Saturday, November 19, 2011

George Smiley and the rebirth of Estonia

There are three books in John Le Carré’s Karla trilogy:

  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
  • The Honourable Schoolboy
  • Smiley’s People

The BBC adapted Tinker, Tailor in 1979 with Alec Guinness as George Smiley. This year’s film of the book was a worthy attempt, but it suffers when compared with the earlier version. And before I go any further let me recommend the appreciation of that earlier version on Love and Liberty.

Jerry Westerby, the central character of the second book, plays a minor part in Tinker, Tailor. In the 1979 adaptation he was played by Joss Ackland and the casting of such a prominent actor in this role suggests that the BBC may have had it in mind to make The Honourable Schoolboy with Ackland as Westerby and Guinness as Smiley. But most of the action of the book is set in Hong Kong and it was probably judged too expensive to adapt as a result.

Incidentally, this year’s film rolled together two characters who are central to The Honourable Schoolboy – Westerby and Sam Collins – and cast an actor who was not remotely like either of them. The film-makers will have to unscramble that omelette if they want to adapt all three of the Karla novels.

So the television adapters skipped The Honourable Schoolboy and adapted Smiley’s People, with Alec Guinness again the star. This second series is compelling viewing too, though somehow it never quite reaches the superlative level of Tinker, Tailor. Perhaps that is because the casting is not quite so satisfactory and because, as in the novel, one or two motifs, such as the visit to Connie Sachs, are repeated from Tinker, Tailor.

One thing that interests me about Smiley’s People is that it reminds us how much the world has changed since it was written in 1979. The plot begins with the murder by the KGB in London of an elderly former Soviet general who has defected to become the head of an Estonian nationalist organisation.

To the realists who have taken over the Circus since Smiley’s retirement – and to an extent to Le Carré himself – the Estonians are relics of the past and somewhat ridiculous. The future lies in détente with the Soviets. I take this as a true picture of the official view under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan’s governments of the 1970s.

Today Estonia is an independent nation. And to judge by one of my favourite Lib Dem bloggers, Cicero’s Songs, it is a notably successful one.

The moral, I suppose, that we have no idea what the future holds and that the people who believe history is on their side will undoubtedly turn out to be mistaken.

1 comment:

James said...

Have you heard the BBC Radio 4 George Smiley audio dramas? They're much truer to the books than the TV series, and Simon Russell Beale's performance as Smiley is arguably on a par with Alec Guiness. Well worth a listen.