John le Carré has crafted a spy-thriller that gains its thrill exclusively from a psychological battle of wits between its main characters. Instead of action, stirred Martinis and shaken dames, we get George Smiley rifling through old files and interrogating people. Le Carré‘s spies are no glorious heroes flitting from adventure to adventure. They‘re ageing, downtrodden men – on the one hand deciding about the fate of the world and often about life and death, on the other hand being subjected to the same pathetic little whims and emotions like everybody else. And lonely. They are all so very lonely.
In the end, I couldn't even spare some anger for the mole and his political betrayal. His motives seemed just too pathetic. The personal betrayal hit far harder. Betrayal is the big, black spider at the core of this book, personal and professional alike. Ann betrays Smiley, Smiley betrays himself by telling Karla a bit too much about his relationship to Ann, Guillam feels betrayed, Jim probably suffers the hardest blow… and so it goes on.
Around this big, black spider of betrayal le Carré has woven an intricate, complex web. Entangling it demands full concentration (more concentration than I was capable of while reading this book). I‘d seen the film, I‘d seen the BBC adaption, and still I felt lost sometimes. I needed quite some time to get used to le Carré’s prose, too. But after a while I started to enjoy his way with words and the undeniable Britishness emanating from the pages.
A lack of action does by no means equal a lack of tension. There are some gripping moments, e.g. when Guillam tries to steal some files from the archive – that was one of my favourite moments from the film and one of the best scenes in the book as well.
Although they are such pathetic creatures, le Carré manages to arouse sympathy for his protagonists. His antagonists remain thoroughly unlikeable. And that‘s my main point of critique: I never quite understood why everyone seemed so enamoured with and charmed by our mole, I never got how he gained such loyalty, because he was shown as an all around unpleasant person. I‘d wished for a better rounded character development for the other antagonists, too.
By the by: Although the book describes him quite differently, and Alec Guinness‘ delivered a top-notch performance in the BBC adaption, Smiley will always look like Gary Oldman to me. And it was just a strike of genius to cast Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr. They've changed Guillam‘s character quite a lot for the film, though – I‘m not talking about the fact they made him gay; film-Guillam shows little resemblance to book-Guillam at all.