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Spy (on paper) vs Spy (on film)

February 10, 2010 by Reader's Connection

The Spy Who Came in from the ColdI´m looking for an excuse to talk about spy movies on a blog that is supposed to be about reading, and I haven´t come up with a concept. I´ll just say that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the best spy movie ever made, and that this particular edition, with the extra DVD features, is a treasure trove for any John le Carré reader.

Among other features, there’s an interview with the author about the making of the movie, and a second more general film about his career.

TSWCIFTC also has the distinction of featuring my favorite Richard Burton performance, and le Carré is hugely entertaining and enlightening about Burton, who plays Alec Leamas, the run-down spy who doesn’t quite make it in from the cold. Burton’s manner wasn’t right for the part, he was “caught between stage and screen,” he was “too noisy, too active,” and needed to “scale himself down.”  There was an “undying animosity” between Burton and director Martin Ritt, but they managed to get the performance they did due to some unspoken agreement that Burton “had pissed away his career.”

I don’t agree with le Carré that Ritt’s choice to do the film in black and white was “almost a perversity”– but who cares what I agree with? If you’re interested in le Carré, you need to watch these segments.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold(Our other DVD copy of the movie doesn’t have the special features.)





The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The book The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was published in 1963 while le Carré was “still a spook,” and his superiors in the spy trade allowed him to publish it because he wasn’t giving away any real secrets. The book was “not authentic” and “actually quite romantic.”

The novel means less to me than the movie, not because I had problems with its authenticity, but because I’m such an inauthentic guy, myself: I saw the movie first, and that was that. I enjoyed the read, but Burton had preconditioned any vision I might have of  Alec Leamas.

John le Carré has said that he conceived the idea for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold after seeing the [Berlin] Wall on a visit from Bonn, and certainly no other book is so closely associated with it . . . If you want to know about the Cold War in the early Sixties, how people felt about it, then you must read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. So says novelist Joseph Kanon in his foreward to this edition, and I agree; but the embittered, unshaven, black & white Burton has become part of that association for me.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The opposite was true of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974). This is the greatest spy novel ever written, and I waited almost three decades before watching the television version with Alec Guinness. I didn’t want Guinness taking over my vision of the George Smiley character they way Burton had taken over Alec Leamas. (Le Carré talks about this phenomenon during his DVD interview, and see below.)

Tinker Tailor is about a mole, or counterspy, a Soviet spy buried within the British secret service. George Smiley, who had appeared in earlier le Carré novels, is his own kind of hero–unglamorous, intellectual, unlucky in love. He has been dumped from the secret service prior to the start of the novel, and is out of favor with the political players of the espionage world, but some of them call him back to find the mole.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The television version with Alec Guinness as Smiley (1979) is  quite faithful to the novel. I think the actor playing Jerry Westerby is too old, and the guy playing Sam Collins is too young, and so on. I have quibbles. But the filmmakers obviously understood that le Carré hadn’t been writing along the James Bond line, with lots of gadgets and gorgeous babes; and they tried to give us a  look at the real world of Cold War espionage.

It’s a shame that the prep school episodes are so trimmed down for the movie. I understand that something had to be sacrificed, but one of the most moving aspects of the novel was the relationship between the forlorn schoolboy Bill Roach and Jim Prideaux, a fallen spy who has ended up teaching at Thursgood’s Preparatory School. I should have included Tinker Tailor when I did apost on prep schools last July, and for those who have only watched the film and aren’t going to read the book, here’s the first page:

The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton Races Jim would have never come to Thursgood’s at all. He came in mid-term without an interview–late May it was, though no one would have thought it from the weather–employed through one of the shiftier agencies specialising in supplying teachers for prep schools, to hold down old Dover’s teaching till someone suitable could be found. “A linguist,” Thursgood told the common-room,  “a temporary measure,” and brushed away his forelock in self-defence. “Priddo.” He gave the spelling, “P-r-i-d”–French was not Thursgood’s subject so he consulted the slip of paper–“e-a-u-x, first name James. I think he’ll do us very well till July.” The staff had no difficulty in reading the signals. Jim Prideaux was a poor white of the teaching community. He belonged to the same sad bunch as the late Mrs. Loveday, who had a Persian-lamb coat and stood in for junior divinity until her cheques bounced, or the late Mr. Maltby, the pianist who had been called from choir practice to help the police with their enquiries, and as far as anyone knew was helping them to this day, for Maltby’s trunk still lay in the cellar awaiting instructions. Several of the staff, but chiefly Marjoribanks, were in favour of opening that trunk. They said it contained notorious missing treasures: Aprahamian’s silver-framed picture of his Lebanese mother, for instance; Best-Ingram’s Swiss army penknife and Matron’s watch. But Thursgood set his creaseless face resolutely against their entreaties. Only five years had passed since he had inherited the school from his father, but they had taught him already that some things are best locked away.

When you think about everything that’s going to be unlocked in this novel, that last sentence has real charm.

Smiley's People
I didn’t like The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), the follow-up novel to Tinker Tailor–I thought it was too long and more of a travel book than a novel. It was fine with me that no one ever made the movie. But I enoyed Smiley’s People (1979), the last of the Smiley novels–and I have to say that the TV version with Guinness (1982) is wonderful.


Once again, George Smiley is pulled out of retirement–or hoists himself out of retirement–and is on a quest. Le Carré was one of the screenwriters, and the film follows the novel closely–viewers aren’t spared the snobbery and in-fighting of le Carré’s espionage establishment.




