Out of the Past
Few writers comprehend the world of espionage as well as John le Carré, the author of over 20 novels. This comes from experience; he is a former member of Britain’s MI5 and MI6, and he worked undercover at the height of the Cold War in the mid-20th Century, which infused his work with an unrivalled credibility.
George Smiley is his most famous character; introduced in 1961 with the publication of the author’s first novel, Call for the Dead, the quiet spy would return in some of le Carré’s most famous works. Among them was what is often regarded as his finest book, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, published in 1974 and acclaimed as a masterpiece of espionage fiction.
The shadow of Smiley, and the shadow world that he lived and worked in, have long loomed large over others’ explorations of the business of espionage. The Berlin Wall ultimately fell, and the Cold War ultimately thawed; in the two decades since, storytellers have endeavored to revisit the years of paranoia and tension with fresh, objective perspectives.
So it was that when screenwriter Peter Morgan suggested a potential film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tim Bevan, co-chair of Working Title Films, one of the world’s leading film production companies, felt that – to quote Smiley – “now is the time.”
Bevan explains, “20 years on from the Berlin Wall coming down, it’s a very different world, and I felt that doing a film about the Cold War with the benefit of hindsight would be quite an interesting idea, particularly when I saw [the Oscar-winning foreign film] The Lives of Others. I thought, why not make an English-language thriller on the topic, entailing who the enemy was then, and what the context was.
“Once Peter mentioned the book, I well remembered it as John le Carré’s seminal work and the definitive Cold War story. So I approached him personally.”
The author took to the idea. “He was quite enthused,” notes Bevan, who promptly began prepping the feature with his Working Title co-chair Eric Fellner and then recruited producer Robyn Slovo, who had teamed with company before. “The book had been very successfully adapted for television [as a 1979 U.K. miniseries] with Sir Alec Guinness playing Smiley. That was a highly esteemed production, and it was therefore quite brave of le Carré to give us his blessing. It had been a long time since the miniseries, and we were setting out to make it for a contemporary audience.
“I also think he realized that he could open himself up to a whole new audience – certainly, a younger one. The appreciation and acknowledgment of his work is increasing.”
Le Carré remarks, “I make my living and my reputation out of writing books – that’s where my heart is. But the vast majority of the public doesn’t read. Therefore, if they have access to the story through another medium, I’m delighted. If it inspires them to go and get the book, I’m doubly delighted.
“It’s a huge thrill to get together with very creative people and watch from the outside as they work in a different medium.”
Working Title has long worked with authors, “treating them with an enormous amount of respect,” reminds Bevan. “We’ve adapted a number of books into movies over the years.”
When le Carré accepted Working Title’s proposal, he insisted that the filmmakers should not remain slavishly loyal to the book. Bevan remembers, “He said he wanted us to make it as a period movie, but that we must reinterpret it.”
Le Carré reflects, “With Alec Guinness and a wonderful crowd of British treasures from the National Theatre, the television version was made, in a curious way, as a love story to a fading British establishment. It was done with great nostalgia; even the smallest, nastiest characters, were in some way huggable.
“The Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that has now been made today is without sentiment, sexier, grittier, and crueller; it had to be.”
The author adds that he believes that people continue to relate to the story because it is “not so far from corporate life, from the ordinary world. At the time of writing the novel, I thought that there was a universality that I could exploit. The book definitely resonated with the public; people wanted to see their lives in terms of conspiracy, and that remains central to the relationship between man and the institutions he creates.
“I wanted to make a secret world accessible; these are still ordinary people going about their personal and professional lives.”
The narrative centers on Smiley; fresh from his unwanted retirement, he uses all his accrued skills and knowledge to unearth a Russian mole who has burrowed deep within MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service establishment known in the story as the Circus.
“The story, at its core, is a whodunit,” says Bevan. “Who is the double agent? But that core spirals into helixes, and the story moves through a couple of different periods of time. Make it too simple, and you under-represent the story’s complexities. But make it too complicated, and you distance everybody. It’s been a real balancing act.
“What’s as relevant now as it was thirty-odd years ago, and will be in a hundred years’ time, is how people betray one another’s trust.”
Le Carré offers, “For me, this secret world was also a metaphor for the larger world in which we all live; we deceive one another, we deceive ourselves, we make up little stories, and we act life rather than live it.”
Slovo adds, “With its themes of deceit and betrayal, and honesty and dishonesty, this is a story about people looking into other people’s lives – while not being honest about their own lives. I feel that it’s a universal story.”