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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!

Science Fiction Techniques in Spy Novels: James Bond and George Smiley


One of the upsides of spending two weeks traveling on business in Eastern Europe is that it really adds some perspective to spy fiction. For years I’ve meant to read more of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and to pick up John Le Carré’s George Smiley trilogy. So I worked my way through them and came to an interesting conclusion: both Fleming and Le Carré are science fiction authors. I don’t just mean that in the sense that they use fantastical conceits or gadgets. Instead, I mean that they establish cognitive estrangement for the same reasons and using the exact same narrative devices and prose techniques as speculative fiction authors.

Cognitive Estrangement and the Novum as a Defining Characteristic of Spy Fiction

Reading Fleming and Le Carré brought to mind Darko Suvin’s concepts of cognitive estrangement and novum. Suvin uses cognitive estrangement to describe the method by which science fiction establishes itself as operating in a made-up world where the rules of our humdrum reality need not apply. That estrangement contributes to both our sense-of-wonder and to the genre’s escapist label: it gives us a world that we can inhabit where the impossible becomes possible, and thus opens our horizons to as-yet unimagined concepts.

All fiction relies on cognitive estrangement to some extent: even when we read a contemporary mainstream novel, we accept its fictional premises. How many people do you know who live or speak like fictional characters? None. Effective dialog and effective characterization both rely on carefully considered pruning of reality. Writers are like Mister Miyagi, carefully sculpting his bonsai tree. The natural tree may still be interesting and beautiful, but Miyagi shapes it to underline that beauty. Fiction works the same way. But the difference between speculative fiction and realistic fiction is the degree of cognitive estrangement demanded of the reader. And here is where Suvin’s second concept of novum comes into play.

Suvin claimed that science fiction relied on incorporating something new, something different, something outside of the experience of the real world as a device to achieve a cognitive estrangement. It might be time travel, or aliens, some fancy whiz-bang technology – doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it is a marker that tells the reader “Here there be dragons” and thus puts the reader into the frame of mind for receiving a fantastical story. Reading the Bond novels and the George Smiley novels, I’ve come to the conclusion that spy fiction works in the exact same way.

In order for us to enjoy a spy novel, we need to inhabit a world that most of us don’t ever see: the world of espionage, and assassination, and skullduggery. Does this world exist in actuality? It’s naive to suggest otherwise. But as I’ve never been a spy, it is as foreign to me as Middle Earth or the planet Arrakis. Are there some authors who portray this world more realistically than others? I’m sure there are (I’ve heard rumors that actual spies tend to prefer Le Carré’s novels to Fleming’s, for example). But who cares? In each case, as long as it is fiction, all that matters is the ride that the story takes us on, and whether it is compelling. Just like with science fiction, this ride’s effectiveness is dependent on the story’s ability to establish cognitive estrangement: on its ability to take me into that fictional world alongside our own.

World-building and Character as Tools of Cognitive Estrangement

I’d argue that the techniques Fleming employs are very similar to those used by urban fantasy writers (particularly those who write episodic urban fantasy, like Jim Butcher or Charlaine Harris).

Much urban fantasy posits a “hidden world” alongside ours. We might go our whole lives without ever touching on the affairs of the supernatural that Butcher’s Harry Dresden deals with every day. The same holds true for the cloak-and-dagger world that James Bond inhabits. In both cases, the authors need to establish a degree of trust that we will buy into their reality. And they generally do so in similar fashions.

Like Harry Dresden, James Bond is an initiate. When we first meet him in Casino Royale (or in any of the Bond novels), he already knows the score. He may have more or less experience, he may be more or less jaded, but it is through his already-experienced eyes that we perceive his world. This is a classic device in episodic fiction (see my earlier post on episodic heroes), and it is one that works just as well in spy fiction as in urban fantasy or science fiction.

Secondly, Ian Fleming gives us a setting that while ostensibly realistic, is entirely outside most readers’ experience. Bond doesn’t go to work in a small town in northern New Jersey. If he did, I’d have difficulty buying into the story. Bond travels to exotic locales, places where I’ve never been or places where I’ve only been as a tourist. The result is that Bond’s environment is a priori new to me. I’ve never been to Jamaica, and so the setting Bond moves through is as new to me as Tolkien’s Shire.

