I really liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so much so that I’m losing sleep over it. I saw the movie in theaters earlier this week and found it a pitch-perfect, gripping, and slow-paced two hour grind that still managed to end too soon. Then I started the book, read half of its 370 pages in one sitting and finished a few days later at 5:30AM. I was still reading about le Carré on Wikipedia when my roommate woke up to go to work. The next night I was up until four again, this time re-watching a torrented version of the movie on my laptop.
But something happened this time, or, rather, something seemed missing. It could have been my small, dirty screen, or the subtle torture of trying to watch a movie in bed without puncturing an eardrum with an earbud, or having read Anthony Lane’s prescient criticisms of the film adaptation in his semi-recent New Yorker piece; but in all likelihood it could only be that so soon after finishing the book, no movie could ever stack up.
Lane’s central criticism is that the dramatic climax, the unearthing of the Soviet mole within the British intelligence, fails to deliver because we never get to deeply know the main suspects. This only really rings true once the viewer brings to the movie all the background information that can only be gleamed from the novel. It’s the opposite of that commonsense cliché, “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” In this case, you don’t know what you’re missing ‘til you have it.
Still, I find it impossible to lay any blame at the director Thomas Alfredson’s feet. Both Tinker Tailor and his previous film, 2008’s Let the Right One In, an adaptation of a Swedish novel of the same name which I have not read, are slow stories of gentle souls in a violent world; and yet both manage to thrill without resorting to Hollywood bombast, egotistic bluster or sensationalist violence. The problem with adapting Tinker Tailor is endemic to the medium. Alfredson has not even enough time to establish a backstory for the protagonist George Smiley, let alone provide comprehensive biographies of the four suspects, Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase, Percy Alleline and Bill Haydon. Where le Carre’s narrator can, over the course of his novel, drop explication from his pocket like a slowly-plotting prisoner walking the yard, Alfredson has to leave it up to Gary Oldman’s and Colin Firth’s faces to communicate who they really are (but then again, they are spies, and aren’t we looking for a double agent?)
All of this leads us back to the not-so-old-when-you-really-think-about-it-question, has the faithful movie adaptation ever been better than the book? From the top of my head, I can only think of Fight Club and Brokeback Mountain. So why do we bother the risk of turning great books into okay movies? Because Gary Oldman and Heath Ledger and especially Brad Pitt in Fight Club are so damn good to look at.