Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Gaying of Peter Guillam (In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

If you haven't seen the amazing movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I highly suggest that you stop reading this right now and go watch it. Seriously. The internet will still be here when you get back.

If you aren't going to follow my sage advice, here's the basic plot. It's about the British Secret Service, or Circus, and takes place in the height of the Cold War. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is brought back from retirement to quietly investigate the service and find the mole that's selling them out to the KGB. Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) is one of the few men he can trust to help him. It's a hell of a lot more complicated than that in a lot of places, but basically, that's the plot.

The thing to remember, though, as you're watching the movie, is that this is not the first version of this story. Nope, both this and the 1970s miniseries starring Alec Guinness (from Star Wars, but he really preferred to be known from this or anything else that wasn't that "bloody sci-fi drivel") derive from the 1970s novel of the same name, by John LeCarré. The novel is popular, the miniseries was successful, but, for me, the movie is where the story hit its stride.

It's also where they made the biggest changes, most notably to the character of Peter Guillam. How? They made him gay.

Except they never actually said it. Like everything else in this beautiful film, you have to infer his gayness, based on the information you're given. Observe.

In his introduction we see Peter both watch a woman walk away, and then go with Colin Firth's character (Bill Hadyn) to "check out" the new secretary, Belinda. This is before we know almost anything about him or what his role in the Circus is.

Then, later, he comes into the Circus and has this short discussion with the guard at the desk. At this point, we really know nothing of Peter outside of work and his interactions with Smiley.

Guard: "How's the family?"

Peter: "Fine."

Since Peter is clearly in his mid-thirties, it seems unlikely that the guard would be asking after his parents. Therefore we can only assume that he is asking after Peter's wife and children. And the warmth and familiarity with which he speaks highly imply that he has done so before. Peter doesn't have a ring on his finger, but since it wasn't uncommon for men in the 1970s to decline to wear a wedding ring, this wasn't unusual. And Peter doesn't say anything to encourage the notion, he just lets the guard assume what he will.

Also note in the same sequence how deftly Peter shuts down the secretary. She fancies him, it's obvious, and he's a spy. He's established himself as capable of noticing the smallest things. A woman's regard for him is not beyond his purview. No, he puts her off because he doesn't want to go out with her, referring to having to spend his weekend with "visiting aunts." Why? She's hot, he's hot, and we really have no idea at this point whether he's married or not. So why the brush off?

No, the real problem becomes apparent later. As he's leaving Smiley, Peter is told to take care of "anything [he needs] tidied up." So, we see through a window as Peter enters a flat. There's a man sitting at the table, who starts talking the moment Peter walks in. He keeps talking, though Peter stays silent. And then the scene shifts, and we're looking at the bedroom. The man is packing. Peter sits at the table, his face just devastated. The man says a few things about wanting to know if there's someone else, and being able to handle it, then he drops his keys and leaves. Peter just cries.

End examination. I think we can assume from hereon out that in the film, at least, Peter is gay.

But why? It's much, much more common for a character who's gay in the book to be straightened out in the movie (or TV show, as seen with Chuck on Gossip Girl). Why would they choose to make a historically straight character gay?

One word: drama.

Peter Guillam's character in the original doesn't have any internal conflict. He's constantly reassuring himself that even though things are hard, he can go home and have sex with that violinist he's been seeing. He thinks at length in the book about how attractive she is. It's titillating, but not very dramatic. In making the movie, though, they made the strong choice to give every character, even the more minor ones, an inner conflict and therefore inner sense of drama. Even though it's only shown in a couple of scenes, they chose to make Peter gay because it made his part of the story so much more compelling.

Imagine if Peter had gone home to a woman. If she'd smiled, and he'd relaxed. It would have sucked the tension right out of the movie. Or perhaps if we hadn't seen what Peter went home to. But then we would wonder why, and he would be diminished as a character in our eyes, because we would have seen less of him, and therefore would care less about him. We need to see what Guillam's hiding in order to trust him. He wasn't hiding anything before, so we had no reason to trust his stake in the story.

