Whether or not comparisons are odious -- they're often unavoidable, of course -- there will be none made here between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the 1979 BBC television series starring Alec Guinness now available on Acorn, and the Gary Oldman top-billed film from Focus that's in general release this week and is also an adaptation of John le Carré's 1974 best-selling Cold-War thriller.
The main reason I won't be positioning one against the other is that I haven't seen the feature film (and have no reason to expect I won't enjoy it when I do). But I have just watched the six-part series again after 32 years and maintain as high a regard for Arthur Hopcraft's adaptation now as I did back when I waited with bated breath and bated everything else for each episode to come along. And I don't hesitate to encourage everyone looking forward to the movie to pick up the Acorn package -- for comparison's sake but for supplementary enjoyment.
Le Carré's devoted readers -- I count myself as one -- know that not only did he transform spy novels when, based on his background as an MI5 and MI6 agent, he began his writing career but that he also buoyantly transcends the genre. The beauty of his continuing canon is that his scrutiny of spies' lives is always a metaphor for humanity's broader existential predicaments.
George Smiley, the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy protagonist, is an example of this persistent metaphor. You could say he's a shining example, except le Carré's point is that while Smiley's powers scintillate, he's practically a cipher when he's not putting those talents to work. Which, of course, he does assiduously throughout the le Carré novel and the adaptations of it.
Having been let go from MI6, or what its toilers refer to as "The Circus," Smiley is initially lured back by the man known only as Control, who's also been in bad odor with the department simply for aging. Smiley's mission-almost-impossible is to look into the likelihood that there's a mole in the organization who's been operating as a double agent for 25 years and to expose him. The presence of such a traitor passing information to the Soviet Union is assumed to be the explanation for a botched covert MI6 action, and Smiley -- who never worries about his rationalization abilities -- is expected to figure out which of four Circus staffers the mole has to be. Although he happens to be a fifth suspect, he knows he can rule himself out and proceeds nosing around in his deliberately unprepossessing way.
All the while poking into the activities of Percy Alleline, Toby Esterhase, Bill Haydon and Roy Bland to ascertain which is the actual culprit, he's occasionally preoccupied by his troubled marriage to the philandering Lady Ann Smiley, who he knows has been having an affair with Haydon. (And they know he knows.) The discrepancy between his keen instincts about where betrayers lurk and his utter befuddlement at his wife's cavalier behavior is le Carré's true interest. The celebrated author wants to know -- and offers no answers -- what enables a man to be so wise in some areas of his life and completely at sea in others.
It's in conveying the dilemma that Alec Guinness, one of the screen's most accomplished chameleons, is quietly astonishing. I maintain the effect has to do with Smiley's spectacles as much as anything he does about the man's plodding walk, leisurely talk and occasional sly grin. Watching how Guinness works the specs and when he does it is one of the supreme joys of this Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In le Carre's introductory description, he mentions Smiley's "thick lenses," but I find no indication that he specifies how they're ultimately deployed to suggest not only literal sight but figurative insight.
One difference between the small-screen presentation and the large one is the length of time they each take. The differing constraints immediately make clear -- and this is not meant as a judgmental comparison -- that Smiley's opportunity to think things through at a pace le Carré wants to establish as intrinsic to the spy work with which he was familiar is more convincing, more satisfying in the longer narrative.
Another difference -- and here eventual comparisons could very well be exhilarating -- is with the actors involved. The cast gathered to support Guinness includes some of the best people working in London at the time, just as today's cast, which boasts last year's best actor Oscar winner, Colin Firth -- contains an imposing crop of contemporary players. In the 1979 group are Ian Richardson, Beryl Reid (as MI6's walking memory bank Connie Sachs), Michael Jayston, Ian Bannen, Terence Rigby, Alexander Knox, Joss Ackland, Hywel Bennett, Patrick Stewart, John Standing, Warren Clarke and Sian Phillips.
Sian Phillips -- still regularly active today, as are many of the others -- plays Ann Smiley. Though she arrives strategically late in the narrative, she does get the final line. It's a devastating off-hand remark that triggers Guinness's last gesture with those ever-present spectacles. In a twinkling, so to speak, Guinness's gesture reiterates everything le Carré intends to say about life. It's an extraordinary conclusion to an extraordinary artistic event.