"When faced with a problem you do not understand,
do any part of it you do understand; then look at it again."
~(Robert A. Heinlein - "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

11 Dec 2011 - Update at end - Not in Houston yet, but coming soon (I hope).
26 Dec 2011 - Another update at end - Finally have a date of general release.
06 Jan 2012 19:30 - Finally saw it.  I'll sum up at the end.

Can a story that was made into a truly excellent five and a half hour mini-series be rendered into a script for a two-hour movie, without proving "rend" a very appropriate part of that verb?

(WARNING: If you have never seen the movie Aliens, it's NOT what this post is about, but I DO use a scene from it to illustrate a point; making a bit of a spoiler.)

Coming in December is a movie version of John le CarrĂ©'s "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy".  The novel was largely inspired by the Kim Philby scandal in the British Secret Service, and involves le CarrĂ©'s civil servant spy, George Smiley.

About as far from 007 as you can get, Smiley operates within a world of bureaucratic infighting wherein a memo can be as deadly as a Walther PPK.

He is brought out of retirement to look into the very real possibility that there may be a Soviet "mole" near the very top of British Intelligence, and has been for years.

A BBC mini-series, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) was aired in 1979 ...
 Alec Guinness as George Smiley  -  from www.irishtimes.com

... starring Alec Guinness, and proved to be a superb and faithful adaptation of the novel, refuting arguments that major changes are necessary because film and print are such different mediums.  Although over five hours long (the DVD shows less running time, but that DVD has some scenes missing), that time is essential to telling the story and is gripping throughout.

The new version, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), ...
 Gary Oldman as George Smiley  -  from www.thefancarpet.com
At first, I had considered using Photoshop to brighten this picture, but then decided:
No!  It's perfect as is.  Shadows are Smiley's natural habitat.

...scheduled for December 9 in the USA, and starring Gary Oldman, is listed at 127 minutes running time.

That is my greatest concern.  I have no qualms whatsoever about Oldman;  if anyone can follow in the footsteps of Alec Guinness, I believe it is he.  I just strongly doubt that two hours are sufficient to do justice to this story.  We shall see.

So, how does one turn five and a half hours worth of story into a two-hour movie script?

One way is what I call the "Alien Queen Method" (or AQM), which will be demonstrated here by Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the android in Aliens.

(The following images from Aliens are screen-caps from the DVD)

Let Bishop stand-in for the original story ...

The Alien Queen  has volunteered to be the writer tasked with adapting that story to a more manageable length ...


And, there you have it.  Story cut down to size.  That clear things up some?

Up there, I'm showing you the optimistic version of AQM.  In that last picture, you see the half of Bishop (or the story) that still retains sentience and some functionality in its remaining limbs.  Don't forget that out there is the other half;  and in the movie business it appears to be a coin-toss as to which half will make it to the screen.

There's also the Frankenstein version of AQM: Slice up the story, as in a Ginsu Knife commercial, pick enough slices (at random) to get the necessary length, and put them together.

Add to that the practice of dumpster-diving amongst the remains of other non-related stories for parts that might seem "cool" to the one trying to stitch this monster together.

"It's ALIVE!!!" - or more probably not.

So, have I a concrete example to justify my fears about the "Tinker Tailor ..." remake?

In 1985, I was mesmerized for three straight nights watching the six-part BBC mini-series Edge of Darkness (1985) that the local PBS station aired during that period.

In it, Yorkshire Police Inspector Ronnie Craven picks up his daughter Emma from a demonstration she was part of and brings her home.  On arrival, a gunman steps out of the bushes and opens up with both barrels of a shotgun, killing Emma who has stepped in front of her father, and escapes afterward.

Bob Peck as Ronnie Craven  -  screen-cap from DVD  -  Peck is probably 
best known to American audiences as the game warden in Jurassic Park.

That picture could probably stand a bit of explanation.  At first, he thinks that he was the target and that Emma was just tragic collateral damage.  After the shooting, Craven goes through Emma's things, discovering an automatic pistol and a gadget he recognizes as a radiation counter (which later goes wild when brought near his coat pocket containing a lock of her hair which he cut before releasing her body).

A Willie Nelson record of her's is playing and while Willie is singing ("Time of the Preacher") in the background ...
  "He cried like a baby
  "He screamed like a panther in the middle of the night
  "An' he saddled his pony
  "An' he went for a ride"

... he just lays back on her bed, with her teddy bear in one hand, and that pistol in the other, staring off into nothingness, obviously wondering. "WHAT in HELL have you gotten yourself into?!!!",

This man may possibly have some answers...
Joe Don Baker as Darius Jedburgh  -  screen-cap from DVD

... U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Darius Jedburgh (A wonderful name to any familiar with the history of war, and with that of the wartime O.S.S.), apparently on indefinite loan to the CIA.  He knows that Emma was working with a protest group called GAIA that was trying to find out if a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, in a mine at a place called Northmoor, may in fact be processing weapons-grade plutonium.