It makes Peter Guillam twenty times more interesting. He's a gay spy back in a time when homosexuality was still illegal, and not too long after Alan Turing, inventor of the computer and instrumental in cracking the codes that won WWII, killed himself when he was driven out of science and intelligence work for being gay. Peter has everything to lose if his secret gets out, and this makes us root for him, and even gives a touch of insight into why he might have chosen to be a spy in the first place. Where better to hide than in amongst the other liars and cheats, after all?

But perhaps what I find most interesting about the gaying of Peter Guillam was how absolutely unremarkable it was. I didn't see it mentioned in any papers, no articles about it popped up on my GoogleReader, and Entertainment Weekly definitely didn't do a report on ways the book differed from the movie with "MAJOR GAY CHARACTER" at the top of the list.

In fact, it wasn't until I investigated the book myself that I found out he was straight in it. I just assumed that if he was gay in the movie, he was gay in the book. I was a little surprised.

Whatever their reason for doing so, I'm very glad that the screenwriters behind Tinker Tailor chose to go this route, and I think it shows a more nuanced character than we would have otherwise seen.

I also think that Benedict Cumberbatch deserved a Supporting Oscar Nom for his work. But that's probably asking too much. Man hasn't even won a BAFTA yet.



  1. I know this is almost a year old, but I just stumbled upon this article, and I felt I had to comment.

    “Peter Guillam's character in the original doesn't have any internal conflict.”

    This seems like an almost unsupportable statement. The literary Guillam experiences a kind of nervous breakdown in slow motion because the institution in which he has invested his life is letting him down in spectacular fashion, culminating in this moment:

    “A sickening notion had struck him: it seemed so neat and so horribly obvious that he could only wonder why it had come to him so late. Sand was Camilla’s husband. She was living a double life. Now whole vistas of deceit opened before him. His friends, his loves, even the Circus itself, joined and re-formed in endless patterns of intrigue. A line of Mendel’s came back to him, dropped two nights ago as they drank beer in some glum suburban pub: ‘Cheer up, Peter, old son. Jesus Christ only had twelve, you know, and one of them was a double.’”

    The conflict Guillam experiences in the film is very much of an external origin. If the story were moved forward 30 years, it wouldn’t come up at all. In the novel, however, the conflict is very much of an internal origin. By allowing an institution to take the place of actual healthy human relationships, he’s completely adrift when it inevitably falls apart on him.

    One virtue of this aspect of the story is that, by making the source of the conflict intrinsic to Guillam himself rather than external circumstances, it requires him to grow and change as a character in order to resolve the conflict. Guillam at the end of the book is a much different and emotionally healthier character than at the beginning of it. There is very little evidence, on the other hand, that the cinematic version has changed substantially.

  2. Stumbled into this even later. What was most intriguing to me was that Smiley knew, hence the hint; and that it didn't bother Smiley, despite the history (Cambridge Ring in reality). Hard to think Smiley's Circus had not yet had one homosexual scandal/panic by the time of TTSS.

    Thus, it's also a sign that Smiley is trusting an individual, rather than making dogmatic judgement by type.


  3. I am so sick of typing in a long comment only to have it deleted because I have to "sign in". Fuck it!

  4. Very interesting! I'll definitely have to watch this movie.

  5. I'm soo late, but I'm watching the film right now. I had to pause it and check that I wasn't seeing things! I knew the book character was straight so I was a little confused. I think your insight here is so interesting, you're entirely right about it giving just a bit more to his character. Cumberbatch did a sterling job.
    Thanks for writing!

  6. Just seen this movie 3 times in 3 days. I heard about it but somehow never got round to watching it. It's a great movie. Is it any wonder i am reading all the commentary i can find? in 2016 too. Yes i noticed the gaying of Peter Guillam but i have never read the book. It just struck me to double check after the split-up scene and him crying. Great movie great movie.

