The Anti–James Bond

A new film adaptation of John leCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy prompts a look at the various incarnations of his greatest character, George Smiley.
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BBC/Paramount/The Kobal Collection; Columbia Pictures/Getty Images; Studio Canal/The Kobal Collection

That violent nullity James Bond having long outlived his creator, it has fallen to an interesting gang of alpha novelists and superhacks to keep him busy: since the death of Ian Fleming in 1964, more than 20 new Bond books have been written. The latest of them, Jeffery Deaver’s Carte Blanche, was published this year, and as recently as 2008, Bond nuts were solemnly delighted—or I was, anyway—by Sebastian Faulks’s even-better-than-the-real-thing novel, Devil May Care, which featured a partially lobotomized lead goon and a villain with a main de singe, or “monkey hand” (hairy wrist, non-opposable thumb).

Perhaps the most rewarding of the pseudo-Flemings, however, has been Kingsley Amis, whose Colonel Sun appeared in 1968 under the nom de plume Robert Markham. Amis’s Bond, while retaining the familiar psychopath’s obsession with menus, tailoring, and branded goods—“Bond almost felt relaxed, finding the charcoal-grilled lamb cutlets with bitter local spinach very acceptable”—is also a suspiciously Kingsley-esque conservative, deploring newly built houses and the rise of a “vast undifferentiated culture, one complex of super-highways, hot-dog stands and neon … stretching from Los Angeles to Jerusalem.” Amis would maintain a fierce moral allegiance to 007. Decades later, upon learning that John le Carré had described Bond as an “ideal defector” and “the ultimate prostitute,” he vented in a letter to Philip Larkin: le Carré’s comment was a “piece of bubbling dogshit,” he wrote, adding that he preferred Bond to the “dull fuckers” of le Carré’s own fiction.

George Smiley, le Carré’s enduring gift to the literature of espionage, is, of course, the anti-Bond. Across the sequence of novels in which he appears, peripherally or centrally, this secret servant of Her Majesty (like Bond, he works for British Intelligence, known in le Carré world as “the Circus”) is discreet to the point of self-erasure. Bureaucratically dowdy, rarely spotted in the field, a dull fucker by both instinct and training, Smiley drops no one-liners, romances no tarot-card readers, roars no speedboats through the Bayou. Bond has his ultraviolence and his irresistibility, his famous “comma of black hair”; Smiley has his glasses, his habit of cleaning them with the fat end of his tie, and not much else. There is a cultivated blandness to him, a deliberate vagueness of outline that at times recalls G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown—the little priest’s alertness to sin replaced, in Smiley’s case, by an extraordinary memory and a profound knowledge of “tradecraft.” Smiley is also a cuckold of near-mythic proportions: his wife, the glamorous and rarely-at-home Lady Ann, seems to sleep with everybody but him. (She has doubtless slept at least once with James Bond: he’s just her type.) When John le Carré dies, there will be no pseudo–le Carrés, rotating the clichés of Smileydom through their potboilers. Not only is le Carré more or less inimitable—less imitable, certainly, than Ian Fleming, whose style was essentially that of a school bully with a typewriter—but Smiley himself is too elusive a creature to be captured by any pen other than that of his creator.

News late last year of a movie adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—the greatest of the Smiley novels—caused me to salivate mentally. Gary Oldman as Smiley? John Hurt as Control, the withered, irascible Circus chief? Colin Firth playing someone, anyone at all? The juices of anticipation squirted in my brain. In the autumn of 1979, every Briton with access to a television set was watching, with avidity and occasional bewilderment, the BBC’s gloomy, labyrinthine Tinker, Tailor miniseries—not least because, as le Carré modestly reminds us in his introduction to the latest edition of Smiley’s People, “the only independent channel in those days obligingly staged a strike and for six precious weeks the entire British viewing public had to choose between BBC1 and BBC2.” There were other reasons, too, for the general enthrallment. Anthony Blunt, a much-garlanded art historian and the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, had just been exposed as a former Soviet spy, part of the Philby/Burgess/Maclean ring. Thus did current affairs conspire to lend a more-than-usual piquancy to le Carré’s vision of an Establishment honeycombed with treachery. In Tinker, Tailor, George Smiley is prodded out of retirement to unmask the mole who sits at the Circus’s top table: Is it busybody Percy Alleline? Roy Bland, “the shop-soiled white hope”? Dashing Bill Haydon? Or the Hungarian, Toby Esterhase? Alec Guinness, playing Smiley (25 years removed from playing Father Brown in The Detective), blinked myopically and carried inscrutable wounds. Around him at the Circus were men both loud and furtive in their natures, swaggering and self-concealing, as if simply to be born into the British ruling class was to sign up for a lifelong career as a double agent.

There had been other screen Smileys—Rupert Davies gave him a bluff inhumanity in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and James Mason drawled James Masonically and rather ineffectually through Sidney Lumet’s TheDeadly Affair—but Guinness’s became at a stroke the definitive performance. Guinness-as-Smiley was monkish, fastidious, almost prim, bestowing here and there the faint, equivocal benediction of his Smiley smile. He had a doughiness of feature and a plumminess of tone. He moved as if he were wearing three overcoats. In restaurants he looked inexpressibly pained, but if you mentioned his wife his face would register nothing at all. Guinness’s only rival to date for the role has been Simon Russell Beale—the voice of a hooded, magnetic Smiley in a recent series of BBC radio plays.

The new model of Tinker, Tailor—opening in the U.S. in December—is, for me, problematic. Director Tomas Alfredson, previously known for the well-regarded vampire flick Let the Right One In, has reduced the already low pulse of the BBC version to a throb of nearly reptilian thrill-lessness. Which would be fine, except that much of the distinctive le Carré atmosphere has also floated away. Circus HQ, for example, in the novels a warren of pokey corridors with London traffic-grunt coming in through the windows, is rendered by Alfredson as a kind of totalitarian Reading Room, a soaring industrial/cerebral space in which ranks of eavesdroppers and codebreakers clack at their machines, and meetings are conducted in soundproofed cubes. It’s a chillier spy world, with wider gaps between people. The center of gravity provided in the novel by the Establishment, the clubbable Old Boys in their smotheringly furnished rooms—burgundy carpets, burgundy faces, overstuffed men in overstuffed chairs—has gone. Gone too is the heavy fellowship and ghastly heartiness, the endless belaboring of Smiley with the long syllable of his first name: Oh really, George!, George, you must see …, How’s the lovely Ann, George? Now they all communicate in leers of mutual suspicion: a Scandinavian reboot has occurred. Was the Cold War really this cold?

Oldman-as-Smiley, meanwhile, is blanker, harsher-voiced, impenetrable behind the huge reflective panels of his glasses. The wan little smile has become a grimace. Twice we accompany him in the laborious meditation of his early-morning swim in the Thames, watch him pushing pale-shouldered through the tea-colored water—to what end? We cannot possibly guess what he’s thinking. No clue! Smiley’s understatement has been overstated.

It’s very 2011, I suppose, to rub away the interpersonal texture and crank up the anomie. Didn’t the Bond franchise give it a go in 2006’s Casino Royale? Daniel Craig as a harder, icier Bond, hacking his ethically unencumbered way across a borderless post-9/11 globe … To strip down or minimalize le Carré, however, is to sacrifice the almost Tolkienesque grain and depth of his created world: the decades-long backstory, the lingo, the arcana, the liturgical repetitions of names and functions. Did you know that it was John le Carré who introduced the word mole (for “double agent”) into English? Also honey trap? He has enriched the language itself—a claim not even the most devoted Bondian, not Kingsley Amis himself, could make for Ian Fleming.

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.
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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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