by Ellen Lindner
This year my husband and I have been engaged in a bit of a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy multimedia adventure. First we watched the 2011 Tomas Alfredson film, which was utterly stylish but – with the exception of interesting flashes of characterization such as Kathy Burke’s forcibly retired lady spy – completely incomprehensible. Somehow that didn’t put off—it was clear (after reading Le Carré’s original novel in frustration) that the screenwriters rejiggered the story for a big opening and in the process lost all of the texture. Culinarily speaking, they attempted the impossible: making a soufflé in a microwave.
But the 1979 BBC adaptation? Pure Cordon Bleu tasty excellence.
The plot is complicated and extremely mad, but here's the beginning: chucked out of the Circus, the control center of the British secret service, George Smiley is called back when a botched spy job in “Czecho” exposes the presence of a Soviet mole in the uppermost reaches of British statecraft. Oh yes, and Smiley is the sublime Alec Guinness. In this, he’s somehow both unfanciable and completely magnetic.
Please look elsewhere for Bond-style laser-dodging, lady killing or torture-withstanding—the most exciting stuff in Le Carré’s spy-world involves an elderly man raising his voice a bit, or a telegram being opened. This story is utterly irrelevant on the surface but in the end tells us quite a bit about the self-defeating nature of human intelligence, and the limits of our abilities.
After all, Smiley shines when winkling out reliable informants or wrangling with the ever-changing Rubik’s cube of Soviet secret service hierarchies, but looks at his wife like she’s a cryptic crossword he hasn’t a clue how to solve. And when each episode draws to a close, to the otherworldliness of an Oxford boys’ choir, we are reminded of where these men and women, these machines for thinking, came from, and how far they have fallen from grace. Spies, spymasters, moles, and traitors: they’re only human, after all.