Dec 14, 2012

Smiley Sequel Still in the Works

Last year, while doing the press rounds promoting Tomas Alfredson's brilliant Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (review here), both star Gary Oldman and screenwriter Peter Straughan (who penned the film with his late wife Bridget O'Connor) let slip that they'd be keen on making a sequel. Both men mentioned John le Carré's third novel in the so-called "Karla Trilogy," Smiley's People, as the likely inspiration for such, skipping over the brilliant middle novel, The Honourable Schoolboy, just like the BBC did decades ago with their miniseries. That's a shame, because in my opinion Schoolboy would make a great film. Straughan told me that the main reason for that was the same as the BBC's reason in the Eighties: the high cost associated with shooting on location in Hong Kong, where the bulk of the novel takes place. It would be even worse now than it was then, as the story is now a period piece. But he did say that a potential follow-up film would likely incorporate certain aspects of The Honourable Schoolboy into the overall story of Smiley's People. A lot of websites keep perpetuating the notion that Smiley isn't much of a presence in Schoolboy, and cite that as the reason it will likely be skipped. That's baloney. While it's true that Jerry Westerby is the main character in the book, Smiley sees just about as much action in Schoolboy as he did in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It's a longer book. It could easily be adapted in such a way as to focus on the Smiley sections, thus beefing up Oldman's role. But all that's moot because of the cost issue anyway. Sadly.

So that was a year ago. Since then, a lot of time has passed without any further mention of a Smiley sequel. I was starting to fear that it had fallen by the wayside. But luckily Collider (via Dark Horizons) was recently on the spot to get a comment from producer Eric Fellner, and he assured them that work on the follow-up continues apace, albeit quietly! "We are working on another one," Fellner told the website. "Tim Bevan [his producing partner] is putting it together as we speak with Peter Straughan and Tomas Alfredson, so yes it’s in development." Hurrah! I'm happy to hear it! "But things take time," he then adds. "Tim is passionate about making sure we do another one." Well, thank you, Tim! Schoolboy or Smiley's People, I can't wait to see Alfredson return to le Carré's Circus and Oldman reprise his role as the inimitable spymaster George Smiley.


Paul Bishop said...

What are your thoughts on the upcoming FX series, The Americans?

Quiller said...


Thank you for pointing out what everybody seems determined to ignore or gloss over -- that Smiley is indeed a central character in The Honourable Schoolboy, the equal of Jerry Westerby, and if he seems less in evidence, it is because le Carre makes a conscious decision to spend far less time in Smiley's head than in Tinker or Smiley's People. I can think of only one scene in the whole novel in which le Carre lets us know what Smiley is thinking -- it's just before Jerry sets off for Hong Kong. The rest of the time, we see him through Guillam's eyes.

I really hate the thought of the filmmakers skipping Schoolboy and proceeding directly to Smiley’s People. All of le Carre’s novels involve questions of moral and ethical ambiguity but Schoolboy is something else altogether; it is the first novel in which le Carre really calls into question Smiley’s own actions, and his moral complacency. It’s an article of faith in the spy-fi community that le Carre gave up on writing Smiley because of how thoroughly Alec Guinness commandeered the role. But from the interviews and articles I’ve read over the years, I think Schoolboy is where le Carre really got disillusioned with Smiley, because he could no longer accept without question Smiley’s willingness to knuckle under and do the dirty work, taking his own guilt as the only punishment for his actions. I did not always understand this, and only started to get my mind around it when I reread the trilogy in the fall of 2011. The film version of Tinker played up Smiley’s ruthlessness to a greater degree than any previous incarnation, but seemed to accept it as part of the game – it would be fascinating to see that ruthlessness challenged in a film version of Schoolboy.

Still, I can’t fault them for making cost the deciding factor – Tinker did very well at the worldwide box office (over $80 million, second highest-grossing le Carre adaptation after The Constant Gardener), but that’s still a drop in the bucket compared to what Skyfall is pulling in. There is a market for this kind of intelligent, sophisticated, well-crafted espionage thriller, but evidently the financiers don’t think there’s enough of one to justify the expense of recreating 1970s Southeast Asia. I suspect it might be even more difficult now, with Hong Kong having been handed back to China from the British – to say nothing of the fact that the physical landscape of the city has changed dramatically just in the fifteen years since the handover, much less since 1975. (Though I suppose you could remove the modern skyscrapers from the landscape with CGI.)

And yet, at the same time, somehow the whole saga feels better as a trilogy, rather than two films. If they’re not doing Schoolboy, maybe Smiley’s People could be the second chapter, and then a reworked version of The Secret Pilgrim as the finale, with Smiley interrogating Karla while training Ned (the protagonist of Secret Pilgrim and an important character in The Russia House, played by James Fox in the film version of the latter) as his successor, taking the story to the end of the Cold War.

In any case, it’s good to know that the producers’ haven’t dropped the ball and although I had come across this item elsewhere I’m still glad to have your take on it.