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Moving Across Mediums: Assessing the Adaptations of Hugo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


In the past month, I got to see two very different film adaptations of books that I loved: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (which adapts Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret) and Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (an adaptation of John le Carré’s novel of the same title). Although both feature science fictional elements (if you don’t believe me about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, then check out my earlier blog post on the subject), they could not be more different. Hugo is a children’s story, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is as far from middle-grade as one can get. And yet, their screen adaptations got me thinking about the nature of prose and film, and on the differences in storytelling between the two mediums.

Why The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are Compelling

Both Selznick’s middle-grade novel and le Carré’s spy novel are excellent works of fiction, captivating and moving on multiple levels. What makes these books so good is the way in which they unfold with unity of plot, theme, and character. At its most basic level, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the story of how a young orphan named Hugo finds a family, and how an old man named George finds himself with Hugo’s help. Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the story of how an old retired spy is dragged back into the murky world of betrayal he had (ostensibly) left behind.

Selznick and le Carré are very different storytellers. More than half of Selznick’s book is told visually through gorgeous drawings. A picture is worth a thousand words, and as a world-building device Selznick’s drawings perform beautifully: his opening sequence introduces us to 1930s Paris, to the Gare Montparnasse, to our hero Hugo, and to the old man at the train station. In a handful of drawings, Selznick quickly draws us into Hugo’s world and engages us with his two primary characters. When Selznick switches into prose, we already suspect what comes next, even if we can’t articulate it. Selznick uses his drawings to lend emotional immediacy to his story, thus accelerating the rate at which we invest in his characters.

Le Carré doesn’t use illustrations. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is all told in prose, and deals with the very difficult themes of betrayal, loyalty, and motivation. Although the book follows George Smiley, it actually features a broad cast of characters. Le Carré’s omniscient narrator takes us in and out of their heads smoothly, giving us insight into everyone’s motivations, concerns, and emotional states. And while Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy novel, a great deal of its prose focuses on the (seemingly) banal personal relationships of Smiley, his wife, and his friends. By showing us both the intellectual game of espionage and its more private underside, le Carré earns our investment in the character: we understand the degree to which Smiley is conflicted with his charge, we understand the degree to which the chase both excites him and disappoints him, and we understand why his companions and quarries act the way they do. His personal concerns, and those of his friends and enemies, serve to establish moral equivalence, to humanize them for the reader.

Both books feature multiple, related plotlines, and all of these plotlines oscillate around the same themes. The different converging plots involving Hugo, his father’s automaton, the old toyshop owner, and the Station Inspector who hunts the orphan child all swirl to greater or lesser extent around the question of family and acceptance. The same holds true for George Smiley: the A plot of Smiley’s hunt for the traitor puts into concrete action the themes of le Carré’s B and C plots (Smiley’s relationship with his deceased mentor, and Smiley’s relationship with his wife). This unity of action, theme, and emotion closes the emotional distance that would otherwise have been built between the characters and the reader. And ultimately, it is this unity that makes the stories compelling.

The Differences Between Film and Prose

Obviously, there are many differences between text and film. However, I like to believe that good storytelling transcends the medium and that the underlying goals of storytelling are universal: we want the audience to be engaged, we want them to be interested, we want them to turn the page. However, different techniques are employed in different media to achieve our intended narrative effects. In a real sense, authors and film-makers are master manipulators: it is our job to evoke some kind of response on the part of our audience. If we evoke the response we intended, then we’re doing a good job. If we evoke a different (or the opposite) response, then we’ve made a mistake.

Narrative Tools in Prose: Events Shown, Information Shared, Language Used

The Narrative Tools in Prose

In prose, our primary tools are the events that we depict, the information we impart to the reader, and the language we use to do both. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification: I could probably talk about choosing a single metaphor for a day or two if given the chance. Yet nonetheless, it is our job as creators to choose what we want to present and how to present it. In prose, all of these tools are in the author’s control (although to be fair, good editors have their say, too). When we write, we make conscious choices as to what information our reader needs, when they need to get that information, and how that information is delivered to them.

Narrative Tools in Film

Narrative Tools in Film

In film, it’s a little more complicated. At the most basic level, movie-makers have the same two basic tools as authors: they select the events they wish to show, and decide the information they wish to impart to their viewer. However, language is only one of the many devices they have available to accomplish both goals. Actors convey a wealth of information on multiple levels: their facial expressions, movement, and tone of voice all are part of the storytelling and are only partially (at best) under the screenwriter or director’s control. Then, directors choose what visuals are presented in the film, how shots are set up, how a scene gets lit, and how it gets staged. This is conveyed visually, but can be used to elicit an emotional or intellectual response in the audience. And the soundtrack adds an emotional undertone to the visual events, guiding the audience into a certain desired state. And finally, we get the language that is used in the dialog itself.

