'Tinker, Tailor': The Greatest Spy Story Ever Told At its core, John le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy isn't really about espionage, says critic John Powers. The 1974 novel, adapted for the screen in 1979 by the BBC, is actually about secrets and lies and shifting identities — which is to say, a metaphor for our own daily lives.



'Tinker, Tailor': The Greatest Spy Story Ever Told

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A new film adaptation of John le Carre's famous spy novel "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" opens next month starring Gary Oldman. It's one of eight film adaptations of le Carre novels. Many critics, including our own John Powers, believe that the finest of all the le Carre adaptations was the version of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" made by the BBC in 1979. It's just been rereleased on DVD and John has a review.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: When I was 12, I was hooked on James Bond, both Ian Fleming's elegantly pulpy novels and the cartoonish movies they spawned. One day, my friend's older brother, who went to Harvard, tossed a paperback onto my lap and said, here's the real thing, kid.

The book was "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," the 1963 thriller by John le Carre. I opened it expecting a racier version of what I found in 007 - you know, Asian thugs with steel-rimmed bowlers, gorgeous women as sweetly pliable as taffy. What I got was a dankly bitter tale of betrayal ending at the Berlin Wall. I hated it. It was just too sophisticated for the adolescent me.

You see, le Carre wasn't merely a better writer than Fleming, but a reaction against him. Where 007 fought amusingly acronymed groups like SPECTRE, le Carre conjured a Cold War hall of mirrors in which spy craft wasn't about knife fights and hot sex, but about gambits and machinations in which it was hard to tell the good guys from the bad. His masterpiece was 1974's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" - not merely the greatest spy novel ever written, but the source of a 1979 BBC adaptation that's the greatest spy show ever made. In anticipation of a new film version coming out in a few weeks - the story, you see, is irresistible - the series has just been released on DVD, along with its sequel, "Smiley's People." Watching again, I found it every bit as gripping as the first three times I watched it.

The great Alec Guinness stars as George Smiley, an honorable spy chief who's been ousted after a shakeup in British intelligence, known as The Circus. But once it becomes clear that there's a mole, or double agent, high up in The Circus, Smiley is brought back to catch him. He does this in the old school, pre-Google way, by sifting through papers and questioning anyone who might be involved, all in a style that's unsettlingly calm.

Here, he begins to interview Toby Esterhase, played by Bernard Hepton, the Hungarian board head of the so-called Lamplighters, a branch of the service in charge of covert internal security.


ALEC GUINNESS: (As George Smiley) How are your children, Toby?

BERNARD HEPTON: (As Toby Esterhase) Doing terribly well, thank you, George.

GUINNESS: (As George Smiley) The boy's at Westminster. Have I got that right? Your daughter's probably left school by now, has she?

HEPTON: (As Toby Esterhase) First year medical student. Loves it.

GUINNESS: (As George Smiley) Good for her. Toby, I have to ask you this. Sorry at the common prying. Your department's a long way behind with its worksheets - two months, almost. Now why is that? It's not Lamplighter style.

HEPTON: (As Toby Esterhase) Well, we're not infallible George. Two months. Well, I won't question it. Is it terribly important? Of course, if you say it is then I'll see it's dealt with, of course.

GUINNESS: (As George Smiley) The question is why, Toby. Let me be blunt.

HEPTON: (As Toby Esterhase) Not your style, George.

POWERS: No. Bluntness isn't Smiley's thing. He's like the world's greatest poker player, all quiet observation, laconic dialogue and unreadable reactions. As played by Guinness, a master of the ambiguous smile, Smiley exudes a melancholy kindness that may not be kind, and a knowledge of human frailty that's profound, yet not profound enough to keep his own wife from cheating on him.

When le Carre first became famous, he was celebrated for being so realistic, yet his fictional world is actually every bit as mythological as Fleming's. It's just subtler. In fact, "Tinker, Tailor" offers the seductive fantasy of entering a secret world, one imagined with alluring richness. We breathe a conspiratorial mental atmosphere in which every single word might be important. And we encounter an oh-so-proper bureaucracy in which the deadliest snakes aren't the Soviets, but the colleagues slithering around your office.

Here, even the most devout patriot will be sacrificed by his own side in the great chess game of Cold War politics. Like millions of others, I can't get enough of this stuff, but for a while, it all but vanished. You see, le Carre's brand of espionage tale was rooted in the Cold War, which offered the neatness of two opposed sides facing off. When communism collapsed, so did the contemporary spy novel. The West lacked a clearly defined enemy.

Happily for spy stories, though not for the world, it has one again in radical Islam. And almost predictably, we've begun seeing le Carre-tinged espionage stories, like Showtime's current series "Homeland," in which Claire Danes plays a CIA agent who doesn't quite trust anyone, not even her own bosses, and PBS's "Page Eight," starring the wonderful British actor Bill Nighy as a canny old spy who stumbles upon volatile knowledge he'd sooner not know.

I can recommend both. Yet truthfully, neither can rival "Tinker, Tailor," an almost perfect fantasy for those of us less thrilled by jet-ski chases than by the exposure of what lies hidden. In fact, what makes le Carre's spy stories so primally gripping is that, at bottom, they're not actually about espionage. They're about secrets and lies and shifting identities, which is to say that they're a metaphor for our own daily lives - except, of course, that Smiley's story is really, really exciting.

GROSS: John Powers reviews film and TV for "Vogue" and vogue.com. "Page Eight," starring Bill Nighy, will air on PBS this Sunday, and Nighy will be our guest tomorrow on FRESH AIR. Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward reviews a new collection that includes six hours of sessions from the


' famous unreleased album "Smile." This is FRESH AIR.

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