Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

(UK, 1979)

Once more one of my major cinematic theorems is proven: It is almost always a mistake to remake a really, really good film. (Coen Brothers exception: True Grit, the only instance I can think of where a classic was improved.) (Coen Brothers confirmation: The Ladykillers, easily their worst movie.) Those who only saw the recent remake of this will no doubt believe that they saw a good movie, and I won’t disagree with them. It was a good movie. But poor, poor pitiful them. Unless they look at this, as I was moved to do shortly after seeing the good remake, they will never know how good an adaptation of John le Carré’s best novel can be.

Forget for a moment things like acting, script, milieu, the look and feel of the two films. Think only about running time. This is an immensely complex, carefully nuanced, intellectually challenging story, full of amazing characters and subtle plot points. The original producers had 315 minutes to tell it, in six one-hour installments. The makers of the new one had 127 minutes, and that includes 5 minutes of end credits. Need I say more about that? Imagine trying to remake the magnificent 384 minutes of Lonesome Dove in, say, three hours. Could you do it? Could anyone be crazy enough to want to do it? I certainly wouldn’t be masochistic enough to watch the resulting abortion.

So, comparing the two? Gary Oldman as George Smiley: very good. Alec Guiness as George Smiley: brilliant, a performance for the ages. The supporting cast in the remake: very good. Supporting cast in the original: wonderful, especially the great Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon. Adaptation in the second one: a creditable job of condensing the story. Adaptation in the original: simply terrific, with six hours to spread out in, take your time, and get in every detail.

Summing up: In every way I can think of, the remake is quite good, and can’t hold a candle to the original. In the new one, the headquarters of the Circus is clean, functional, gray, and somehow American. That’s the big difference in American and British spies. The CIA headquarters gleams out there, surrounded by woods. The building the Circus is crammed into is an aging five-story pile of brick right in the middle of town. The rooms are tiny and shabby, the filing system looks like a wreck, and it is filled with jolly old chaps who get their own tea and speak their own arcane and very British argot, sometimes pompously, sometimes ironically, seldom honestly. They’re spies, after all, and each is jealously guarding his own plot, or rice bowl as they might say. Michael Aldridge, the man playing the incompetent and oh-so-condescending Percy Alleline, is superb. You just want to smack him and wipe that down-the-nose expression off his bloated face.

Please, please, if you thought the remake was good, find the DVD and see this one.