If I was asked to run a film class, this would be one of the paramount examples I would use. This in conjecture with the recent film adaptation. The exercise for the students would be to look for the controls.
Just to get this out of the way first, this is an excellent production that comes with all the staples of BBC and the British narrative tradition in general; good old-fashioned storytelling, superb acting, reliance on allegory, attention to the nuances of character and dialogue. The works. So if you are looking to be told a great story, you have no reason to miss this. The added appeal is that you may have fun unraveling the allegory about 20th century Britain, faded glories, regret, self-pity, tatters of moral and social despair, etc. A Britain that looks every bit as we were told was on the other side of the Curtain, pallid shambles.
But this comment is in conjecture with the recent film adaptation which I recently saw and was deeply impressed by. Playing both over the course of several days, I was struck by how far our cinematic devices have come. The story is as gripping in both cases. The structure as well. The whole point is that we are a chess pawn in a game between opposing forces of massive infrastructure and cunning ruthlessness, and try with each new move to apprehend the controls of this game and world. Our effort is to rise to the level where unseen a highly complex narrative is being tinkered and tailored.
The world of difference between this and the film is the level of abstraction that permeates the story. This one is fine. We just have to be patient as the various pieces click into place for us. But the film, I maintain the film to be in another league. Watching that is not enough, in fact many viewers have been completely puzzled after a first viewing. We have to be the spy to make it work, actively so.
Nothing better illustrates this difference than this very simple import. Here we get to see Karla. There we have to piece together his image controlling from afar. I believe this transference of the manipulator out of frame so only the strings leading there remain visible was taken from the second Mabuse film Fritz Lang did back in ‘33.
So exactly because a lot of story has been trimmed or condensed that we need to unravel in a short time; because each of the many points-of-view that together form the overall picture are not sourced out to us in a different episode; because the rationales behind the whole sordid enterprise are not cleanly recapped after every episode, or the many justifications delved into with so much clarity; so exactly because this one is complicated but clean and orderly whereas the other is muddled and abstract, you will have to see like a spy to absorb it. You have to shift your own gears there.
They go into more detail in the TV series about this, in the Lisbon segment. The shift in the gears of watching that a spy must perform. He needs to be able to see everything while remaining effectively unseen in plain sight. This is something that deeply interests me in connection with meditation.
So for clean, gripping storytelling come to this. Save the film for when you decide to really cultivate an abstract eye. Taken together they make for indispensable viewing in my estimation and one of the best exercises developed from film noir. Each one has its own strengths, it’s just a matter of how you overlap with the world as a viewer.