Comparing Gary Oldman’s quiet, contained take on George Smiley in Thomas Alfredson’s adaption of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Alec Guinness’s classic portrayal from the 1979 BBC production is pretty much inevitable.
Both actors gave supremely competent portrayals, and Oldman’s in many ways can’t help but be a comment on Guinness’s. How do you distinguish yourself in the role? You can’t play Smiley with bombast–it’s one of more interesting things about him. He’s not simply a world-weary spy, or an under-appreciated bureaucrat, or even, a cuckold, although those are all aspects of his character. What’s most compelling about the Smiley in le Carré’s novel is that he is such an impenetrable cipher. Is he excited by his job, by his quest to destroy Karla, or is it simply the only thing he knows how to do? He pulls long hours, he avoids his unfaithful wife, he ruthlessly uses people–goads batty old Connie Stevens with booze and painful memories–and like the younger incarnation of Smiley in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, he places his agents into situations of utmost peril with a cold and calculating sense of duty. I left the entire Smiley trilogy having a much clearer sense of the motivation of the likes of Jerry Westerby or Ricki Tarr than of Smiley. He is a stand-in of sorts for the Cold War itself, and the generation that begot it. Smiley is an agent of history, simply pushing around pieces on a static game board that was laid out by three tired old men at the Yalta Conference. Which brings me to my second point.
Perhaps then what makes Guinness’s Smiley a superior portrayal is simply generational familiarity. The children of the Cold War (Oldman was born in 1958) have a different understanding of that decades long exercise in stalemate and nuclear terror than the generation that were the unwilling architects of it. For Smiley’s generation, it’s not so much a question of a nonchalance about the situation as it is a sort of resigned sense of inevitability–at any rate, a sustained false peace sure as hell beat the horrors of the conflict that had preceded it. Guinness as Smiley seemed burdened with age (although Guinness was only in his mid 60’s at the time), worn out and empty–but of course the brilliance of Smiley is that he hides behind this facade of weariness. Oldman’s Smiley seems a little more spry (In a perfectly pitched scene, we see Smiley wanly engaging in a morning swim in a suitably murky corner of Hampstead Ponds), but still just as unknowable. There is a difference in the tone of the two actors, and Guinness’s feels more appropriate to the era, if only because he was from that era. But then, that’s not really acting is it? Laurence Olivier would be pissed.
Finally, all this talk about definitive versions of characters and our public perception of them got me thinking about the weird meta-infused corridors that Stephen Moffat’s enjoyably diverting series Sherlock takes us down with its modern-day adaptation of Conan Doyle’s detective. Let’s start with the fact that the Moffat series is a “realistic” take on the character, meaning it’s not farce or a satire or a post-modern comment on the archetype of Sherlock Holmes, but it’s played straight. That is to say that in the world of the series, Sherlock Holmes is a real live human being, a preternaturally gifted freelance detective, one who has to eat and pay rent. But most importantly, in his world, there is no such person as the famous turn-of-the-century writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned a series of tales about a preternaturally gifted freelance detective and his gentleman doctor friend who records and publishes accounts of their adventures, so that the Conan Doyle stories you the reader enjoy are fictionally written by Dr. Watson, whose stories are then referenced in later Sherlock Holmes tales, as Holmes decries the way Watson portrays him, which adds a meta weirdness to the original tales (are you the reader reading Conan Doyle’s version of Holmes or Watson’s Holmes?), and oddly this story-within-a-story aspect is one that is carried over into almost all the modern portrayals of Holmes (from Basil Rathbone’s WWII-era stint to Benedict Cumberbatch’s slim and sly 21st Century Holmes), but then the modern BBC Holmes gets weirder because a world without the fictional Sherlock Holmes means huge swaths of western popular culture just wouldn’t exist.
No deerstalker caps, no cries of “elementary, my dear Watson!” and surely no “no shit, Sherlock,” no Baker Street Irregulars, no 221B, no Hound of the Baskervilles. In the world of Moffat’s Sherlock, do people dress up like Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin at costume parties? Did Agatha Christie write stories about Poirot and Miss Marple? Do mystery stories even exist without the template that Conan Doyle perfected? Did some other unnamed writer step in to fill the cultural void that a universe without Sherlock Holmes would’ve created? Did actual crime-fighting techniques suffer because there was no fictional Sherlock Holmes to inspire generations of future lawmen to perfect their investigations? Is that why D.I. Lestrade is forced to continually plead assistance from Sherlock Holmes, since the art of crime detection is in a woeful state? Is a world without a fictional Sherlock Holmes actually an incredibly more dangerous and crime-ridden one?