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A Short History of George Smiley

Smiley Lives

Gary Oldman in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY

In Tomas Alfredson’s TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, George Smiley is played by Gary Oldman in a performance that dazzled the character’s creator, John le Carré.  “With Gary you share Smiley’s pain, share the danger of life, the danger of being who he is,” le Carré comments. Created in 1961, Carré’s most famous character, the unassuming spy master George Smiley, has become a figure as iconic as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. Producer Tim Bevan describes him as “a quiet guy who disappears into the woodwork of a room, watches and listens very carefully.” Alfredson sees him as “‘the perfect spy.’ He is someone you would immediately forget if you saw him on the street.” Yet his story, which stretches out through eight novels, and has been interpreted in nearly as many films, mini-series, and radio plays, is an epic tale that captures the complicated political, moral and social drama of life in the late 20th century. And all of this in the bespectacled middle-aged face of a man whose chief virtue was his stunning ability to barely be noticed.

Call for The Dead (1961): Enter Smiley

Call for the Dead; James Mason in THE DEADLY AFFAIR

The character of George Smiley appears in the first sentence of John le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead, with a less than heroic introduction: “When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war, she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.” The next paragraph notes he is “short, fat, and of a quiet disposition” and “appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like a skin on a shrunken toad.” But as Smiley would demonstrate in the eight le Carré novels in which he features, appearances can be deceptive. In Call for the Dead, Smiley is tasked with investigating the death of a government official who appears to have committed suicide just hours after Smiley had cleared him in an ongoing investigation. He and his trusted associate Peter Guillam start talking to the man’s friends and family, and, as in most of le Carré’s novels, they uncover a tangled web of espionage, counter-espionage, compromised intentions, party politics and human emotions. In the end, the suicide proves to be murder and none of the parties are exactly who they profess to be. Nor is the novel, which proves much more than a simple thriller. As mystery writer P.D. James later wrote, “In this novel and in all his others, this brilliant explorer of the murky labyrinths of treachery and betrayal is a sensitive chronicler of the byways of the human heart.” In 1966, the novel was adapted for the screen as THE DEADLY AFFAIR, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring James Mason. But since Paramount had just bought the rights for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (and the name of George Smiley with it), Smiley was renamed Charles Dobbs.

A Murder Of Quality (1962): Smiley on his Own

A Murder of Quality paperback edition; Denholm Elliott in the BBC adaptation.

In le Carré’s second novel, A Murder of Quality, George Smiley has resigned from the Circus (the  name used for MI6) for personal reasons. As a private citizen, he agrees to help out a wartime colleague, now the editor of a Christian newsletter, who has been sent a letter from a woman claiming her husband, a teacher at the prestigious Carne School, is trying to kill her. However, by the time Smiley arrives at the college, the woman has already been murdered, and none of the usual suspects make sense. While A Murder of Quality is not technically a spy novel, it captures aspects of Smiley’s character that reappear in all his novels: his shrewd power of deduction, his remarkable memory, and his complicated moral struggles. In 1991, the book was adapted into a BBC TV movie with Denholm Elliott as Smiley, while a 16-year-old Christian Bale played Tim Perkins, one of the book's pivotal characters.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963): Smiley’s World

Paperback edition; Rupert Davies as George Smiley

If Smiley’s first two novels reveal the man and his unique talents, le Carré’s third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, illustrates the Cold War milieu in which Smiley thrived.  The central figure here is not Smiley, but Alec Leamas, the head of the West Berlin branch of the Circus. A daring agent during the war, the often drunk, world-weary Leamas is not quite up for the Cold War. After losing a double agent, he is called back to London and recruited by Smiley and Peter Guillam to pretend to defect in order to trap Hans-Dieter Mundt, an East German agent. (Mundt first appeared in Call for the Dead as a possible murder suspect.) While Smiley is only a minor character, he remains the story’s puppet master, controlling the various agents and their contacts. Before the novel went on to become an international best seller, producer/director Martin Ritt obtained the film rights, and eventually got Paramount to finance the dark espionage drama (even though many in the studio were wary of how out of sync it was with the popular James Bond-type spy adventure). Richard Burton was cast as Leamas and Rupert Davies as Smiley. By the time the film was released in 1965, both the book and film were global phenomena. The novel won the 1963 Gold Dagger award from the British Crime Writers Association for "Best Crime Novel,” and then later won the Edgar Award for "Best Mystery Novel” from the Mystery Writers of America, and was later picked as one of Time’s All-Time 100 Novels. The film was nominated for two Oscars (including Best Actor for Richard Burton) and won four BAFTA awards, in addition to winning the Edgar for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. 

