Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: An elegy for England

John le Carré’s classic novel, now adapted for the big screen, is much more than a cold war whodunni

John le Carré has said that Tomas Alfredson's absorbing adaptation of his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not the "film of the book" but the "film of the film", not a means to an end but an end in itself. You could equally say that it is the film of the television series - the BBC dramatisation, adapted by Arthur Hopcraft (author of The Football Man), directed by John Irvin and starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, the disenchanted spymaster who is drawn out of retirement to spy on the spies and lead the search for a double agent at the heart of the "Circus", le Carré's name for MI6. The film faithfully follows several of the reworkings of the television series - it begins urgently with the shooting of a British agent behind the Iron Curtain, rather than more prosaically with his arrival at a prep school, as in the novel.

First broadcast in September 1979, when our cold war paranoia and anxieties were, perhaps, most acute, the BBC series attracted 11 million viewers at its peak, at a time when we had only three channels and something resembling a common culture. Back then, you could be assured that your friends and neighbours were likely to be watching the same television programmes and listening to the same radio shows as you, and were probably also reading the same newspapers and magazines. They would certainly have been watching and talking about the BBC's Tinker, Tailor, so seductively did it seem to capture a period of darkness and disquiet in British culture.

In this first film adaptation of le Carré's 1974 novel, Gary Oldman seems less to be playing Smiley than Guinness-as-Smiley, in all his mellow, low-voiced inscrutability. Smiley in the novel is "small, podgy and at best middle aged . . . His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting and extremely wet". He has "plump hands linked across his generous stomach".

Oldman is taller, much leaner, with blond-grey hair swept back from a smooth, pale forehead. He always moves slowly, as Guinness did in the role, and conveys well through mannerism, tone of voice and posture what le Carré describes as Smiley's "spiritual exhaustion". Like Guinness, Oldman wears thick-framed and thick-lensed spectacles, which are just as they should be: Smiley may have poor eyesight but he can often see what others cannot and is never wilfully blind. Oldman purses his lips like a disapproving headmaster and seems often to be sucking on a boiled sweet. Like Guinness, Oldman's Smiley is always watchful and seems to be mourning something of which nothing can be spoken. When he does speak, it is with exaggerated deliberation, after Guinness.

Smiley, le Carré writes, "had that art, from miles and miles of secret life, of listening at the front of his mind; of letting the primary incidents unroll directly before him while another, quite separate faculty wrestled with their historical connection". Guinness and Oldman, in their studied pensiveness and distraction, seem able to show just how it is and what it means to listen at the front of your mind.

Smiley is le Carré's most resonant and resilient creation. He appears in eight novels yet will always be most associated with Tinker, Tailor and Smiley's People, BBC series both. As a result, for most of us, Guinness has become Smiley, as John Thaw is Inspector Morse and Anthony Hopkins is Hannibal Lecter; the character is inextricable from the actor playing him. You can no longer think of one without thinking of the other.
Colin Dexter has said that for the duration of the copyright of his novels, he will allow no other actor to play Morse. Thomas Harris has made no such stipulation about Lecter; indeed, the most convincing Lecter so far is surely not Hopkins but Brian Cox, who played the serial killer, gourmand and snob in Michael Mann's visually ravishing Manhunter, an adaptation of Red Dragon, the first novel in the Lecter series. Cox's Lecter was far less a camp pantomime act than a sadistic misanthrope, who offers no motive or explanation for his crimes. When he appears on camera for the first time, he freezes the room and his eyes radiate no warmth or light.

Le Carré has given his approval to Oldman-as-Smiley, suggesting that he and Alfredson have captured something previously unnoticed about Smiley - his cruelty, "which is something that comes with solitude". Smiley is a cuckold. His marriage to the "beautiful", aristocratic Ann is childless and, one suspects, sexless, too. Everyone seems to know that Ann, whose face irritatingly is never shown in the film, is serially unfaithful. In le Carré, the personal and political are one and the same; each of us betrays those we purport to love in our duplicitous way.

I remember how thrilled my father was by the BBC's Tinker, Tailor. He had read the book on his travels to the subcontinent and elsewhere and recommended it to me. I did not watch the series until the early 1990s, long after I'd read the novel, when it was repeated on BBC2, and although after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the paranoid, monotone world it depicted seemed already to be retreating into the past, I understood that what I was watching was more than a routine cold war spy thriller featuring distinguished British character actors. It was a drama about Englishness and English decline, at once an elegy and an interrogation into what had gone wrong in the present - after all, Tinker, Tailor was first broadcast at the end of the 1970s, soon after the fall of the Callaghan government and the election of Margaret Thatcher.

Geoffrey Burgon's theme music, especially his beautiful setting of the prayer "Nunc Dimittis" that closed each episode, did much to establish the overall mood and feel. And one episode, set at an undistinguished prep school in the Quantock Hills, where a betrayed MI6 operative is now working incognito as a teacher, ends with the boys singing "Jerusalem" on a cold, late-autumn afternoon. There are scenes in Oxford, where Smiley went to university and to which he returns often in his thoughts, and the motif of the dreaming spires recurs throughout.

Le Carré's novel, like much of his work, is extraordinarily static and airless. Many scenes take place between only a few people, sometimes just two, in closed rooms. The archi­tecture of the novel is constructed from blocks of talk (Tinker, Tailor is both a spy novel and a whodunnit, glistening with leading questions and evasive answers). There are long retrospectives and condensed histories and biographical sketches. Le Carré invents his own elliptical language of "lamplighters" and "scalphunters", of Moscow Central and the Circus. Smiley moves through this cold and colourless world with knowing fascination, waiting, listening.

The defining encounter that alerts the Cabinet Office to the possibility of treachery within the Circus is between a female, Russian agent and a British spook and occurs in Hong Kong. The scene is related, however, entirely in retrospect, bleaching it of much of its drama. (In the BBC series, Hong Kong becomes Lisbon; in the film, it is Istanbul. Both television and film versions heighten and enhance the drama of the two agents' dangerous liaisons by showing and not merely telling.)

Alfredson's film is at its best as a study in minimalist aesthetics and cool, sombre, low-tech interiors. His Circus has a clinical, Scandinavian starkness and his London is a city of shadows and smoke-filled rooms, permanently autumnal, photographed in shades of blue-grey. The film is long at two hours but the book is much longer, densely allusive and labyrinthine. The BBC series unfolded gracefully over seven 50-minute episodes. Each of the main suspects was given space and time enough to enlarge and to show his hand. In the film, they have no such opportunity and the necessary compression and quickening mean that they can seem like mere bit players in the larger melodrama of Smiley's return to the Circus and redemption.

Salman Rushdie, in a review of The Russia House, once mocked le Carré, a genre writer, for wanting to be taken far too seriously and later denounced him as an "illiterate, pompous ass". But it is Rushdie's novels that now seem suddenly the more dated, with their hysterically overblown style and verbal flatulence. By contrast, le Carré has written three novels - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Tinker, Tailor and A Perfect Spy (1986) - that are among the most politically complex in postwar British fiction and people keep returning to them. You read him not for the richness and subtleties of his language but for the insights he offers into the psychology, snobberies, disappointments and codes of a well-schooled, English elite who were, as one of Smiley's former colleagues puts it to him, on a visit to see her in Oxford: "Trained to empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away."

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (15) is on general release from 16 September
Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman