variation on a ‘whodunnit’…effectively it’s a ‘who-is-it?!’ This is also a rare case of a novel being translated well to the silver screen rather than totally ruined. Recommended. I only hope my next must-see film adaptation of a novel I have enjoyed (the resurgent Hammer Film studio’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s Woman In Black) will be as good. Watch this space amigos!