The perennial challenge for anyone attempting to adapt a novel to the screen is to get all the important plot aspects in and have it all make sense—all without losing a lot of the details that made a novel worth adapting in the first place, or having the movie end up being eight hours long. Such was the challenge of adapting the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and such was the challenge of adapting the author who could perhaps be considered the Tolkein of espionage fiction: John le Carré. (It is also the challenge of the movie blogger to succinctly summarize an author’s rather eventful early life.)
Born David John Moore Cornwell in 1931, he went to school at Oxford and it was during this time that he started working undercover for the MI5, the British Security Service, spying on lefty organizations (or organisations, if you prefer) and searching for possible Soviet agents (this was the 1950s, after all). He became an MI5 officer in 1958, and two years later transferred to MI6, the foreign intelligence service. It was at this time that he began writing novels. An MI6 rule at the time barred Cornwall from publishing stories and novels under his own name, so he was required to adopt a pseudonym: John le Carré (French for “John the Square,” apparently). It took a few tries, but the third novel was the charm: The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963) was his international breakthrough. Just as well, too: he had to leave the service in 1964 (he could work full-time as a novelist by then) after his cover was blown to the KGB by a double agent. If this sounds like a plot from one of le Carré’s books, it kind of is: the British double agent who outed him—Kim Philby—inspired the character who turns out to be the mole George Smiley pursues in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. (Like Cornwall, Smiley was forced into retirement prior to the events of the novel.)
The book was published in 1974 and was a bestseller, and was volume one of what would become known as le Carré’s “Karla Trilogy” (back to a Tolkein comparison), the subsequent volumes being The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979).
The current movie tie-in paperback edition of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy runs to 400 pages, and fairly dense pages at that, so you can see the challenge for a screenwriter. The BBC solved this problem when it first adapted the book in 1979—they did it as a seven-part miniseries (starring Alec Guinness as Smiley).
The latest adaptation, which the Saratoga Film Forum is screening this weekend—Thursday and Friday, March 22nd and 23rd at 7:30, and Sunday, March 25th at 3:00—is a “mere” 127 minutes. Look for a cameo by Cornwall/le Carré himself as an extra during one of the flashback “Christmas party” scenes.
And at 80, le Carré is still writing. His most recent novel, Our Kind of Traitor, was published in 2010. And it’s only 320 pages.
Note that the Saratoga Film Forum will also be screening the 1965 adaptation of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (starring Richard Burton) on Monday, March 26th, at 7:30 p.m. at the Spring Street Gallery at 110 Spring Street in Saratoga.