Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

By Cory Haggart

Mailed on March 01, 2012

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Dear Dear Peter Straughan

Dear Dear,

Peter, you should have known better.

You were doing so well, that, in the excitement, you forgot yourself­--and your place. You tried to improve on the source material by adding some gay, taking out a lady, and relying on a metaphor that brought the whole thing down around your ears.

What happened? You had Bridget and Tomas with you this time. So perhaps it's their fault, but I don't believe it. I thought "It's that goat movie all over again. Peter had a weird and great story and he let it slip through his fingers." But your instincts are strong, and Bridget and Tomas are great, so I really want to understand completely.

So much was right. You had, in many ways, really chosen the best path. It's a brilliant adaptation that slims down a book and a TV series into an economical and deliciously atmospheric film, with rough blankets of paranoia and flattering quilts of intelligence.

But you still pooped the bed.

I can only imagine what it was like. In the Huffington Post, you admitted that you were scared, and I believe you. When working on a screenplay as complicated and nuanced as this, you should have clung to your source material for dear life.

Is it possible, that having some so close to perfection, flushed with pride, that you let yourself blow right past the whole point of your movie? So I should be clear. What exactly did you add?

Well, you added some homosexuality. Maybe you thought it makes Guillam's sacrifice more epic. Perhaps it makes Smiley more insightful for noticing it. Maybe you thought it more honest having a gay character. But doing so, you unintentionally make one of your main characters a complete bounder. Now this top spy has neither the smarts to hide his relationship from idiots like Alleline nor the courage or love to defend it when it conflicts with his workplace ambitions? And then he cries about it? It's a flourish that pretends every one of these players hasn't already sacrificed every single secret of theirs worth knowing. See? Just one little addition and the whole beautiful thing starts to stink.

The next addition was actually a removal: Anne. In the book and series, Anne is overwhelming, Smiley's one weakness, the one he can't escape. She produces sound and light and noise and humiliation that keeps him from clearly seeing the truth. I could even forgive you trivializing Connie Sachs, but Anne? Her power and influence trivializes the whole damn Circus, and you take her out?

Hiding Anne as you did, you give the audience the one same blind spot Smiley has. How can we know the stakes, or what was achieved, if we only see as far as his own limitations? Even if he sees past those limitations at the end, we are still blind. Imagine a Rope where Hitchcock has removed the entire first scene. That is not a better movie.

But adding those little chess pieces made it clear what you had done. If this is about a cold-war chess game, you made it about the wrong one. Smiley vs. Karla is a Fischer vs. Spassky-level contest. But it's not 1972. It's 1992. The players are no longer at their peak, and playing for diminished stakes.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a story of has-beens. In it, Smiley has made mistakes that he should have caught. The mole has operated for far too long. Most of the characters are grey and broken from years of service. The whole project itself is only on the edge of concern for the higher-ups. The players are going through the motions, waiting to see who gets tired first.

The danger of using metaphors is that they can get away from you, obscuring instead of revealing your subject. Your little chessmen subvert the original meaning of the film's title. They get everyone wondering who was rook, and who was knight, and who was queen?

That's a good story device, but I think it's where you erred, overreaching past a concise masterpiece. It's probably the same tragic mistake the characters each make: believing that they were ever anything other than mere pawns. It's the mistake we all make, really.



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