He knows all this because he set up the group to spy for him, and figures that Emma was far more likely to be the target than Ronnie.

What follows is the teaming of Ronnie and Jedburgh to penetrate Northmoor and deal with this.

Peck is first-rate (as you've come to expect with British professionals) and Joe Don Baker may have done his best work ever as Jedburgh.  I'm aware that Mystery Science Theater 3000 showed absolutely no mercy to Baker when they tore into one of his lesser movies ("Mitchell"), but he actually has done some decent work (The original "Walking Tall", a TV movie called "Mongo's Back In Town", and a Walter Matthau thriller called "Charlie Varrick").

In the new movie version Edge of Darkness (2010) , you have ...
Mel Gibson as Thomas Craven (with Ray Winstone)  -  from media.theiapolis.com

... Mel Gibson as Thomas Craven, a Boston Police Detective who eventually teams up with British operative Darius Jedburgh, played here by ...
Ray Winstone as Darius Jedburgh  -  aceshowbiz.com

... Ray Winstone, yet another of those British professionals who simply don't know how to do a second-rate job.

Now, for all the flack that Gibson's taken lately, I have to say that he is just fine here; as good as I've seen him in ages.  Nothing wrong with Winstone either.

The problem is that the story is so gutted to fit within that two-hour time frame.

In the BBC version, Craven genuinely wanted to find out what it was all about, to try and make some sense out of the senseless; NOT knowing being an open wound.

The movie version can be boiled down to the last sentence I quoted from the Willie Nelson song, being entirely devoted to going "for a ride", and seeking only vengeance (about all that two hours allow for, I suppose).  All the subtlety that made the mini-series so fascinating is completely gone.

Darius Jedburgh has been reduced to such a small part that what he does, and what happens to him make almost no sense whatever.

I've long ago lost count of how many times I've seen the whole 5+ hours of the mini-series.  I watched the new movie precisely once.

I honestly cannot recall if the movie had anything at all like the gun and teddy bear scene I described above, but it's little subtle touches like that and many, many others that the mini-series had and the movie doesn't that make the difference between somebody you'd like to know, and a corpse.

That pretty well describes the difference between the two versions of "Edge of Darkness".  I'm fairly confident that the Frankenstein version of AQM, along with some dumpster-diving, is an accurate description of how the movie was conjured up.

Gary Oldman's presence guarantees that I will check out "Tinker Tailor ...", when it gets here in six and a half weeks.  I've heard a little buzz that suggests it might actually be pretty good (it's already showing in Britain), but as I said way above, we'll see.

Update - 11 Dec 2011 - It ain't here yet. :(
All of the websites I've seen on this movie showed a Dec 9 USA release date.

I've now learned that date is for a "limited" (as  in L.A. & NYC probably) showing to get the movie officially released in this country before the end of the year, to qualify for 2011 Academy Award nominations;  Gary Oldman considered almost certainly to be nominated.

An Alamo Drafthouse manager I talked to on the phone thought they might have it by the 16th.  A manager at the Regal 23 I talked to in person thought possibly sometime in the next few weeks.  Nobody appears to know for sure.

I have some confidence (and a lot of hope) that I will get the chance to see it soon.  (Hopefully not to see my worst fears realized.)

In the meantime, is there anything else worth giving a look?

Check out Hugo.  Director Martin Scorsese (who gave us "Taxi Driver") tries his hand with a family film, and delivers pure magic.  That's as big a surprise as Bob Clark (who's legacy was the raunchy "Porky's" movies) turning out a gem like A Christmas Story in 1983.

"Hugo" just might be the best movie of this year. I'm totally serious. Give it a look.

Update - 26 Dec  2011 - Have just seen commercial announcing Friday, 06 Jan 2012 as date of general release in USA.

06 Jan 2012 19:30 - Mild-mannered steel.
That's how I would sum up Gary Oldman's performance here. Having to be an inquisitor searching out clues to the possible "mole" he's searching for, he doesn't attempt to be menacing in any way, but seems to peer into your very soul.  I'm pretty confident of a "Best Actor" academy award nomination for this, and he may have a pretty good chance of actually winning it.

On the other hand, squeezing the story down to two hours doesn't leave much for the other actors and truly does hurt it.  Not nearly as bad as what happened to "Edge of Darkness";  the gist is pretty much there, but it's only a pale shadow of the mini-series.

Bottom line:  Not bad, but Oldman's performance is the only reason to watch this.  If you have the patience and attention-span, get the DVD mini-series instead.
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