Monday, July 1, 2013

Filming John le Carrés The Honourable Schoolboy


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.

Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
Probably Not Coming to a Theater Near You
Smiley, Ace of Spies: Reading John le Carré


Anonymous said...

Jees, spoiler alert for someone a quarter way through the second book! That third footnote could have used a warning...

Nader said...

Quite right.

I apologize for the inconvenience, and will add the appropriate notice.

Bently T. said...

No worries! I was just.. surprised. I had gone looking for the actors who've played Jerry Westerby to get a picture in my head and was distracted by the subject of your post. Shame we probably won't get a sequel, though I understand the BBC radio productions of the three novels are excellent, as are the Alec Guinness versions of books one and three. Book two was similarly too expensive for the BBC.

Thank you for following up on my post!

Anonymous said...

Was there ever a tv movie or miniseries version of The Honourable Schoolboy, perhaps under a different title?

Nader said...

I've never heard of one, and certainly there isn't one listed at the IMDB.

Hoyacoder said...

I very much liked the Gary Oldman version of Tinker Tailor, which I agree was "an impressive feat of compression and rearrangement." However, IMO it simply can't compare with the Alec Guinness version, which I own and have recently watched two more times in the past month or so. I've also watched Smiley's People again, twice, which I now consider superior to Tinker Tailor. (The two books/films are inversely related IMO: Tinker Tailor is all about deception and betrayal whereas Smiley's People is all about love and devotion.)

Having read and admired The Karla Trilogy, I find that in watching Tinker Tailor and Smiley's People I sense the huge gap in the overall story that needs filing, and that means that a film version of The Honourable Schoolboy is needed. Unfortunately, as you suggest, making such a film would be a gargantuan effort, plus I doubt that the film would have much box office appeal, except among le Carré aficionados.

Nader said...

Hi Hoyacoder. Thanks for writing.

I certainly agree that even if an Honourable Schoolboy movie is a commercially daunting prospect, the events of that book are a crucial bridge between Tinker Tailor and Smiley's People.

The whole situation at the start of Smiley's People simply doesn't make sense without it. Of course, one could try and make a version of Smiley's People which incorporates some of the material from the middle book--but I think the results of any such effort are likely to be awkward at best, and overall a very poor alternative to a proper trilogy.

Anonymous said...

I disagree about the commercial prospects of an adaptation, though granted it would still be difficult. They are, I think, better than those of Tinker, Tailor - the setting in East Asia is quite glamorous, and the passages in Cambodia with the war as backdrop and a central love story do, I think, give it some blockbuster potential. I've always put down the fact that The Honourable Schoolboy is my favourite Le Carré novel to my childish taste!

Nader said...

No need for apology in regard to liking that book! I personally think it was the richest book in the trilogy, in a number of ways.
In any event, I do see where you're coming from regarding a cinematic adaptation. There are bits here that have some potential, as you say, if with some difficulty, which I think merits a word. I think the big danger would be that they would either make a faithful movie which plays up the sensational bits for the audience in the marketing (much of which audience would come away from the film feeling like it was tricked), or sacrifice much of the meat of the story in actually stressing the more sensational bits of the book.
Thanks for writing!

Unknown said...

Thank you for these posts. I find this all very interesting and informative. I "jokingly" refer to myself as the foremost authority on the Karla trilogy. Of course, there are those much more knowledgeable than I, I am sure. However, I've seen the BBC series 3 or 4 times, Read each book at least 6 times, and have seen the modern film about 6 times. These works of literature and film are artistically close to my heart. To the point, I have decided to write a screenplay for The Honorable Schoolboy, and if anyone knows whom I can send this to when complete, please let me know. Best Regards, Dave

Nader said...

And thank you for writing. Rather more than most books, these certainly do reward--invite--even seem to demand--rereading. It is one reason why, I think, just as with a good many other classics that everyone praises but which few seem to have actually read (let alone understood even on the level of following a plot along) we so rarely come across very much of substance written about le Carre's novels. (Indeed, to go by what I see online, you might well be right about being the world's greatest authority on the trilogy.)
As to the screenplay: I'd like to be able to help with such a suggestion, but, alas, am in no position to make referral or recommendation. As it is, the best I can do is offer the reminder you've probably heard before about the risks involved in writing and pitching a script based on material to which someone else has the rights. All the same, thanks again and best regards.

Ricky said...

Without Alec Guiness how could anyone have everolling made Honourable? The original Tiger certainly stands the test of time.

Nader said...

Hi Ricky. Thanks for writing.
Unfortunately, I can't answer that one, but I do appreciate the sentiment.

Nader said...

I can't help being struck by how many people have found their way to this particular post-and have offered their thoughts here. Thank you all.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Following the success of The Night Manager, the BBC are currently shooting
a new version of The Little Drummer Girl due for release as a mini-series next year(2019). Whilst it's highly unlikely they'll ever make The Honourable Schoolboy for the screen, I personally think they should film more of the stand alone books. A Perfect Spy was a brilliant book.

Nader said...

Hi Anonymous. Sorry I missed your comment until now (and I'll spare you the totally commonplace uninteresting explanations for the delay).
Thank you for the notice about the BBC project, which I hadn't known about 'til now. As always, your comment is appreciated.

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