George Smiley was described by his creator, John LeCarre’, as “one of the meek who do not inherit the earth.” He’s old, short, fat, nearsighted, untitled, cuckolded and the ultimate spy. You might see him on the street but you’ll never notice him.
These days you’re more likely to see George Smiley on your television, whether it’s the recent film release of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman or the 1979 miniseries starring Alec Guiness, both of which were recently released on bluray.
George Smiley started out in LeCarre’s book, Call For The Dead, and was little more than a detective for the intelligence service, referred to in his series as “The Circus.” The first chapter is a history of the character, how he was recruited, used and eventually discarded by the service and his wife. If you read the books backwards, as I did starting with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you’ll find fun little tidbits about Jebedee and Steed-Asprey, characters that are referenced but never appear in later books that give a wonderful continuity to Smiley’s world/universe. The Smileyverse, as I call it.
Tinker is the 7th or 8th book LeCarre’ wrote (don’t remember exactly) but it’s the one that got me hooked, even more than The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
For those unfamiliar with the story: One of the operatives that the Circus uses occasionally for wet work (a “scalp-hunter” in their parlance) sneaks into the U.K. with a story that one of the people at the top of the British Secret Service is a spy. This comes about a year after the previous head of MI-6 was disgraced after sending an agent into Czechoslovakia where he was caught by Russians (?). Percy Alleline is the new head of the service and building his reputation on intelligence from a source called “Merlin.”
And Percy is one of the people suspected of being a Russian mole.
Reenter George Smiley, who was put into forced retirement when the previous head of the service, Control, was handed the shoe. Smiley needs to find the mole, preferably without getting himself or anyone else killed. The book asks two questions: Who spies on the spies? How far does a free and decent society go to protect itself and remain a free and decent society? Both of these questions have come up outside the Smileyverse in the last decade and I think are worth considering… somewhere else.
The illustration of George Smiley above is from my copy of the novel which I’ve read a couple times and listened to unabridged a couple more times. The writing is wonderful and textured and the characters are fleshed out in rich detail. It’s not an Ian Fleming styled action/thriller. It’s more of a word puzzle that makes you dread putting in the final piece, not because the story will be over (it’s not), but because, like Smiley, you don’t want to admit you saw the final picture a long time ago. It’s not an Agatha Christie style mystery where you slap your head and say, “Of course!” Instead you close the book, shake your head and say, “How could we have fallen so far?”
In the late 1970s the BBC and Paramount Television produced the miniseries with Alec Guiness as George Smiley. There’s lots of other familiar faces in the cast and the adaptation to 324 minutes is masterfully handled. There are moments where it gets a bit fat, but overall it is very well done. My only wish is that they had used better formats when they filmed it- my guess is they shot it 16mm, and the production just isn’t on par with recent BBC programs.
Guinness’s portrayal of George Smiley is nothing short of amazing. That’s not surprising; Guinness is great in everything he’s done, but Smiley’s meekness and lack of physical strength makes his prodigious mental skills more interesting (and in the followup, Smiley’s People, more devious). Guinness never chews the scenery, but he sure commands the room. The miniseries succeeds in every possible way.
One of the actors in the series is Bernard Hepton. He plays Toby Esterhase, a Hungarian discovered by Smiley in Viennese museum after the liberation from the Nazis. Smiley recruits him and brings him back to England where he runs the “lamp-lighters,” the internal security force of the service. Hepton’s performance is great, but I must say I preferred him in another role a few years later.
The role of George Smiley.
Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy was made into a radio drama by the BBC in the late 1980s with Hepton in the role of George Smiley. The adaptation makes the narrative chronological (the book and miniseries play with the timeline) and condenses some aspects, especially the ending, but it works very well. This version is told in 3 hours but doesn’t miss any key point. Some of the social commentary is more subtextual but it’s still there.
The BBC did another radio version of Tinker in 2010 starring Simon Russel Beale, a marvelous actor who never seems quite right for Smiley to me, but apparently I’m in the minority on this one. Ultimately I think this adaptation was unnecessary, except to complete the whole Smiley series for the BBC. Each of the radio dramatizations are well done but several of them are just superfluous, having been done before and better.
Which brings us to the newest version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the film starring Gary Oldman.
The bad and then the good.
My wife was not familiar with the story when we went to see this film in the theater. It was also a late show. The film seemed to drag on and on, making the 6 hour miniseries look thrifty by comparison. In addition to that several elements were missing or glossed over. Mark Strong’s character is not firmly nailed down. In the book and previous versions Jim Prideaux ad his mission are more clearly defined. So is his fate and motivations. One characters name was changed to another LeCarre character for no clear reason (Jerry Westerby was Sam Collins in the book. Sam plays a big role in the next two books so I’m not sure why they dropped him). Toby Esterhase is all wrong, in my opinion. His history is not very clear either. The movie was both too long and too short, if that makes any sense…
Gary Oldman. The entire cast was fantastic. The performances were all nice. Visually it’s beautiful. There is a nice mixture of humor and seriousness. The mystery is maintained and built up to the right point, and the reveal is skillfully handled. Great locations and production design.
So Smiley has existed through books, television, radio and cinema. And he’s done fairly well in all of them. If I were told that I had to give up all but one version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy I would hang on to the radio version starring Bernard Hepton. Of course I’d try to hang onto a paperback copy as well but that radio show contains the voices I hear when I think of the character and this story.
I do think that Tinker Tailor is the ultimate spy story of the 20th century, and it’s themes are relevant to the 21st century as well. But in the end I just like George Smiley, and I feel a certain kinship to him, not only because we share the same dislike of the telephone. It’s easy to put ourselves in Smiley’s shoes. We all see ourselves as pretty smart but we still can’t cultivate social skills the way we want. We get caught wiping our glasses off on our tie and though we’re sure we can protect our country from an evil empire we can’t always make our spouses love us.
And yet, the secret world revolves around men just like him.