A Roundtable Chat with Peter Straughan and Tomas Alfredson (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”)

When Focus Features drops you a line and asks you if you’d like to head to New York City for an overnight stay at the Waldorf Astoria in order to attend a screening and press junket for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” based on the novel by John le Carré, you don’t think about it. You just say, “Yes.” And so I did. After catching a screening of the film on a Friday night, I got up on Saturday morning to begin the interviews of the day. First up: director Tomas Alfredson and one of the film’s screenwriters, Peter Straughan. (Alas, Straughan’s co-writer, Bridget O’Connor, who was also his wife, died of cancer in September 2010.)

One word of warning: the potential for spoilers exists within the piece. But, look, given that the original novel was published in 1974, followed by the TV miniseries in 1979, it’s not as if you haven’t had plenty of time to absorb this information already…

Journalist: How liberating was it for you to be told (by John le Carré), “Don’t reshoot the book?”

Peter Straughan: Very. [Laughs.]

Tomas Alfredson: Yes, very. I was much more so, I think. Peter wasn’t too worried, but I was very reverential about the book and was very nervous about taking a foot off the path. So it was just very good that John le Carré was there to push us off the path and tell us to do something different.

J: Can you each tell us about your first encounter with the book, if you had read it a long time ago? Did either of you?

PS: I’d read it, yeah. And Bridget had read it years earlier and loved it. In the UK, it’s considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, let alone spy novels. And then we read it again when we were asked to come in to discuss adapting it. Which made us quite nervous. [Laughs.] You read it, and…it’s quite a difficult book to adapt!

J: Because it’s so well known, or because of the complexity…?

PS: Because of the complexity. Because it’s quite an interior story. So much of it takes place in Smiley’s mind and Smiley’s memory. And also because, in the UK, it’s a holy cow. As is the TV series. So there was a sense of…I think we were maybe the only writers who rushed in and said, “Okay, we’ll do it!” Everyone else would say, “No, we don’t want to do it!” [Laughs.] Fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.

TA: I think it’s…very much about not deciding, “Okay, I want to do this,” but it’s about, “I want to start working on this, to start the process.” And early on, it was…I remembered the old TV series and the reading of the book, but also meeting with the actual persons, with Peter and Bridget and le Carré and the producers, who are very nice people. To do a scary thing like this, you need to be encouraged, and if you’re surrounded by encouraging people who you trust, it’s much easier.

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