Smiley's People

The author wrote a new introduction to the book in 2000, and said that he had planned to write more Smiley novels, but had been cut short in part by the success of the two television productions. George Smiley, whether I liked it or not, was from then on Alec Guinness–voice, mannerisms, the whole package. And I did like it. I liked it enormously. Once in a writer’s life, if he’s lucky, an actor plays one of his characters to perfection. And Alec did that . . . On the other hand, I didn’t at all enjoy the fact that Smiley had somehow been taken over by my public.

You should ignore my earlier quibbles. The casts of both productions are excellent. I’m thinking now of Eileen Atkins as Maria Ostrakova, and an actor I can’t name because if I explain why I like him, I’ll be giving something away; but even tiny parts were sometimes filled by actors who were later to become more celebrated: Alan Rickman has an incidental part with two or three lines, and Patrick Stewart has a crucial part with no lines at all. As much as I love le Carré´s writing, I have to admit that some episodes–Smiley´s visit to the “water camp” and his later visit to an institutionalized woman–are more alive in my memory due to the film.


The Last Supper
Charles McCarry is another one-time spy–he was once a CIA guy–who eventually turned to writing spy fiction; and The Last Supper (1983) is another favorite of mine. McCarry wasn’t as lucky as le Carré went it came to film adaptations, though. The Good Shepherd (2006) was so  annoying that I couldn’t bring myself to watch it again while writing this post.

But wait, you’re thinking. The Good Shepherd wasn’t based on The Last Supper. Maybe not, but one all-important spy-trick in the novel was copied in the movie, and both are studies of families who become tied up with the CIA, and both borrow their titles from the Bible. Perhaps the spy-trick in question was based on a real historical incident, and screenwriter Eric Roth was making use of it just as Charles McCarry had. But Roth had surely read McCarry’s novel, and ought to have restrained himself.

I expected to find a firestorm of complaints about this matter on the web, but so far I’ve found only a comment by Jefferson Flanders: It makes you wish that [Good Shepherd director Robert] DeNiro had chosen to adapt Charles McCarry’s The Last Supper, which covers the same historical territory but in a much more personal way . . . That’s putting it mildly.


The Company: A Novel of the CIA



Robert Littell’s 2002 novelThe Company: A Novel of the CIA runs from the early years of the Cold War to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it too involves families with multigenerational CIA involvements. Old CIA hand Charles McCarry had kind words for it: In his gripping new novel, Robert Littell brings a lost culture with little or no written history vibrantly back to life. Mingling real-life heroes and villains with compelling fictitious characters and mixing little-known facts with imaginary events that sometimes ring truer than reality, this master novelist has given us that rarity in the genre, a pager-turner that lives on in the reader’s memory.



The CompanyI loved the novel, but I wasn’t too thrilled by the television version (2007), and the DVD’s extra features help to explain why. Chris O’Donnell, one of the stars, explains that the miniseries is divided into three panels–an espionage story, an action movie and a psychological thriller. These “action” sequences were indeed in the novel–they weren’t invented by the filmmakers–but the novel was more unified: the espionage component ran more consistently throughout the whole story. And screenwriter Ken Nolan boasts that he adhered to “William Goldman’s rules of screenwriting,” which forced him to “give the star everything.” So in the novel, two different CIA agents take part in the Hungarian uprising and the Bay of Pigs invasion, but in the TV version, Chris O’Donnell is a CIA superhero fighting both battles.

The DVD is still worth watching–to see Micheal Keaton’s chain-smoking, orchid-growing James Jesus Angleton, if for no other reason–but I felt groggy watching the action panel in the middle with its heavy musical score.


While we´re on the subject of real-life spies (Angleton was the CIA´s chief of counterintelligence) I should mention a book and DVD that share the same title, though one isn’t based on the other.

The Cambridge Spies

Verne W. Newton’s The Cambridge Spies: The Untold Story of Maclean, Philby and Burgess in America (1991)and BBC movie The Cambridge Spies (2003) both deal with the careers of the same moles–Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean–British secret agents who were secretly Soviet agents. The DVD also considers their fellow mole Anthony Blunt, and it’s clear from Newton’s subtitle that he’s focusing on the American careers of the moles.

I’ve only begun to read and watch these two, but the different viewpoints are already freaking me out. The Kim Philby of the movie, for example, is a dedicated communist, fighting a bold underground battle against Nazism, while author Newton doubts that Philby was really a true believer in anything, and he approvingly quotes John le Carré : Philby has no home, no women, no faith. Behind the inbred upper-class arrogance, the taste for adventure, lies the self-hate of a vain misfit for whom nothing will ever be worthy of his loyalty. In the last instance, Philby is driven by the incurable drug of deceit itself.

The Spy Who Came in from the ColdI know I need to read the rest of the book and watch the rest of the DVD before I make any judgments, but le Carré’s contempt for Philby (voiced also in one of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’s special DVD features) is weighing heavily upon me. (Yes, I started with my favorite spy movie and that’s where I’m finishing.)


1 comment »

  1. Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy has a lot of funny undertones as well. It goes well with the DVDs “Tales of Hoffman” and “Peeping Tom”.

    I want to get LeCarre’s latest too. The last one I read was Mission Song. It was current for the Congo region of Africa and its relationship to Europe.

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