It is difficult to compare a film of just over two hours with a TV series luxuriating in a five and a half hours viewing experience, but more than ever we come back to the primary question of why people want to make books into films.
One of the Sunday newspaper film critics compared the latest John le Carré to be translated to the big screen, ‘A Most Wanted Man’, to the 2011 film version of le Carré’s famous ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ noting that both films were very ‘brown’. As I have just finished watching the 1979 TV version of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ made late 1970s about a story set in the 1970s, I guess you could forgive the 21st-century film makers their shorthand ‘brownness’ to signify the murky world of spies. However, a captivating film, especially an espionage thriller needs more than just atmosphere and beautiful shots, it also needs a gripping plot and compelling characters too.
The central role of ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is Günther Bachmann played superbly by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film needed somebody of Hoffman’s ability to have any chance of holding your attention, but with little back story or personal relationships it is hard to engage with Günther despite Hoffman’s undoubted talent. The generally remote, detached feel of this film doesn’t help either and so whereas you really care about Smiley, played by Alec Guinness in the TV series, it’s all a bit ‘ho hum’ for Günther. I haven’t yet read ‘A Most Wanted Man’, so this ‘nobody really cares about Günther’ feel could be the quality that le Carré wanted, an almost invisible, background grand master type. Trouble is what can work on the page doesn’t always transfer to film. And, don’t even get me started on the bizarre need for German characters to speak English with a German accent when they are supposed to be talking in German to one another. Or, is the spying world nowadays like the world of civil aviation where English is the lingua franca?
A film is not a book. A film of a book is a film, a stand alone work. If you really love any book chances are you won’t like the film, TV or even theatrical version of the original text, perhaps best not to bother with them then. However, good plots and great characters can have another life away from their original incarnation and it is the business of the film people, script writers, directors, actors . . . to make it work. Hoffman’s performance and the excellent casting of Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams fail to overcome the fact you just couldn’t careless about any of them in this lightly plotted, passionless affair.