As much as comparing Tomas Alfredson’s stunning adaptation of John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to John Irvin’s original BBC-produced miniseries treatment is equitable to comparing apples to tractor parts, noting the differences between what each production chooses to emphasize or conceal, reveal or omit, make comically subtle or viscerally thrilling is inevitable. One of the most pronounced differences has to do with the identification, personification, and scope of the central threat. Though he haunts every moment of the film, the elusive Soviet master spy Karla’s face is never revealed in Alfredson’s version, while Patrick Stewart plays him, wordlessly, in the Irvin series; Anne, the on-again-off-again wife of British master spy George Smiley, is a similar subject in that her appearance serves as an epilogue of sorts in the miniseries and we see little more than the back of her head in Alfredson’s.
Eventually, however, the differences between the two adaptations come down to a matter of form and both Alfredson and Irvin’s understanding of the particular medium in which they’re working. (Not that either is unfamiliar with screens big and small: Alfredson helmed En Liten Film, a Norwegian miniseries, and Irvin went on to direct the great Hamburger Hill and the preposterous Raw Deal.) While Alfredson’s film is a sterling triumph of style and subtle expressionism, the miniseries, given its length, makes more use of le Carre’s language and is, essentially, a work about secrets, storytelling, and other diabolical elements of speech, which makes Karla’s choice of silence all the more understandable and unsettling.
Smiley, played by Alec Guinness in the miniseries, is the fulcrum of the narrative in both cases and serves as that rare hero of sober, mannered contemplation who’s neither boastful nor outwardly caustic. Once employed by the “Circus” (slang for MI6) as a ruthlessly intelligent spy hunter, along with longtime friend and head honcho Control (Alexander Knox), Smiley finds himself out by colleague Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge) in an attempt to appeal to our American “cousins” in the C.I.A. Control dies almost immediately, but Smiley, in fine health, is quietly asked back to his job to investigate rumors of a mole within the top tier of the “Circus” leaking secrets to Karla and the Russians.
Though the height of the Cold War serves as the story’s principle setting, Smiley’s past doings with his five chief colleagues, now all suspects, is just as critical to the movement of this elaborate mechanism as his current dealings with them. In truth, as much as we are privy to plenty of enthralling spy business, including a vicious double-cross in Czechoslovakia and an affair between an agent and a target’s wife in Lisbon, the narrative’s main pull is that of severe self-reflection, as Smiley must question not only the validity of every trade-off, connection, and tip he received from his former colleagues, but his very professional existence.
Expertly adapted by Arthur Hopcraft, Irvin’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is directed quite leisurely, allowing greater and by all means due attention to the actors and the script. You get lost in the long, intricate patterns of conversing, tracking the unique psychologies and philosophies of each spy, including Smiley. But compared to Alfredson’s sharp, exquisite imagery, it’s a bland, if convincingly realistic, vision. There’s also the matter of homosexuality and the influence of the Americans, both of which are tempered down largely into momentary insinuations in Hopcraft’s script, thoroughly and likely purposefully eradicating nearly all traces of personal lives in the film’s principal characters, save the matter of Smiley’s wife and his most flamboyant colleague, Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson).
The overall atmosphere here is more languorous and becalmed; there’s no sense that the actions being performed are truly urgent and hold the fate of innumerable lives in the balance. But the long, verbally hefty scenes, almost entirely unaccompanied by music, add a sincere and impressive air of believability to the proceedings. In fact, the length and tediousness allows the mole hunt to essentially work as a microcosm of the Cold War. Whether or not this argument has a stitch of weight, the film correctly identifies the propensity people have to manipulate, betray, and lead astray as the terrifying fact at the heart of the campaign against the Bolsheviks, both here and abroad.
Acorn Media's 1080p transfer of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is more watchable than the original VHS transfer of the miniseries, but that's about where the praise must stop. There's almost nothing notable about the video transfer other than it allows you to see the series. Clarity is passable but far from crisp; colors look muddled and ill defined; texture and detail are mediocre at best; black levels are immensely disappointing. There are also print scratches all over the place, showing a generally lazy restoration. The audio is marginally better than it was on the DVD. The dialogue is clear but not always as out front and pronounced as you would hope. The score and sound effects register as balanced, but there's a severe lack of sound detail overall. It essentially feels like watching a VHS copy with slightly better sound treatment.
It makes complete sense that the major extras on this disc are two video interviews with the two major figures of this adaptation. John Irvin's video interview is engaging and very informative about the chaotic production, which was apparently hemmed in by the BBC due to production costs. Irvin is an interesting subject, but the video interview with John le Carre is notably more fascinating in terms of the very nature of the adaptation. He goes into detail about why screenwriter Arthur Hopcraft didn't let him get too involved and why that was the best thing, and why he decided to write the miniseries's sequel, Smiley's People. The deleted scenes are almost entirely disposable, but the glossary of British spy terms and the production notes are appreciated. A character list and a short biography of le Carre are also included.
A hugely literary spy epic, BBC's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy deserves a better transfer than Acorn Media has afforded it, even if it isn't as visually rousing as the recent remake.