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974): Smiley’s Triumph

Clockwise, paperback edition, Alec Guinness as Smiley in the BBC mini-series; Gary Oldman in Tomas Alfredson's film.

George Smiley didn’t return until 1974, but when he did it was for what many consider to be le Carré’s (and Smiley’s) greatest novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. By 1974, a middle-aged Smiley has been forced into retirement, and is only called back into action when Control (an ousted senior official in the Secret Intelligence Service) suspects that there is a mole at the heart of the Circus. Peter Guillam, Smiley’s longtime associate, comes on board to assist him. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first of the Karla trilogy, le Carré’s three-part series dealing with Smiley's interactions with his arch-nemesis, the Soviet spy master Karla. In 1979, the BBC adapted the novel into a mini-series with Alec Guinness playing the role of Smiley, and now Gary Oldman picks up Smiley’s smart spectacles.

The Honourable Schoolboy (1977): Smiley in Asia

In 1977, le Carré published The Honourable Schoolboy, the second in his Karla trilogy. By the mid 70s, Smiley has not only returned to, but has become the Chief of the Circus. As the head of the outfit, Smiley launches a major espionage offensive that focuses on the drug trade in Laos, which Smiley believes has ties back to Karla. To run this mission, he has tapped Jerry Westerby, a trusted operative who shows up on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as a minor, but dependable, Circus official. After a complicated operation that involves Karla, the Chinese, the North Vietnamese and the CIA, Smiley and Guillam get to the heart of the drug and spy operation. But they are not quick enough to avoid being outmaneuvered by party politics. In the end, Smiley again retires, and Guillam returns to running the Scalphunters. Despite the popularity of their version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the BBC turned down adapting The Honourable Schoolboy into a mini-series because of the potential production cost of shooting in Southeast Asia.

Smiley’s People (1982): Smiley’s Last Battle

In 1979, le Carré published the concluding part of the Karla trilogy, Smiley’s People. Smiley is once again called out of retirement in order to cover up the death of a Russian general who attempted to defect to the West. But an initial investigation pulls Smiley into the complex labyrinth of the Soviet system and provides him with critical information that just might pull Karla out of the shadows and force him to defect to the West. Le Carré reunites Smiley with many familiar faces –– the Circus' expert on Russia, Connie Sachs (now very ill), the loyal Peter Guillam (head of the Paris office), and Circus senior official Toby Esterhase –– and sets the conclusion in the epicenter of Cold War politics, the divided city of Berlin. In 1982, the BBC adapted Smiley’s People into a six-part mini-series, with Alex Guinness back in the role of George Smiley.

The Secret Pilgrim (1990): Smiley Remembers

Set long after Smiley’s Cold War period, The Secret Pilgrim is constructed as a series of memoirs: one from Smiley, and the other, more significant one from an agent called Ned. Now an instructor for MI6, Ned has invited the long-retired Smiley to speak on the last day of his class. As Ned recounts: “He replaced his spectacles and, as I fancied, turned his smile upon myself. And suddenly I felt like one of my own students. It was the 60's again. I was a fledgling spy, and George Smiley -- tolerant, patient, clever George -- was observing my first attempts at flight.” While the book is for the most part about Ned’s observations, the tone is set, of course, by Smiley, who, in his sly way, suggests the complexity of both spying and stories about spies. In his introduction to the class, he says, “the privately educated Englishman—and Englishwoman, if you will allow me—is the greatest dissembler on earth…. Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damned fool…. Which is why some of our best officers turn out to be our worst. And our worst, our best.” At the end of the novel, Smiley asks never to be invited back again.

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