Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Speaking of spies

The blonde and I have been working our way through the television adaptation of John le Carre's Smiley's People starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, thank you Netflix.

It's been a very long time since I read the original trilogy of Smiley novels---Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy; and Smiley's People---so I can't remember what I thought Smiley was like before Alec Guinness turned him into Alec Guinness. I might have imagined him as a little bit younger, a little less of an old granny, with a bit more of the adventurer left in him. My idea of spies back then was still based on James Bond, Allistair MacLean novels, and whatever I'd read about Wild Bill Donovan and the OSS during World War II. Le Carre wiped all that out of my head, but it took all three books to do it, I think, so I probably started reading them with a more heroic and virile Smiley in my mind's eye. I do remember thinking of his wife Ann's affair as a sexual betrayal, which means that I saw Smiley as being sexually capable and that I didn't understand that his was the initial betrayal. I didn't understand how thoroughly Smiley had been warped by the spy game, that it had caused him to commit Scrooge's sin---he had withdrawn his soul from all contact and sympathy with other people. He had left Ann long before she left his bed.

A few years later, watching Guinness in the TV adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People for the first time, I suddenly did understand. Guinness forced me to understand.

The question that I'll never be able to answer for myself now is whether or not he did this by illuminating the character of George Smiley or stealing him from le Carre and rewriting his subtext forever. Anyone out there who has read the books but not seen the TV movies?

With his rolled umbrella, orange suede shoes, and too careful walk---practically the totter of an old woman overloaded with packages making her way home along icy sidewalks---Guinness painted the portrait of a man who has grown too self-protective, despite having very little sympathy for himself, a man determined to keep himself alive and well for no other reason than he needs to be alive and well if he's ever going to catch his nemesis, the Russian spy master, Karla.

And those thick-lensed oversized glasses empahsizing his wide, astonished eyes made it plain that Smiley had become all eyes, which is a way of saying that his only way of dealing with life has become through looking at it, that is, by spying on it.

(The glasses were Guinness's own; he had very bad eyes at that time. One of the more interesting parts of his books of memoirs is his description of the results of the operation that fixed the problem. I think it's in My Name Escapes Me but he might have written about it in A Positively Final Appearance, as well.)

The other point Guinness made by making Smiley such an old auntie was that Smiley was never heroic.

Guinness had a strange career when you think about it. He was a leading man who almost never, ever played a hero. In fact I can think of only one time. Star Wars. Obi-wan Kenobi was an old man, worn down by a life of hard adventuring followed by disappointment and defeat, but as Guinness played him the hero was still in him, ready to break out and go to work. Guinness, of course, never saw the young Obi-wan except in his imagination, but after watching Ewan McGregor's swashbuckling you can put on the original Star Wars and see that younger adventurer in Guinness's old wizard. In fact, I think that McGregor's portrayal of Obi-wan was an act of quiet, unassuming, and underappreciated genius, in that he was able to figure out exactly what kind of young man Alec Guinness imagined Obi-wan to have been and show not just that young man but the beginnings of that young man evolving into the old man exactly as Alec Guinness had played him.

All this is just to say that although Guinness didn't have much experience playing it handsome, dashing, and heroic, at least in the movies, he could play it handsome, dashing, and heroic, and what's more he could show in an old man the young hero he used to be---and he decidely did not do that with George Smiley.

His George Smiley has no traces left of the young man he used to be; whether or not that young man was heroic or not doesn't matter to the George Smiley of the present, who is another man entirely.

Not that Guinness leaves out any shadow of youthful goodness in the old man. Apparently the only thing he remembers about his former self is that he used to be more idealistic. He believed in right and wrong and he believed he was on the side of the angels. Now he is relfexively inclined to say that there are no angels in the spy trade, no complete ones, at any rate, and no one who is wholly a devil.

He remembers being idealistic, but he's like a priest who has lost his faith. He goes through the motions in hopes that the old, familiar devotions will revive the old, familiar feelings. He's loyal to the memory of his ideals more than he is idealistic himself.

In Smiley's People, Smiley is even more of a solitaire than he was in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The plot makes him have to be. He is out there on his own. And this is what is making me ambivalent about the mini-series.

Because the focus is so much on Smiley, the focus is on Alec Guinness playing George Smiley to the point that the series seems to be more about Guinness's portrayal of Smiley than about anything else.

I'm not sure I would be enjoying it at all if somebody else---Ralph Richardson or John Mills or Leo McKern---had been cast in the part. (Well, maybe I would if it had been McKern.) I watched Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy again a couple years ago, and while Guinness was terrific and definitely the star, I think the series would have stood on its own with another Smiley.

Now I'm trying to remember if the books were like that. Did Smiley slowly grow too big for his own story so that by the time le Carre wrote Smiley's People he was writing a pure character study instead of a spy story?

I think a bad thing is about to happen.

I'm going to start re-reading the books.


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