This is not to say that there are more moving parts in film-making. There aren’t, despite what movie makers might say. It’s just that the moving parts are very different from those faced in prose, and I think that when writing and directing an adaption it is incumbent upon us to bear in mind the differences in technique that both mediums work with.

Why Hugo Works as an Adaptation

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is probably one of the best film adaptations I have ever seen for the simple reason that it tells the same story that the book told, hitting the same narrative notes and evoking the same emotions in me as an audience member. While Scorsese may have chosen different events to show, different information to share with the audience, and of course made his own choices on cinematography, soundtrack, etc., his adaptation stayed true to the overarching flow of Selznick’s story. Hugo achieved the same type of unity in plot, theme, and character as The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and as the original book’s story was excellent, so too was its film adaptation.

To be fair, Scorsese’s task was made easier by Selznick’s beautiful illustrations. The book was itself already heavily cinematic, with illustrations that conformed to most of the classic structures of visual storytelling: establishing shots, action shots, close-ups to communicate facts and emotions, etc. Since half of Selznick’s book consisted of detailed illustrations, much of the visual storytelling had already been done. I expect this made Scorsese’s task at least somewhat easier, since Selznick had already made a slew of decisions regarding the story’s visual narrative.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Scorsese, the actors, and the screenwriter John Logan didn’t have a lot to do with the finished product. But it is very clear that they were heavily influenced (as is only right for an adaptation) by Selznick’s original book. By letting Selznick’s illustrations and storytelling influence their choices, they were able to capture his thematic and tonal focus, leading to a finished work as beautiful, compelling, and moving as the original.

Why Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Does Not Work as an Adaptation

Unfortunately, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy does not work nearly as well as Scorsese’s Hugo. It remains a good movie: the cinematography is solid, the music is excellent, the acting great, and the writing good. It clearly tried to stay true to the original source material, but by de-emphasizing the characters’ personal lives it weakened the overall product.

The film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy engages us on an intellectual level: George Smiley (played well by Gary Oldman) and company keep the audience at an emotional distance, presumably just as they keep themselves emotionally removed from the sordid work that they do. That leaves us with the intellectual mystery of the whodunit: we are engaged with the story because we want to identify the traitor…not because we care about what happens to any of the characters.

Superficially, this is consistent with the book: le Carré portrays most of his characters, and Smiley in particular, as emotionally distant. Yet le Carré shows us that their reticence to engage emotionally is a sham: by showing us their emotional reactions to their personal lives, we know the characters to be living, breathing, feeling human beings. Alfredson chose to de-emphasize this emotional dimension of the story, and his movie suffers for it.

It is telling that the two characters who I found most engaging in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy were the two shown to be emotionally invested in their own stories: the naive Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who tragically falls in love with a Russian agent, and Peter Guilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who kicks his lover out of his flat to keep him safe. It is precisely because these two characters are shown to be more than cold-blooded apparatchiks that they evoke an emotional response. We can identify with their concerns, and can feel empathy for their troubles.

The emotional concerns of the other – more principal – characters are merely alluded to, and not really explored. It could be argued that those concerns are purposefully left between the lines, there for the discerning viewer to pick up and project onto the screen. That may well have been the reasoning, but I for one found the effect flawed: if that was the intent, it didn’t work for me. The movie was engaging on an intellectual level, but fell short of the unified intellectual/emotional impact evoked by the original book.

Advice for Book-to-Movie Adapters

It seems to me that putting together a good film adaptation of a great book relies on a careful examination of why a book worked, and then translating the techniques that worked in prose form to film. If the method by which a book worked were correctly identified, then a good filmmaker should be able to achieve similar effects using the tools available to them. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially in a Hollywood driven by consensus decision-making.

What are some other examples of good adaptations? Why did they work? Or how about some terrible adaptations, and why did they fall apart? Love to have some more perspectives!

Oblique Wisdom: The Secret of Evergreen Middle-Grade?


