The other day we went to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a film by Tomas Alfredson. I’m afraid I was terribly disappointed. During the film I even wondered whether my beloved, who had never read the book, understood anything at all. I needn’t have worried, though.
Anyway, I couldn’t help comparing the picture with the old BBC series (1979) with Alec Guinness as George Smiley, and of course with the book itself.
Now, let’s be clear: I thought Gary Oldman’s performance as George Smiley was really wonderful. The thoughtful, studiously noncommittal behaviour of his character is extremely well done. It is hardly believable that this is the same Gary Oldman that played the frenzied bent cop in Léon.
Gary Oldman plays Smiley exactly in the way Sir Alec Guinness did in the BBC series. My point is that neither of them resembles the George Smiley of le Carré’s books. I just reread Call for the Dead, one of his finest novels. On the first page Smiley is portrayed as:
Short, fat, and of quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.
In the film, Smiley practices winter swimming in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, while le Carré’s Smiley loves to study obscure German poets of the sixteenth century…
Going back to the novels, I don’t think Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is his best performance. I really enjoyed Smiley’s People. But my favourite is Call for the Dead. It is concise, forceful and has a good pace. Non of that long-windedness you find in some other books. A fine example of good storytelling, and an acceptable story too.
I sometimes wonder what makes a good story tick. Storytelling is an art in itself. Le Carré has it in him, but it is not always there. Other genre authors have this too: CS Forester is very strong in The Ship or The man in the Yellow Raft but in his Hornblower novels he sometimes keeps droning on. Simenon has it in his better Maigret novels (e.g. L’amie de Madame Maigret). Friedrich Dürrenmatt in his superb Der Richter und sein Henker.
Not at all easy to distil a sound formula out of these examples. No too many words multiplied by an uncomplicated storyline and divided by a few well-drawn characters. But this may as well result in a futile and very boring novel.
The most accomplished story-teller of all is Jorge Luis Borges. He manages to comprise the essence of the spy novel in a short story called El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths) published in Ficciones. Reading this story is like drinking a glass of the finest single malt whisky in stead of pints and pints of Heineken beer.