Tim Adler is a contributor to AwardsLine
Peter Straughan would sit in his attic office typing away on the script for Tinker Tailor Solider Spy listening to jazz on headphones, while downstairs his wife and writing partner Bridget O’Connor was also writing the script, based on the bestselling spy novel by John le Carré. They would email each other drafts, critiquing each other’s work as they plowed on. O’Connor, a prize-winning dramatist, found writing lonely and loved collaborating with her husband. That co-written script is now nominated for an Adapted Screenplay Oscar after collecting wins at the BAFTAs and the Online Film Critics Society among its many nominations.
Straughan and his wife spent a year working on the Tinker Tailor screenplay when tragedy struck: O’Connor died in September 2010 of cancer at age 49, one week before filming was due to begin in Budapest, Hungary. “I know Peter was tremendously badly hit by it,” le Carré says. “The script should be remembered as a monument to their collaboration and their marriage. Their best work together has been memorialised on screen.” It brought about what most called the most memorable moment at the BAFTAs last weekend when Straughan said of O’Connor during his acceptance speech: “She did all the good bits, I made the coffee. I love you, I miss you, this is for you.”
Straughan — who began his career as a playwright before becoming one of Britain’s most sought-after screenwriters, with credits including The Debt and The Men Who Stare At Goats — says he and O’Connor were on holiday when they got a call from Working Title asking if they wanted to adapt Tinker Tailor. Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) wrote an original draft, having pitched a film version to the company already. Nobody was happy with Morgan’s thriller-ish take. Straughan admits he and O’Connor were nervous about adapting Tinker Tailor – especially when the ’70s BBC TV series was so iconic. Le Carré’s work is fiendishly difficult to adapt: The plot of the 1974 novel often takes place inside the head of George Smiley, a retired spymaster hunting the traitor inside the British Secret Service, and is mostly told in long flashbacks. “We wondered if they were going to do a silly, sexy updating of it with car chases but we knew Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) was already attached as director, which was enticing,” Straughan says. “Le Carré had also given his blessing, so that calmed us down.”
Straughan says he and O’Connor were interested in the core concerns of the novel, especially the human cost of the Cold War, which makes up the emotional heart of the novel’s labyrinth. “That was what we tried to hold to, always going back to the victims one way or another,” he says. The couple went through the book, creating a master synopsis that ran to a scroll of five taped-together pages. They set to work alternating scenes, occasionally telephoning le Carré for advice. Straughan says le Carré encouraged them to “make the film of the film, not the film of the book.” Indeed, the author was less reverential about the novel than they were, encouraging them to invent new scenes, and as a result, the script moved further away from the book with each draft. “My principle, which I enunciated at our first meeting before they set pen to paper, was that I am a passive resource. If you hit a problem or want to expand an idea, you call me,” le Carré says.
And, as if straightening out the novel’s twists, turns and doublings-back was not enough, Straughan and O’Connor added their own flashback: a Christmas party scene where all the spies are gathered. The idea sprang from an anecdote le Carré, who used to work for British Intelligence, told them about police being called to break up an MI5 Christmas party that had gotten too rowdy, with bottles being hurled into the street. “People who live in the secret world absolutely let their hair down when they have a party,” the former spook says. “So much inhibition for 364 days of the year; you never know what other people’s work is. It’s a huge release.”
Le Carré remembers emailing Working Title partner Tim Bevan after he read the first draft, telling him how pleased he was: “When I read Bridget and Peter’s first draft, it was a piece of dramatic and intellectual architecture that I could admire. Right from the start it was clear they’d done the impossible — reducing the cow to a stock cube.”
The novelist admits he has not been happy with other movie adaptations: Eight of his 22 novels have now been filmed, with three others adapted for television. Anton Corbijn (Control) plans to film A Most Wanted Man next. “The Looking Glass War was absolutely dreadful, while The Little Drummer Girl was a total failure in every sense,” le Carré says. Straughan and O’Connor, on the other hand, provided “a seamless collaboration. … I think they did it splendidly.”
(Peter Straughan and Oldman/le Carré photos: Getty Images)