Probably right around the age of nine, I discovered Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. These books opened up a world of adventure, mystery, and wisdom for me – and are probably the reason why I love fantasy so much. Fast forward twenty years, and this past weekend I cracked open The Book of Three, the first book in the series. Reading it over the course of an afternoon (it’s a much faster read today than I remember it being), I think I stumbled on an aspect of middle-grade fiction that I think might be universal in evergreen titles (the classics that never go out of print, never stop being popular): oblique wisdom transparent for the reader but opaque for the hero.

Some Thoughts on the Heart of Middle-Grade Fiction

There is a world of difference between middle-grade (MG) and even young adult (YA) fiction. While both are lumped together as “children’s fiction,” everyone knows that an eight year old looks at the world very differently from a sixteen year old. Differences in awareness, concerns, and our ability to articulate our thoughts and emotions drive many of the fundamental differences between MG and YA books. An eight year old can love Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, but the themes and concerns of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games would likely go over that same child’s head.

Classic MG titles like The Phantom Tollbooth and Dealing with Dragons show us fundamental truths about the world. Most of these truths are foundational, and so basic that MG readers will already understand them before they ever pick up a book. Research has shown that by the age of five, kids understand and apply complex rules of “fairness” in their behavior. They might not be able to articulate those rules, or explain why something is right or wrong, but they have already formed a sense of it.

The best YA fiction helps us to negotiate the muddier waters of an adult reality. Books like Collins’ The Hunger Games, or Pullman’s The Golden Compass transition a child’s black-and-white value system to the shades of grey that (unfortuntely) operate in the adult world. But middle-grade, at its heart, is there to provide the initial vocabulary. It teaches us how to articulate values every child knows, but might not be able to otherwise express.

Fairy Tales, Learning Better, and the Role of the Teacher

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of popular children’s literature. In particular, Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm, Alexander Afanasyev, Hans Christen Andersen, and Gregory MacDonald all contributed to popularizing stories with magical characters that grew to be beloved by children in their respective countries. These early fairy tales were often based on oral storytelling traditions, and employed a remarkably consistent morphology (I recommend Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale and Luthi’s The European Folktale: Form and Nature for a detailed discussion).

In the 20th century, Robert A. Heinlein argued that all stories (irrespective of audience) could be reduced to three categories: Boy Meets Girl, the Brave Little Tailor, or the Person Who Learns Better. The vast majority of early fairy tales – and the majority of middle-grade fiction – fall into either the Brave Little Tailor or Learns Better structures. Within the confines of these archetypes, the mentor (or dispatcher, in Propp’s terminology) is a standard element. Consider Merlyn in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, Dallben (and Coll, and Gwydion) in The Book of Three, Morwen and Kazul in Dealing with Dragons, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. What in A Wrinkle in Time, or Mrs. Frankweiler in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler:

Each of these mentors is an adult, placed by the story’s plot in a parental/guardian position relative to the story’s hero. That the hero may be a hidden monarch or a prophesied savior is immaterial for the mentor’s role. From a plotting standpoint, the mentor is there to initiate and end the adventure.

Pushing the Hero Towards Adventure

Parents typically protect the hero. They want to keep the hero guarded against all of the vicissitudes of the outside world. The mentor, however, does not. The mentor recognizes – in their infinite wisdom – that the hero needs to face danger to grow. Merlyn puts Wart in potentially life-threatening situations because he hopes the lessons will make Wart a better king. Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which fetch Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin and put them directly in harm’s way. Kazul and Morwen – ostensibly – have few qualms about placing Cimorene in what the novel’s society considers danger. In this sense, the mentor often adopts the role of dispatcher in Propp’s morphology. In some cases, as in Morwen and Kazul, the mentor can play the role of helper just as easily.

Starting Points: Explaining the Lesson at the Start of the Book

Mentors are by definition wise. And invariably they share that wisdom with the middle-grade hero before the adventure starts. Consider Dallben’s exchange with Taran the Assistant Pig-keeper:

“Tut,” said Dallben, “there are worse things. Do you set yourself to be a glorious hero? Do you believe it is all flashing swords and galloping about on horses? As for being glorious…”

“What of Prince Gwydion?” cried Taran. “Yes! I wish I might be like him!”

“I fear,” Dallben said, “that is entirely out of the question.”

“Buy why?” Taran sprang to his feet. “I know if I had the chance…”

“Why?” Dallben interrupted. “In some cases,” he said, “we learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. This is one of those cases. I could tell you why, but at the moment it would only be more confusing. If you grow up with any kind of sense – which you sometimes make me doubt – you will very likely reach your own conclusions.

“They will probably be wrong,” he added. “However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them.”

