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A Review of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

(Spoiler Warning: I basically spoil everything in the book and movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Then again, it is over 40 years old)

When we started On Violence, Michael C and I had an odd writing arrangement. He would write two posts a week on the military and violence; I would write one post a week on art and violence. (And not just limited to contemporary art, as this post proves.)

At the time, this worked out quite well. I was living in Italy with Michael C, so I had plenty of time to power through books and movies on war, and write up reviews. (It also helped to inspire us on other projects we’re working on…) As time passed, we focused less on art--plus we wrote about everything we needed to write about war memoirs--and I began writing up more military and foreign affairs posts.

Recently, I’ve been able to catch up on some books I’ve been meaning to read (for years now). Researching the intelligence community for a new screenplay we’re writing, I read John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Excited by the book, I re-watched the film for the third time.

Here’s my review: they’re both wonderful. Review over.

What matters more than the what is why: why do the book and the film work so well?

On the surface, the book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, ostensibly, a spy thriller about a retired spy investigating a mole--oddly enough, according to my copy’s introduction, a word invented by John Le Carre--at the top of the British intelligence services. And yes, that is the plot.

But the subplot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy matters even more. The wife of the main character, George Smiley, has left him and, more importantly, cheated on him with a former friend and colleague. In basically every chapter, Smiley recollects events and puts together puzzle pieces about the main plot, then, at some point, he thinks about his wife Ann and her betrayal. In terms of mental energy, George Smiley spends almost as much time thinking about his wife’s affair as he does the larger mission to find the mole.

(In the same vein, the chapters about Jim Prideaux--a retired spy who was captured by the Russians--spend zero time discussing spy craft, focusing on Prideaux’s relationship with a lonely boy at a boarding school.)

In other words, this spy novel is actually about personal relationships. The two plots work together perfectly, thematically: spies can’t trust anyone; neither can husbands. (For Prideaux, he’s been retired and forgotten, and is both figuratively and literally broken.)

It’s why critics love Le Carre (and other “genre” writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and Elmore Leonard). They write literature even when they write in a “genre”. In my mind, when I view and analyze fiction, I make a distinction between fiction and literature. Fiction describes all writing. Literature, for me, rises above the rest, an esteemed category for the best books, usually defined by the quality of the writing, the characters, and whether or not the book has anything to say about the world we live in. (And like pornography, it’s that thing: I know it when I see it.)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is literature.

On to the film: why does it work so well? First, the wonderful acting, including almost every important British actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Hardy, Simon McBurney, Toby Jones, and, of course, Gary Oldman.

More importantly, the film is paced so well. In short, the film moves slowly and doesn’t explain everything on the first go. It takes a second viewing to understand the subtext and meaning in each distinct scene. I love this. I love this style of filmmaking. I want more complicated films, with lots of details packed into every crevice that you can’t catch on the first viewing.

Great literature often fails on the screen for two reasons. First, great writing often doesn’t translate. Think about the problems filming great stylists like Hemingway.

Second, and more importantly to this film, you lose inner-monologues. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the novel) bubbles over with plot. It can’t all fit in the film so the director and screenwriter didn’t didn’t even try to force it all in. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (film), we also lose most of the subplot featuring Ann. Yes, one scene hints that Bill has slept with Ann, and other characters ask Smiley about Ann, but we don’t have an inner-monologue running throughout the film. Basically, we can’t hear what Smiley is thinking.

To compensate for this loss of the personal, the film turns one of the characters into a gay man (a nice, subtle touch that humanizes the character as concisely as possible) and adds a flashback--not included in the book--to a New Year’s Eve party that partly fleshes the personal relationships out between the characters. It works, maybe not as well as the book, but then again, they’re different mediums.

But check out both.

four comments

“It can’t all fit in the film…..”

Try the 1979 made for TV series. The screenplay was written by Le Carre with a masterful Alec Guinness as Smiley. http://tinyurl.com/28qvvk

The movie is fine for what it is but misses widely on the subtexts of Britain, it’s society, and its institutions.


@ Steve – I’ve tried to watch the mini-series since I saw the movie, but it’s not really available anywhere online.

As for the subtexts of Britian, as an American, I can’t speak to that, but the book handles it wonderfully. I do believe the screenwriter was from the UK, though.


Spend the money on the DVD/Blue Ray. You’ll watch it more times than you’ve ever watched anything else in your life.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched it.

Also, it’s available on Netflix


I saw the film and loved it. Can I recommend something a little more offbeat to you though?

An old british TV spy series – the Sandbaggers. Its a brilliant Le Carre’ish take on Direct Action teams in the spy world but still clearly fixed on the bureaucracy of espionage. Its odd, like nothing I have ever seen but with cold hard touch that feels very realistic.

And once you get through the Sandbaggers – read the Queen & Country series of comics by Greg Rucka. They are inspired by the Sandbaggers TV show and are also great.

Both are so far away from modern takes on espionage and I think you’d enjoy them.