WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
Two years ago a film version of John le Carré's classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy hit the big screen. The film was certainly not perfect from a purist's perspective. As was perhaps inevitable in any viable two-hour film, it did not quite do justice to the novel's sprawl and feel (the tangle of the back stories, the wooliness of the investigation, the shabbiness of imperialists living "after-the-empire"), and less inevitably, included some questionable additions (the dubious symbolism of Smiley swimming in a pond, bits of violence apparently intended to spice up a story lacking in action, but which seemed merely repellent and even propagandistic).1 Nonetheless, the script was an impressive feat of compression and rearrangement, rendering a book that often seems opaque not merely intelligible, but accessible, while retaining something of the original's complexity. The film was also bolstered by strong performances from the cast and skillfully edited (the closing montage justly drawing favorable comment). The result was a critical success, and on its modest terms, a commercial one as well, which has led to some talk of a sequel, focusing on Smiley's People.
Of course, Smiley's People is the third novel in the "Karla" trilogy, not the second, such a plan necessarily skipping over the series' second book, The Honourable Schoolboy--despite not only the fact that the events of Schoolboy bring about the situation we see at the start of Smiley's, but that it also seems to be the more highly praised of the latter two novels. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that, difficult as Tailor was to compress into a two-hour movie, Honourable (the longest of the three novels) is harder still, as it tells a larger, more complex story following two different but related and ultimately converging tracks--the maneuverings of Smiley and his people in London in the aftermath of the unmasking of Bill Haydon's treachery, and Jerry Westerby's field work in Southeast Asia on Smiley's people's behalf. This is compounded by the fact that what were at the time of the novel's writing recent events are now relatively obscure history, particularly the complex of interrelated Southeast Asian wars (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand) that form a significant part of the backdrop. A great deal would have to be explained to the audience, which afterward might still have a hard time following along, easily thinking that Westerby is still in the same country, and confronted by the same conflict, even as he crosses from one country (and one war zone) to another.2
Moreover, Westerby's adventure is nothing short of an epic journey across the region at the time of the fall of Saigon--the kind of thing which would be hugely expensive to shoot faithfully. Where Tailor mostly gave us small groups of people talking to each other in mundane-looking rooms, Honourable is packed with such spectacles as the high life at the Happy Valley Racecourse and the siege of Pnom Penh, while, uncharacteristically for a le Carré novel, there are a number of elaborate set pieces involving blazing machine guns, explosions and swooping aircraft.
I have not heard any estimates of what the budget would have to be to get it all on screen, but I would not be surprised to hear a figure upward of $100 million--in contrast with the $20 million spent on Tailor. Of course, such sums are spent on movies all the time. (I counted at least twenty major releases with such budgets in 2012 alone.) Nonetheless, a blockbuster budget can only be raised when there is the prospect of a blockbuster gross, and one has to recall that Tailor was a hit on a much smaller scale, earning $80 million not in the first weekend of its North American release, but its entire global run. And the prospects of a film version of Honourable Schoolboy doing much better, let alone well enough to justify a $100 million-plus production budget, seem slim given not just the limited size of the built-in audience created by the original book, and the previous film, but the source material itself, which in its structure and course is no more the stuff of blockbusters than Tailor was.3
The fact that the Circus is here working against Chinese intelligence is also likely to be an inhibiting factor, given the leeriness of the film industry about doing anything which might seem offensive to those in command of what is now the world's second-largest movie market--fears that loom all the larger when one talks big budgets. Those particular fears are not at all allayed by the fact that a major part of the story is set in British-ruled Hong Kong, and that unlike in Tailor (which switched its Hong Kong scenes to Istanbul), the location cannot be changed without doing considerable violence to the plot. (One might add, too, that the story is not especially flattering to the U.S. either. In fact, reading the book I had the impression that, after writing of the end of the British Empire in Tailor, le Carré decided to take on what looked to many at the time like the end of the American empire.)
Of course, book-to-screen adaptations make compromises all the time, but the tension between art and commerce here would be considerable, and the results likely to displease fans without reaching that more general audience necessary to make the project profitable. By contrast, Smiley's People is a far easier movie to make, with a simpler, more compact story making far fewer demands on a production's resources. The Russian-set bits are easy enough to do on a sound stage, and the rest of the location shooting poses little challenge, while the large-scale spectacles and elaborate action of Schoolboy are totally left out. All of that makes this turn of events unsurprising, even if it is disappointing to fans of the trilogy who would have liked a big-screen version.
1. In particular there are two graphic killings which have the effect of identifying the Soviets with senseless, misogynistic violence.
2. I suspect that even Americans familiar with the era are scarcely aware of the war in Thailand, or that the United States continued to conduct an air war in Cambodia for several months after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.
3. Consider, for instance, the finale to this rather more ambiguous, personal tale: Westerby betrays the operation to save a woman with whom he has become obsessed, and is killed by his colleagues in British intelligence for it. After that the prize defector at the center of the game winds up in American hands, with the British cut out of the debriefing to follow; and Smiley himself gets pensioned, while his "people" are also squeezed out of their present jobs, reassigned when not retired. In short, Smiley does it again--despite which Smiley's people lose, hardly a crowd-pleasing finale.
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