Fleming uses classic fantastical devices to make this world real for the reader: he employs the tried-and-true science fictional method of salting his story with very small details that ground his setting and earn my inherent trust in his skills as a storyteller. He goes into painstaking detail about the planes, trains, and automobiles that Bond interacts with. He uses precise language to describe the settings where the action takes place. He doesn’t infodump that information: he just uses it like a dash of spice in his prose, and even though I know that at times it’s absolutely inaccurate, I accept it because it contributes to the story’s flow and the establishment of his environment. I see no difference between this approach and the way George Alec Effinger establishes the Budayeen in When Gravity Fails or how William Gibson assembles his cyberpunk reality in the Bridge trilogy.

It’s easy to see Fleming’s gadgets or his larger-than-life villains as being the primary novum that establish cognitive estrangement, but I actually think it is his world-building that really does it. If we had not already bought into Fleming’s fantastic slice of our world, then we would never believe in Bond’s gadgets or in his monologuing villains.

Neologism as Novum: John Le Carré and the Language of Tradecraft

In many ways John Le Carré’s George Smiley trilogy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People) are like the anti-James Bond spy novels. Bond is crystal clear in that he is on the “right” (British) side. Even in those books where Bond wrestles with doubts, it is a superficial wrestling and not one that really drives to the heart of the story. The heart of Bond is adventure. The heart of George Smiley is ambiguity (or as Kingsley Amis put it in The James Bond Dossier, anguished cynicism).

The Smiley trilogy is set in a world that more clearly borders on our own. Smiley’s adventures take place in London, Berlin, Hong Kong, Prague. These aren’t tourist wonderlands like Caribbean or the French Riviera. I can’t speak for every reader, but these are often places where I’ve spent a fair amount of time. Unlike Fleming, Le Carré doesn’t spend a lot of time with detailed descriptions of his settings or of the ingredients that make up those settings. His focus is on his characters. The setting, and the world that his characters occupy comes across, but it is always filtered through the film of his characters’ perceptions.

But even if he doesn’t salt his prose with telling details to make the setting seem real for us, Le Carré does use a different science fictional technique to establish cognitive estrangement: neologism. Like James Bond, George Smiley is an initiate: he understands the world of spies and secret service. And that comes through in the language that he uses, in particular in his reliance on the jargon of the trade. His fluency with terms like “tradecraft” and “lamplighters” and “mole” (a term which Le Carré actually popularized, based on a translation of the KGB term for a long-term deep cover agent).

These neologisms are employed to the same end as other science fictional neologisms (grok, hyperspace, warp, cyberspace, ansible, etc.). They establish a sense of cognitive estrangement without distracting from the story. Those of us who aren’t spies don’t use words like “tradecraft” or “lamplighters” in our everyday speech. But whatever our profession, I’m sure we’ve all encountered jargon before. It’s a very real and unavoidable part of life. Because Le Carré uses these terms so fluently, so sparingly, their use buys our belief in Smiley’s world and his perceptions of it.

Of the two techniques, I think Le Carré’s is the harder sell. It is a very fine line to walk between successfully establishing cognitive estrangement, and confusing the reader. But I think he pulls it off, and the fact that words he introduced (mole, tradecraft, etc.) can now be found on most any television show is a testament to his success at pulling it off.

Science Fiction Tropes in Spy Fiction?

If spy fiction relies on science fiction techniques, do the tropes of science fiction get play in spy fiction? Here, I think the answer is less clear. The two genres definitely share some common ancestors. Most spy fiction (in particular the James Bond novels) probably trace their lineage to the noir mysteries of the pulp era. The George Smiley books can probably be traced back to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare or Conrad’s The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. The same books often show up in science fictional lineages, but I’m not sure if the two genres share more than a reliance on the same techniques. It’s something I’m going to be thinking some more about, but I’d love to know what everyone else thinks. How are spy fiction and speculative fiction similar? How are they different? What methods and devices work in one but fail in the other?

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