George Smiley vs James Bond

When someone says “spy” to you, who comes to mind? The dashing, sexy, and somewhat sexist, James Bond as portrayed by a number of dashing and sexy actors, or the staid, pudgy, bespectacled, middle-aged George Smiley as portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness or Gary Oldman?

I’ll wager you cast your “vote” for James Bond. I mean, this martini-drinking (shaken not stirred) driver of fast cars and bedder of fast women is certainly memorable. Watching the Bond movies in the 1960s, I was certain every spy looked like him, every spy carried a Walther PPK, every spy had a souped-up car, and every spy had women crawling all over him.

No wonder the boys I knew as a teenager wanted to be him or his television alter-ego, Napoleon Solo.

Why Bond Wouldn’t Make a Good Spy

First, he’s too conspicuous. Even one of his portrayers, the late Roger Moore, once said, “You can’t be a real spy and have everybody in the world know who you are and what your drink is…I mean, this man is supposed to be a spy, and yet everyone knows he’s a spy.”

It’s true. Bond wears expensive suits, always orders the same drink, always drives a flashy car, always seduces women close to his target, and, bloody hell, uses his real name.

One of the key Moscow Rules western spies had to follow when working in Europe and Russia was “Vary your pattern and stay within your cover.” Though Bond ostensibly had a cover as an employee of “Universal Exports,” he used that cover over and over and rarely varied his pattern. We have all those movies as examples.

Of course, staying within your cover would make for dull writing and duller movies, and we’d never get to hear that famous and ubiquitous line, “The name is Bond, James Bond.”

Didn’t Ian Fleming, former member of British Intelligence, know better?

Of course he did, and you’ll find in his early books, the tradecraft is authentic. It was the movies that took Fleming’s creation to an often ridiculous level because they had to be entertaining. One thing audiences don’t like is for a beloved character to change or not live up to fans’ expectations. Every actor who’s played Bond since Sean Connery has had to contend with fans’ declarations that he’s unworthy.

Why George Smiley is a Good Spy

Some of you might be wondering who is this George Smiley? He’s a recurring character in John le Carre’s early novels, first as a spy for then as the head of “The Circus,” the insider name for the British Secret Service. If you haven’t read any of the nine le Carre books that feature Smiley, rectify that. You’ll become a fan.

George Smiley is an unknown, even to his fellow Circus members. He is aloof, taciturn, unperturbable. He is the proverbial “gray man” the British Secret Service prefers–no taller than 5’11” (5’8″ for women), can blend into the background, i.e., average height, average build, average appearance. By these standards, none of the actors who played Bond would be hired to be real spies.

But Smiley can also be cold, ruthless, and cunning. His obsession with his Soviet counterpart codenamed Karla actually gets his department shut down for a while until the higher-ups realize the only person who can outwit Karla is this nondescript writer of scholarly books on art history, George Smiley. The only crack in Smiley’s armor is his love for his wife, who manages to sleep with his coworkers and occasionally his adversaries and is almost always forgiven.

Though Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Smiley in the recent movie, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is excellent, the quintessential portrayal of Smiley is by Sir Alec Guinness in two television series, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People.” When you read Smiley in le Carre’s books and see Guinness on the screen, you’ll never associate that character with anyone else again.

Smiley’s success? You’d pass him on the street, sit near him in a pub, see him on the bus (which he uses more often than even an unexciting model of car) and you’d decide the last person in the world to be a spy is George Smiley. Exactly.

It’s Not Really a Contest

Bond can be Bond and can entertain us with his pithy innuendo and can make us want to either emulate him or go to bed with him. It’s all in good fun. Again, Roger Moore admitted he wouldn’t have been able to do his work for UNICEF without the access and celebrity playing Bond brought him. Bond is great fun, and, well, I have seen every single one of the movies.

But if under duress someone insisted I confess who’s the better spy, I’d have to say George Smiley. I’d rather have his keen intellect, his unwavering focus, his attention to detail working behind the scenes to outwit an enemy than watch Jimmy Bond order another martini.

Don’t hate me.