The British screenwriting couple of Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan distill John le Carré’s labyrinthine 450-page Cold War classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
For the screenwriting couple of Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan, adapting John le Carré’s 1974 iconic spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy required the cunning of the story’s thickly bespectacled central character George Smiley.
Tinker had lain largely dormant since 1979 when it was made into a five-hour BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness until erstwhile rocker, playwright, and screenwriter Straughan and wife O’Connor teamed with Swedish director Tomas Alfredson of Let the Right One In fame to bring the project to the big screen.
The pair was set not only with the task of tinkering (a nearly unavoidable pun) with a seemingly untinkerable classic, but with further truncating the nearly 450-page tome for modern movie audiences. The job required grasping the larger spirit of the spy story while navigating and consolidating its labyrinthine, richly populated narrative. Straughan and O’Connor, who was sadly lost to a terminal illness during filming, found a true friend and creative compatriot in Alfredson. The three Bohemian theater people, who were all children when le Carré’s novel was first published, were united by the endeavor of bringing this quintessentially British Cold War classic to life once again.
Straughan spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about heavy drafting, the struggle to let air in a very dense narrative, and their tough, but surprisingly straightforward approach to consolidating the story.
I guess the $60,000 question here is how does one condense a novel of this intricacy into a two-hour feature?
It was a difficult process. It was simply one of distillation, going through draft after draft and working out what we needed, where could characters be combined to make one character, where scenes could be combined, where a new scene could be invented that would move us forward in the plot and save us more scenes from the book.
Photo: © 2011 Focus Features
Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
It was also a process of trying to capture the spirit of the book, you know, the tone and feel rather than every detail.
It seems like Tomas Alfredson’s direction is so subtly brisk and tightly paced that the writing must have gone hand in glove with the directing. How did you all work together?
Tomas was attached just before we came on board so we worked with him from the beginning, which I have to say, is not something that usually happens, and it’s such a good thing when it does. It depends on your relationship with the director obviously, but we got on really well with Tomas. He became a good friend.
We worked right the way through. We’d meet in Brighton or Stockholm, and we’d just talk through scenes, ideas and plot lines or whatever. He was very good at structuring that process. At the beginning, he allowed us to think of the big questions rather than getting bogged down in the details. We got more detailed as we went on through the drafting process. It wasn’t easy, but it was very enjoyable working with him. It was probably one of the most pleasant experiences we’d had on a movie.
George Smiley is such a laconic British character, and this world is so “unspoken,” this is not exactly a dialogue-laden story. As a playwright, did you enjoy or struggle with that sort of space in the story?
We both enjoyed it. I started as a playwright, and I’ve been writing films for years. It’s actually been a while since I’ve done anything for the stage, so you learn very quickly working on film that dialogue will only get you so far.
Plot-wise with this film, you’re talking about a lot of middle-aged men in smoke-filled rooms talking, so we were always desperate to get some air in there. We were always looking for the image, always looking for those scenes that could have no one speaking.
That was a challenge – to have that complicated a plot and have air in it, to have time to give the audience a break.
Just to let the smoke out.
It seems like every scene in this film is beautifully shot…
Actors smoking? I know. It tempts you back if you’ve given it up.
Definitely. Another issue here is the sheer number of characters. How much of a challenge was juggling that so the characters remain a narrative asset and not a detriment?
You’re absolutely right. You’ve put your finger right on what was one of the biggest challenges; there were a lot of characters. To a certain extent, we knew from the beginning we needed to embrace Tinker, Tailor for what it was because what people loved about it was its complexity, the sense that you were glimpsing what that world might really be like as opposed to the James Bond version of it. We always knew its complexity was one of its assets, but we also knew it’s difficult for an audience to absorb that much information and make sense of it.
We were always trying to find that balance; [how to] hold true to its adult qualities and yet give the audience a fighting chance to get through it. We did combine some characters, and there were other characters that, as always happens, unfortunately wound up getting trimmed. But in the end, it was about striking that balance while capturing the spirit of the book.