'Tinkering' With A Spy Classic Gets Oscar Nod

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy screenwriter Peter Straughn is up for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Host Rachel Martin speaks with Straughan about rewriting the classic John le Carre spy novel.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the run-up to next Sunday's Academy Awards, we've been speaking with writers nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, this week, screenwriter Peter Straughn. He's nominated along with Bridget O'Connor for the film, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." It's a Cold War thriller that stars Gary Oldman as a spy looking for a double agent within the Circus. That's the nickname for Britain's intelligence service. The film draws from John le Carre's novel. It's a book that also inspired a popular TV mini series in the 1970s.

When we spoke with Peter Straughn earlier this month, he recalled the TV show's loyal following years before he had watched it himself.

PETER STRAUGHN: I was very young when the TV series is on. I vaguely remember it. It was the kind of program that your fathers would watch and tell you to shut up or...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STRAUGHN: ...get out of the room. And so, we watched it again before we started the adaptation, just once, and it still brilliant. It's a brilliant, brilliant adaptation.

MARTIN: And the book, I mean how much did you - did you read that book?

STRAUGHN: Bridget and I both read the book long before, sort of years earlier and loved it. And then when we got offered the job, obviously we had to read it. And it was a bit like learning a piece of difficult piano music, you know, you have to practice it every day in order to get the whole thing in your head.

MARTIN: We should mention Bridget is - your wife Bridget, you co-wrote the screenplay with her. But she passed away before the film was finished.

STRAUGHN: Yes.

MARTIN: When you watch the film are there parts of it - dialogue, moments, scenes - that you look at and you say, ah, that is Bridget? That is her.

STRAUGHN: Yes, just little things sometimes. I'd say there's a moment at the beginning of the film when Smiley is in retirement and he goes swimming at some outdoor ponds. And that was Bridget's idea, just to try and sum up a man whose being cast out, you know, and is reduced to this sort of very lonely world. He's swimming with other old-age pensioners, really. You know, swimming around him. There's lots of images like that, that were Bridget's idea.

MARTIN: I imagine your primary challenge as a screenwriter is to try to figure out how to condense the story into something that people can watch in two hours or less?

STRAUGHN: There were two challenges. One was to condense a very complicated plot. And the other one was to make sure that that wasn't all the film ended up being. You know, to put the humans into it, which is what makes the novel so great, I think. It's a very human story. It's a story about betrayal and about loyalty, and the sort of heartbroken men that are the last of their breed, really. The men who fought in the Second World War with all that kind of moral certainty, and now find themselves fighting a very different war.

So we had to keep the emotional core up there. So, it was to do that but also to try and keep the tone of the book, which has a lovely autumnal melancholy quality. So we couldn't just go plot point, plot point, plot point. We had to put space and air and let the thing breath.

MARTIN: Did you have conversations with John le Carre?

STRAUGHN: We did, yeah. The sort of second meeting we had was with the director. And then we met with le Carre, who we knew was involved and sort of endorsed the project.

MARTIN: Tomas Alfredson, we should say, is the director. And how is the process, because you were writing this with your wife, Bridget. Had you collaborated on other projects before with your wife?

STRAUGHN: We had the first time we try to work together, we literally tried to sit side by side at the keyboard and write dialogue together.

MARTIN: Ooh.

STRAUGHN: And then really did work.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The same keyboard or adjacent?

STRAUGHN: The same keyboard.

MARTIN: Ooh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STRAUGHN: Foolishly, we tried to sit at the same computer and taking turns to type. That didn't work. We just ended up having lots of spats.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STRAUGHN: So, in the end, we realized that the way to do it was I would first draft one scene; Bridget would first draft another scene. And then we'd swap over and second draft each other's work basically.

MARTIN: Can you give me an example of a scene that was particularly confounding for you, that you and your wife just couldn't get your head around, how to translate this into something that would work in a movie?

STRAUGHN: There's a scene at the center of the book and of the film, where Smiley tells his sort of junior colleague, Peter Guillam, about the one time he met his archenemy, Karla, the head of the Russian secret services. It's quite a long scene in the book and he talks about how he interrogated them in a cell in India. And the received wisdom was that we would have to go into a flashback and act that out, because it's always shown autel(ph) in film.

But it didn't feel right to us. So, eventually talking with Tomas, we said, well, what about if we don't. What about if we just have him sit there and give this long monologue?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY")

GARY OLDMAN: (as Smiley) I should've walked out, of course. But for some reason it seems important to save this one. So I go on. But we're not so very different, you and I. We've both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another's systems. Don't you think it's time to recognize there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?

MARTIN: As you watch it, as an audience member, it has a different pacing to it.

STRAUGHN: This may be my favorite scene in the film now, as well. And I love Gary. And it took, you know, they took very good actor to pull that off, to just hold the scene.

MARTIN: Others we've talked to - who have adapted original works for film - say we're not trying to replicate the original.

STRAUGHN: Yeah.

MARTIN: I just imagine it's very difficult when there is this plot and, in your case, something that was so popular that there is such a following. Did you feel pressure to the fans of the book or the original television miniseries?

STRAUGHN: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STRAUGHN: I said somewhere that, you know, the project sort of started in a state of fear. And it sort of did but after a while you lose those nerves, and you just start to immerse yourself in the work. You know, and in the world that you're creating.

MARTIN: And you are going to the Oscars? Not going to the Oscars?

STRAUGHN: I'm going to the Oscars, yeah. I'm going to go and I'm going to take my daughter...

MARTIN: Oh, good.

STRAUGHN: ...who's 10, so she's very excited, indeed.

MARTIN: Peter Straughn, along with the late Bridget O'Connor, wrote the screenplay for "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." The film is an Oscar-nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay. Peter Straughn joined us from BBC Radio, Sussex.

Peter, thanks so much for talking with us.

STRAUGHN: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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