A spy to beat Bond and Bourne
I’ve written before about the way in which the Jason Bourne movies shook up the world of James Bond. While Bond was a fantasy spy, driving Aston Martins, drinking Dom Perignon and bedding a succession of beauties, Bourne was portrayed as grittier, more down-to-earth, more realistic figure.
The success of the Bourne series (and the influence of the TV show 24) meant that when the Bond franchise was rebooted for Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first outing as Ian Fleming’s super-spy, it abandoned many of the fantasy elements and adopted a grittier tone.
The irony in all this is that while Jason Bourne (and 24’s Jack Bauer) is supposed to be more realistic, the Bourne movies are as far removed from the real world of spies as the Bond series used to be. The thrill-a-minute pace of the Bourne films may seem grittier than the Bond movies, but it has nothing in common with the way in which spies normally function. In that sense, Jason Bourne is as much of a fantasy figure as James Bond – only this fantasy is more contemporary in its imagining.
The only author who is generally credited with capturing the way in which spies operate in the real world is John Le Carre. When The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was first published in the early 60s, Le Carre was still a member of SIS, the British secret service. For obvious reasons, he did not use his real name, David Cornwell, and chose an exotic pseudonym instead. The success of that book (which was vetted by SIS to make sure that Le Carre was not revealing any secrets) was such that Cornwell resigned from the secret service and became a full-time author. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold became a film with Richard Burton in the lead and critics hailed its central character Alec Leamas as the anti-Bond because he was an ordinary man racked by self-doubt.
Le Carre’s best was still to come. His finest novel was probably 1974’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which took George Smiley (who had featured, sometimes in a co-starring role, in earlier novels) to centre-stage. Unlike most other fictional spies, Smiley was old (pushing retirement) and unimpressive in person. But he had a razor-sharp intellect and used it to unmask a traitor at the heart of SIS.
The story of Tinker Tailor was probably inspired by the saga of Kim Philby, a real-life SIS agent who turned out to have been a Russian plant. But by focusing so closely on treachery, Le Carre laid bare the deception that is at the heart of most secret services. Interestingly enough, he also popularised the term mole, which had hitherto been reserved for a small animal. In Le Carre’s world, a mole was an agent who burrowed his way into the heart of a rival secret service and then began spilling out its secrets to his own side. The success of Tinker Tailor was such that the real-life CIA adopted the term mole (which it had not previously used) for its own search for a Russian agent within its ranks. James Angleton, the CIA’s legendary head of counter-intelligence (the model for the Matt Damon character in The Good Shepherd) tore the agency apart with a mole-hunt (fictionally recorded in Robert Little’s The Company and the TV mini-series that was made from it) from which the CIA never recovered. (The mole, if one existed, was never found.)
In 1979, British TV turned Tinker Tailor into a six-hour mini-series with Alec Guinness playing George Smiley. It received brilliant reviews and when I saw it again, a few months ago, on DVD, I thought it had aged remarkably well. It is still, for my money, one of the best TV shows ever made.
Le Carre’s follow-up to Tinker Tailor was The Honourable Schoolboy set in Hong Kong which British TV deemed too expensive to film so we had to wait till 1982 when Alec Guinness returned in Smiley’s People, another mini-series that was just as good as Tinker Tailor.
Smiley’s People ended with the defection of Karla, the head of the Russian secret service so it was difficult for Le Carre to do much more with the Smiley character. The author moved on to other themes, wrote many successful books (most of which became movies) and is generally regarded as the greatest spy writer in history.
But for people of my generation, the three Smiley books (Tinker Tailor; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People) remained his masterworks. I never thought that Le Carre could write better books or that the two TV shows could be topped.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I read that the British film company, Working Title, was making a movie of Tinker Tailor. How could a complicated book whose story had taken six hours to unfold on the TV screen be distilled into a two-hour feature film? Who would be interested in a spy thriller set in the early 70s? And which actor would be brave enough to step into Alec Guinness’s shoes as George Smiley.
This week, Tinker Tailor is finally released. The early reviews have been ecstatic. Gary Oldman is supposed to be a worthy successor to Guinness as Smiley. An all-star cast including John Hurt and Colin Firth is supposed to excel. And Le Carre himself says that he is delighted with the way in which the movie has turned out.
I have not seen the Tinker Tailor film yet but as you can probably tell, I am dying to watch it. A sad rule of mass marketing is that while we will get the Thor movie in Delhi even before it is released in much of the world, really good movies sometimes take a little longer to reach us. (And then, they only last for a week before they are pulled off to be replaced by some rom-com.)
At the Toronto Film Festival, where Tinker Tailor was screened, the buzz was that the movie was a dead cert for many Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor. It is too early to make any predictions but if the buzz translates into reality, then we may finally have an alternative to the Bourne-Bond school of spy films. If the movie is a commercial success then I would imagine that The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People will also be filmed.
I doubt if any of this is giving Daniel Craig sleepless nights. And as for Matt Damon, he has already said that he won’t play Jason Bourne in the fourth movie. Nor will it make any difference to the forthcoming movie version of 24.
But for those of us who like our spies a little more cerebral and our espionage a little more grounded in reality, the prospect of more Smiley films is a tremendously exciting one. Let Jason Bourne, James Bond and Jack Bauer run riot on the big screens. We will go to our multiplexes and savour the adventures of George Smiley.