Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier - Why?

A book isn’t a film and a film isn’t a book. This eternal verité is proved once more by the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy movie currently on general release. It’s beautiful to look it, superbly acted and scrupulously loyal to the original book. It’s just that as a movie, it’s not very good.

If you haven’t read the original John Le Carré book or are unfamiliar with the plot the odds are against you either figuring out what’s going on or why what’s going on matters. In their determination to be loyal to the book the producers of the movie have left out its heart. Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth – all of them are wonderful in the movie but they are dancers without a tune, moving to no purpose.

The only art form less subtle than film is opera. You can have subtle moments certainly but movies and opera are both written in great broad strokes. The media demand them.

To adapt a novel, the screenwriter has to boil the boil down to its very bones, and then rebuild a film structure, rather than a novel structure on those bones. You're chasing fools' gold if you try to recreate the novel in the screenplay - they're too different a beast. You have respect the conventions of each genre, and accept that what works in one won't work in the other.

What is Tinker, Tailor about? It’s not about the mole in British intelligence. The mole is incidental. Tinker, Tailor is about a man, George Smiley, who is an abject failure at everything he does bar one thing. He is absolutely gifted at his job.

Smiley has lost his job at the beginning of Tinker, Tailor and the whole narrative is about him getting his old job back. He has to do the only thing he’s good at. Smiley knows nothing else. He has no other fulfillment.

That’s what Tinker, Tailor is about, at its most fundamental. And every time you’re looking at something other than that journey of George Smiley to get his old job back the audience is being lost. The school scenes are some of the (many) joys of the book, but in the film they slow up the action. They have to go. Ricki Tarr has to go.

There are marvellous scenes there. Smiley’s reminiscence about meeting Karla, his Soviet opposite number, is moved to his hotel rather than the motorway café in the book, but it still works very well. The Christmas party motif in the film to reflect the more innocent days of the circus is inspired.

But in their effort to get everything into the film, the essence of the book is lost, and that’s a pity. It’s a noble failure of course, and the movie is certainly worth seeing in a way that so very many movies aren’t. But if you really want to treat yourself the price of two pints will get you the book. That really is a treat.