Should you read the book or see the adapted film first? Well here is the problem. If you see the film first, there is not enough incentive to get into the trouble of spending 5-6 hours on a book where you know every beat, just with more beating around the bush. Unless the language of the writer absolutely captivates you. I can imagine seeing a film based on ‘Catcher on the rye’ or ‘Pedro Paramo’ and still enjoying the book afterwards. But with most plot oriented books, after watching the film it is going to be difficult to enjoy the book because there are so many details coming your way without the hook of ‘what happens next.’
And this time around, I tried it the other way. I read the book first. And what do I think? I think after reading the book, it is really tough not to be disappointed with the movie as you naturally build an allegiance with the book. So much of details, back story, nuances etc are lost on the chopping table.
Anyway, this was an interesting experience. It gave me an insight into how different the priorities of a novelist and a scriptwriter are. After I read the book, before I watched the film, I tried to make a note of all those aspects that I would pay attention to, if I am adapting this book.
(Minor spoilers ahead)
-I thought I would take out the whole track of Jim Prideaux working as the teacher (lot of pages are devoted to it in the novel) because it doesn’t add much to the actual story.
- In the film even though it has not been completely taken out, it has been kept to a bare minimum.
-I thought I will resist the temptation to start the film in the middle of the action (which is the fashion nowadays). Obvious choices would be Ricky Tarr’s Hong Kong events or Jim Prideaux’s mission in Czechoslovakia and then cut back or forth. Rather I would start it with Smiley’s lonely life after retirement like in the book. It would set the correct tone and give a slow smoldering beginning to accelerate after Smiley’s face to face with Ricky Tarr.
- Confirming my worst premonitions, the movie begins with Jim Prideaux’s mission. But the most weird and disappointing thing is that the investigation of Smiley starts without a direct encounter with Ricky Tarr. In the novel, the mole has always been a step ahead and the British (except Control) never suspected that such a mole existed. Ricky Tarr’s experience in Hong Kong was the only slip he ever had and that forced the Civil servant Lacon to bring in Smiley to investigate. Also due to Tarr, things played in a way that mole never suspects that Lacon and Guillian is aware of the dreadful possibility of his existence. To bring all these aspects out, it was necessary for the audience to have Ricky Tarr’s story in the first half hour itself.
-I felt that one should avoid the temptation to take out the Smiley’s flashbacks with ex-wife Anna. Even though they wouldn’t make direct difference to the plot, they help to nail an important point. It highlights Smiley’s disconnect with the world except the Circus, his emotional bluntness and the damage mole and Karla has done to Smiley.
- Anne’s scenes have been whittled down to a single party scene which also depicts her infidelity. The scene is well done (and the particular scene serves many other purposes in the film) but it doesn’t really capture the complexity of relationship between Smiley and Anne. Rather it is simplified into the betrayal theme.
-I thought I would take out the personal life of Peter Guillian to save some time.
- In the film, a brief reference is beautifully done where Smiley asks him to tie up any loose ends and Peter goes and breaks up with his boy friend. Though that idea and ensuing scene were brilliant, the price was making Peter Guillian gay in the film while in the book, he comes out as a different personality entirely. But overall that was a price worth paying.
-I felt that I wouldn’t show Karla in the New Delhi incident. It would always be Karla’s pov on Smiley. The mystery about Karla would be lost by showing him.
- In the film, scriptwriter felt the same but resorted to another technique. It is a narration of story by Smiley without an actual flashback. I think it is a better choice.
Overall, I felt the movie retained the spirit of the book. The melancholic undertones, the persistent obsession with living in the past, the cynicism about the secret services and its completely unromantic beaurocracy… Every thing is retained in spirit in the film. That is a great accomplishment. An intelligent thriller ( a commercially successful one too for that) need not be all about explosions, flash cuts, incessant clever dialogues, over-dramatic revelations and characters running around. One should thank Tomas Alfredson for demonstrating that.