Yesterday’s Spy

Sorry for the lull- been finishing off my dissertation- but hopefully I’ll get round to posting more regularly now.

Alec Guinness as Smiley

The first adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was broadcast in 1979, the same year that Moonraker was released. While the early Bond films had paid lip service to the realities of espionage, by the 70s this had been jettisoned and the movies owed more to upstart genres like Blaxploitation or kung fu. Bond, divorced from his original context, became a British-flavoured Superman (the writer of Diamonds Are Forever, Tom Mankiewicz, also wrote the screenplay for the original Christopher Reeve movie).

Now that Bond was in the stratosphere, a new character came to embody the world of spydom. George Smiley, as played by Alec Guinness, feels like a conscious attempt to construct a character as diametrically opposed to Bond as possible; this is a meme that the producers of the new film adaptation have been keen to emphasise. If any character in the Bond world can be described as a Smiley analogue, it is most likely to be one of the fusty bureaucrats that 007 flips off at the start of every movie.

And that’s about the only point of intersection between the two worlds. While much of John Le Carre’s fiction, and indeed almost all of spy literature, is preoccupied with betrayal, that theme has only figured in the most recent Bond movies, and in a subtly different manner. Any of the suspects in Tinker Tailor could credibly be the mole, as each of them is trapped in their own labyrinth of double cross and triple cross. Betrayal for Le Carre’s spies is a metaphor for the modernist condition of unknowability, whereas in Bond films like GoldenEye or Casino Royale, betrayal by other characters defines Bond as morally uncomplicated, a man completely untroubled by personal or political ties.

Another major theme in Tinker Tailor– the decline of British influence in world affairs- is mostly ignored in the Bond films, though not entirely. Occasionally it is played for laughs, as in Diamonds Are Forever, when Blofeld refers to Bond’s ‘pitiful little island’. But the character of Bond transcends these moments, largely because his own Britishness is nominal at best. He stands for the generalised Western values that Le Carre has increasingly lambasted in recent years. His characters are tragic because the world they expected to inherit has been taken away from them. And this is why, for all his apparent diffidence, Smiley is a reality check of a character who could never be embraced by a mass audience; Bond, on the other hand, is a comforting myth of potency and power.

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