Since I’ll be covering a fair number of spoilers, we’ll put the rest below the cut.
The BBC series really showcases all of the limitations and benefits of the mini-series format, and British TV budgets as well. With 7 hour long episodes, there is just a ton of more time to delve into the story’s nuances and character interactions. The viewers get to see a almost unchanged version of Le Carre’s story, even some of the smaller details and conversations that don’t seem especially important to the overall plot. The unfortunate thing is that the writers apparently decided that deviating from the story chronology in any way would ruin the story. The end result is that episodes end on really odd notes, without any build up or momentum, petering out rather than building to the next episode.
The show also shows some of the limitations of the old BBC budgets. Being shot only 5 years after the book came out, everything is of course more authentic, but even so the show just looks cheap. The film quality is poor, and many of the sets look extremely dull. I suppose that this is thematically fitting, as the book highlights how much drudgery and systematic routine comes into play with international espionage and how different it is from the pulp novels. On the other hand, it’s a visual medium, and it’s always better to give the viewer something interesting to look at when the entire cast is older pasty white men sitting in cluttered offices with beige walls.
Speaking of the pasty white men, I found most of the cast a bit uninspiring (and for some reason they’re all London British, losing all of the class and locale rivalries the book throws in). For the most part they gave very deadpan, bland performances with sudden and often inauthentic bursts of emotion only when the script called for it. This is excluding Sir Alec Guinness, of course. He plays an incredible George Smiley and hits all of the nuanced bits that make the character so interesting. This actually makes it worse as it highlights how much worse the other actors are. There’s also a very strange post script between Smiley and his wife that feels completely unnecessary and somewhat insulting.
I don’t mean to be too down on the show, because they really work hard to tell the full story from the book, and do an incredible job of converting a complicated plot to the screen with very few compromises. It’s just frustrating to see the show run up on the limitations of television budgets.
The film is really just plagued by the exact opposite problems of the mini-series. A cast full of A-list talent and a budget that can actually support the locations and sets that it needs, but 2 hours is just not enough time to tell the full story. Both in terms of character’s visual style and the way they act, the movie does a much better job of creating distinctive, unique characters. I suppose if you’re looking for the authentic 70’s look the film overemphasizes it a bit, but too much style works far better than no style at all, and it helps that the cinematography and film quality are fantastic.
Unfortunately time constraints lead to a incredibly compressed story, and most of the vibrant interesting characters never really get a chance to distinguish themselves. I saw this movie before reading the book or watching the show, and at the end of it I could not have told you who 3 of the 4 suspects were or what their importance was. They show up, their names are dropped, and then they fade into the background until the end of the film. It’s a bit sad to see so much talent be underutilized, but all of the central characters get a good amount of screen time and they all do a great job. Also, it’s annoying that they play up the side plot about the boy’s school when the characters in the Circus are so much more important.
I don’t really think that the changes made to the story for brevity’s sake really detract much from the plot. Most of what’s trimmed or adapted is interesting backstory and nuance, but it isn’t especially vital to the main plot. Thinking back, some of the action is punched up a bit, which is a bit sad but pretty understandable, and even so many people found the story dull. Really it just feels a bit to compressed. Everything comes together very rapidly, and events progress too swiftly for you to appreciate all of the complexities. Obviously it’s not feasible for them to extend the film much longer than it already is, and they did do as best as they possibly could I think, but it’s still frustrating.
I guess if I was pressed to select one of the formats over the other, I would say the film is the more enjoyable, but not by much. They’re both very good, but flawed when held up to the original product. They have different limitations and they do the best that they can within those limitations. They’re different, and they take a bit more thought than the average film/ show, but they’re both entertaining and they’re both helmed by a great talent.