This was my first John le Carré novel, and I listened to it as an audiobook in the car. It was read by Michael Jayston (known to Doctor Who fans as the Valeyard), who was superb at conveying subtle shades of emotion among men trained not to show any, and at differentiating characters with slight accents who are recruited to be very much like one another. The material of the novel is often very dry, consisting of the mildest of interrogations in relatively relaxed circumstances concerning esoteric espionage situations. It is to James Bond what The Thin Man is to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and it’s to the considerable credit of le Carré and Jayston that the audiobook was remorselessly gripping.
I can imagine a better film adaptation, one that would perhaps have done a better job of helping less attentive viewers follow both the plot and the details, but I can’t imagine a classier one. This is savagely compressed, with some abrupt and slightly awkward cuts and a lot of key events left offscreen and implied. For example, we see almost nothing of Smiley’s conversation with Nan Perry (called Liz Gold in the book; the new name avoids identifying her too closely with Fiedler or with Liz Taylor, apparently), and if you blink you might miss that Leamas goes to prison. Fiedler’s debrief of Leamas is much shortened, perhaps mercifully, but so is the arrest, losing one of the book’s most viscerally exciting and cinematic scenes in which Leamas fakes out several German guards and incidentally kills one in self-defense. But the acting is top-notch, particularly Oskar Werner as poor Fiedler and Cyril Cusack as Control. Of course Richard Burton is terrific; at first I wasn’t sure I liked him as Leamas, whom I’d pictured a bit leaner in the face and a bit more capable of blending in — you can’t mistake Burton for someone who’d ever be tossed aside by an intelligence organization and left to defect. But he gives an undeniably convincing performance as a dissolute drunk.
I don’t remember hearing any incidental music at all — just theme music at the beginning and end. This left me free, perhaps obligated, to fill in my own sense of tension and climax, which I wholeheartedly appreciated.
The ending is devastating, and even though I knew exactly what it was, I still found myself mentally urging Leamas to step over the wall, go now, before it’s too late! It’s as sad as it is perfect. This may be the most adult film I’ve watched in this now-hopelessly-behind-schedule project of mine. In that I’m not sure it will be surpassed.