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Who is George Smiley?

Updated on April 24, 2013

Smiley Frowning

Understated and stylish, Gary Oldman's portrayal of George Smiley is likely to become definitive.
Understated and stylish, Gary Oldman's portrayal of George Smiley is likely to become definitive.

George Smiley

Bespectacled, plump, immaculately dressed but otherwise entirely unremarkable in appearance, George Smiley is the shrewd post-war M16 officer created by John le Carré.But exactly who is George Smiley? Smiley appears in a number of le Carré’s novels, be he the protagonist, a passing mention somewhere towards the middle, or something in between.

Regardless of his status or function within the space of each individual novel, Smiley leaves an indelible impression on the reader. Combining strengths and weaknesses, as well as uniting aspirational talents and abilities with the semblance of the everyman, Smiley is hero and anti-hero at once; he’s far more clever than us and he is doing battle mentally with the forces of evil, but at the same time he is us, he’s just the ordinary man in the street. This duality within the character has been successfully brought to the screen, most notably by Alec Guinness, and more recently by Gary Oldman in a beautifully understated performance which narrowly missed out at the 2012 Oscars. With more Smiley films looking likely, and a number of first-rate espionage books lining the shelves of your local library, now’s a great time to get involved with this engaging character and get under his skin a little.

Smiley in the Novels of le Carré

Smiley’s biography has shifted slightly throughout le Carré’s series of novels. As the books themselves were written over several decades, from 1961 to 1990, Carré occasionally shifted the time frame and re-structured Smiley’s age and rank to suit his own narrative means. What is certain is that George Smiley is a member of M16, the British secret intelligence service which focuses on overseas espionage, having joined the organisation during the 1930s and seen service overseas through World War II. The birth of the cold war immediately after WWII sees Smiley gradually rise through the ranks of M16, until by the late 60s and early 70s he is at the right hand of its mysterious chief, “Control”. Falling from grace in the early 1970s following Control’s death, Smiley was called out of retirement during the narrative of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy to help unmask a mole at the heart of MI6’s Circus. At the close of this novel we see the stout spy step up as an interim chief, helping to rebuild the Circus from the parlous state the mole and his superiors left it in. In the next novel, The Honourable Schoolboy, we see Smiley still as Circus chief in 1974- he is overseeing an investigation by some of his analysts into any operations which were suppressed or closed by the mole unearthed in the previous novel, Tinker Tailor. This ultimately leads to a complex tale of adventures and intrigue across the world, at the end of which Smiley retires once more. Smiley returns a third time in what is known as the Karla Trilogy, in the novel Smiley’s People, in which he is called from retirement yet again to help investigate a murder.

Genuine Class

Shown here wearing a hat and spectacles on his head and face, Alec Guiness was one of the first to bring Le Carré's plump and proud spy to the big screen
Shown here wearing a hat and spectacles on his head and face, Alec Guiness was one of the first to bring Le Carré's plump and proud spy to the big screen

Smiley Vs Bond

Le Carré, like Fleming, had personal experience of the British Secret Intelligence Service, however although there is much which the Bond and Smiley novels have in common, they are worlds apart in tone and in their attitudes to verisimilitude. This is most easily demonstrated by setting the films of the novels side by side- it’s difficult to see much in the world of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold that you might also see in the likes of Moonraker. Smiley’s stories seem to offer a far more realistic and nuanced understanding of genuine intelligence work; they are studies of people, of their foibles and faults, and they are tales of intrigue. Whilst describing ostensibly the same subject matter, the Bond novels seem to take the protagonist’s flaws (womanising and drinking, chiefly) as a given, and offer little in the way of genuine understanding of any of the other characters who people them.

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