This exchange – which we find in chapter one – outlines the arc at the heart of The Book of Three. Taran obviously fails to grasp the wisdom of Dallben’s warnings – otherwise, he would never run off after Hen Wen and begin his exciting adventures. But reading this exchange, an adult reader instantly sees the timeless wisdom of Dallben’s teaching. And I would argue that a nine year old reader gets it just as well.

The Triangle of Understanding in Middle-grade Fiction

The Triangle of Understanding in Middle-grade Fiction

The reason for that is because of Dallben’s obvious wisdom. A nine year old might not be able to articulate this wisdom, to communicate it anew, yet nonetheless it strikes a chord. We know Dallben’s interdiction will be broken, that Taran will go out on an adventure. And we know that the adventure will change him, make him recognize at least a part of Dallben’s teachings. The same model can be found in Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne-Jones, L. Frank Baum: all of the classic middle-grade fantasists understood the power of foreshadowing the lesson at the start of their books.

Contrary to what many grown-ups believe, children well understand the difference between reality and fiction. They know that Taran’s adventures are dangerous. If they did not grasp the inherent wisdom of Dallben’s warnings, why would they be scared or excited when Taran faces Achren or the Horned King? While Dallben’s warnings might go right over Taran’s head, even a young reader will still understand and recognize their wisdom. They may not be able to explain what they have understood, but that does not mean they have failed to grasp its underlying significance. The reader knows what lesson is coming before they’re even finished with chapter one: which is why the book’s conclusion – when Taran has had his adventures, and has learned at least a little more wisdom – is so satisfying.

The Obliquity of Wisdom: Mediating the Mentor and the Hero

This structure is satisfying because the reader not only understands the mentor’s wisdom, but the hero’s desires. What nine year old doesn’t want an exciting adventure slaying monsters? We want Taran to have his adventure, we want him to face down monsters and evil, and to come out stronger, smarter, and happier at the end. We know that Taran will get into trouble by breaking Dallben’s interdiction, but there remains that niggling little voice inside that says adventure is worth it.

The relationship brings to a mind the best line of the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, where Isabelle warns Hugo that they can get into trouble and Hugo responds “That’s how you know it’s an adventure.” That exchange encapsulates the reader’s mediation between grasping the hero’s immature desires, and internalizing the mentor’s wisdom. If the hero were not in danger, if the hero did not break the mentor’s rules, then there would be no adventure.

Developing One’s Own Vocabulary: The Learning Hero in Middle Grade

As MG novels progress, the hero has to gradually develop their own vocabulary for the mentor’s teachings. The hero cannot just parrot the mentor’s lessons: that would not show any development on the part of the character, and would thus be fundamentally unsatisfying. Instead, the hero rationalizes an initial rejection of the mentor’s lesson and then builds an acceptance of the lesson by getting (proverbially – or literally) kicked in the teeth by life.

Note that there are examples where authors have tried to deviate from this pattern. Joseph Delaney – in his 2004 novel The Last Apprentice – tries to invert the classic structure. Delaney’s hero understands the wisdom of the Spook’s interdictions. However, he finds that certain rules are overly stringent. He does not break them due to a failure of understanding: instead, he breaks them because he actively disagrees with their universality. These books are a little too recent to be deemed evergreen, but I am curious as to how they will age over time. They have not resonated with me the way the more classic structure has, but that may have more to do with my own tastes (my fiancée accuses me of being an old-fashioned curmudgeon) than with any actual weakness in an inverted structure. Eventually, time will tell whether the mirror image of the classic structure can function as well as the original.

Regardless of whether the author plays it straight or flips the structure, at the end of the story the hero has learned a lesson and articulates it in words different from those of the mentor. What matters is that the lesson cannot be presented didactically: kids can smell that kind of condescension a mile away, and overt morals ruin good stories. Nobody likes to be patronized, least of all a nine year old. If the action and emotion of a story cannot imply a lesson through subtext, then it is a weak lesson that simply won’t resonate.

By finding a different subtext-driven way of articulating (or potentially refuting) the mentor’s earlier wisdom, a classic MG novel can show the reader how that wisdom can be applied in a fictional context. Just as the hero’s understanding of reality is broadened, so too is the reader’s conceptual vocabulary. Like Dallben says:

“…If you grow up with any kind of sense – which you sometimes make me doubt – you will very likely reach your own conclusions.

“They will probably be wrong,” he added. “However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them.”

And that, ultimately is what childhood and fiction are both about.

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