  7. One point is that with the story being set in the early '70s, it was a few years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. However, it would still have been a point of vulerability for someone working in the service because of vulerability to blackmail, so the main point of the article stands. Of course, even without peter, one of the core points of the story is that Haydon and Prideaux were lovers at university and possibly beyond, and that's certainly well known or suspected at the high levels of the Circus.


    If you're going to talk about homosexuality in the Circus stories, I think it's somewhat relevant that the entire foundation of the betrayal of Prideaux by Haydon is that they were former lovers. Moreover, Haydon - and others in the Circus, I think - have paramours of both genders. There's a line somewhere about him asking Smiley to take care of a mistress of his and also "there's a boy, a sailor in Quayside," or something like that.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. The character of Peter in the novel is not at all devoid of inter conflict. Are you kidding? He's having a slow meltdown and show shocked dawning of the fact that the circus isn't and never was what he thought. He's full of rage at the end. He's constantly worried his girlfriend may be a plant from the other side or his own people.

  11. Being an admirer first and foremost of Le Carre's novels, I didn't like Guillame being made into a gay character for the sake of this particular film version. Le Carre's 2017 novel 'A Legacy of Spies', in which Guillame is the central figure, is based, as much as anything, on the character's inability to resist any woman that crossed his path.

  12. This comment section is about as slow a burn as any of Le Carrés novels. Nine years since the article was written, and three years since the last comment, lemme just jump in and add my two cents.

    Over the last few months I've been reading a lot of Le Carré in order to get to this story. Then I watched the Alec Guinness mini series and the Gary Oldman movie back to back. This is what I found...

    LGBTQ folks are anything but absent from Le Carré novels. As a not straight dude, I note every minor gay and bi character I come across in basically anything, and I pay close attention to how a characters sexuality affects their lives and the opinions of others and use that as a judge of character for those... characters. Smiley, for instance, does not pass judgement on his co-workers for their romantic encounters. Hell, in the height of the cold war, he doesn't even really care if someone is part of the communist party as long as they aren't actively doing damage to the west, the Circus, or the people he cares for. Smiley judges people based on their intelligence, usefulness, and loyalty, and he takes everything else and files it away as facts to be accessed later. He's a spy and facts are what he lives on. He keeps anything he can use to connect dots, to blackmail, to trade, and in the case of this movie, warn his friend of potential social danger. This would have been some small kindness in the 70s, though perhaps little comfort to the movie version of Guillam. So you're right. This added drama. It made me more invested in the Guillam character. I immediately perked up and started rooting for him in more than just a passing way. That's what representation does.

    But I think there's more to it. As I said, there's no shortage of queer representation in Le Carré novels. Even Hayden and Prideaux were romantically linked. But Hayden... isn't exactly the most sympathetic of characters in the end... And Prideaux, though portrayed as damaged and sad, not only turns out to be vengeful, but his loyalties are muddled at best, he "does his duty" to Control only after warning Hayden of the mission. He knows, even if only subconsciously, what Hayden has been doing and his confused loyalties get him shot, tortured, and shut away from society and the man he loves. Complex character development for both Hayden and Prideaux, but neither of them are the good guys. That's the problem with queer representation in the Le Carré novels I've read so far. Anytime a same sex relationship comes up it is, at best, awkwardly hushed up as some indiscretion or sin that has been outgrown, or at worst, a disgusting trait that seems to be intended to make the reader dislike a character as unnatural or predetory. I don't think this reflects the authors beliefs, but rather his great ability to invent complex characters set in a time where homosexuality was taboo. I think this is also a product of the times in which the books were written. Gay characters shown in a positive light wouldn't sell or perhaps get by publisher censors. I have yet to read his more recent novels and I look forward to them, but I can't speak to any changes he may make as times change. So far I think Le Carré does well to include gay/bi characters even if it means they have to be tragic at best, and I think the filmmakers made this choice to include a character that was just plain good, if in a difficult situation. When juxtaposed with Guillams very straight literary character, the choice seems strange, but as a stand alone movie, I think they made a great call.

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