Monday, March 19, 2012

John LeCarré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)

One thing I was wondering about when I came to the book from the movie was whether Smiley in the book could possibly have the same sheer presence as in the movie.  It's not all Gary Oldman's performance, although it mostly is;  it's also, in the film, a matter of writing and mise en scene.  I mean, we've been watching this guy for fifteen minutes, it seems like, in scene after scene, totally riveted by him, before we finally hear a peep out of him.  The film presents Smiley as this intensely inward-turned guy who rules the room through the strength of his unprepossessingness.  It's a trait made for film, where you can convey this without having to state it.  How do you convey it in a book?

And it's true that the Smiley of the book isn't a cipher in the same way the Smiley of the film is;  in that sense, the reading of the film that I advanced is untenable in the book.  We inhabit Smiley's point of view for most of the book, and if LeCarré is cagey about telling us everything in Smiley's mind at any given time, at least I felt that we were getting enough of it to be assured that Smiley isn't a mole.  Not that the moral ambiguity is lessened much - LeCarré just brings it in elsewhere, through more extensive internal monologues by various characters, or characteristically fitful dialogue.  In some ways the book's moral ambiguity is richer, because we know more about Haydon, about Guillam, about Alleline, and of course about Smiley.

But LeCarré's Smiley still has something of that silent domination - it's clear the filmmakers got it from the book.  It's just constructed in different ways.  At one point he's described as sitting like a Buddha - so LeCarré is telling us how to perceive him.  Elsewhere we just see the effect he has on people - his primary interrogation technique is silent waiting, and we can see how it makes the other party talk.

And in other ways LeCarré's Smiley is even more interesting.  In the film, as I say, I found him dominant from the first scene he was in, even though on another level I was conscious that we were "supposed" to see him as a rumpled, nebbishy old man.  In the book, through giving Smiley some of the feebleness of age (occasional forgetfulness, etc.), and more than that through letting us see his thoughts at every step, his doubts, his petty reactions, we actually feel him as a rumpled, nebbishy old man long before we start to sense his inner steeliness.  It's effective.  It makes the book a character study, as much as anything - a collection of character studies, really, as we get to know Prideaux, Guillam, and a few others almost as well as we know Smiley.

I think I'm hooked.

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