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James Bond vs. George Smiley — battle of the great British spies

It’s strength against smarts in a struggle for the soul of postwar Britain

Graphic illustration with the letters WWWW vrs. in the center and images of James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Smiley (Alec Guinness) left and right Graphic: Alyssa Nassner/Polygon
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

My father was a spy. He didn’t like to talk about it.

It sounds like a joke, but it’s true. He worked for MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. He was an engineer, a radio man. He would live on expenses somewhere like South Africa or Pakistan, and occasionally drive his Land Rover up a mountain to intercept encrypted Soviet radio signals, then send them back to the codebreakers in London. He traveled and played tennis, he worked little and was paid a lot, but it was boring and alienating. He couldn’t even tell his parents what he was really doing; he barely knew himself. He hated it. He eventually left the Service for a job in industry, and finally became a math and science teacher. Later in life, he contacted MI6 to ask if he was owed a pension for his years of service, but they claimed to have no record of him.

But there were two sets of novels on our bookshelves that caught the eye of 12-year-old me: some James Bond books, by Ian Fleming, and a few works by the great chronicler of the secret world of international intelligence, John Le Carré. My dad wasn’t a great fiction reader — he preferred encyclopedias and radio manuals — but he enjoyed Fleming’s escapism, and praised Le Carré’s realism.

vintage paperback editions of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Spy Who Loved Me Photo: Oli Welsh

Unsurprisingly, they both always fascinated me. Bond needs no introduction: Fleming’s original version of the character, appearing in 14 books between 1953 and 1966, is a suave brute with a “comma of black hair,” a killer, a lover, a globe-trotting adventurer, the archetypal pulp hero with a twist of nastiness. Fleming, whose father was a wealthy politician, decided he wanted to write spy fiction while serving in naval intelligence during World War II.

Le Carré, whose father was a con man, also worked for the intelligence services (though his biographical details aren’t always to be trusted). His greatest creation is George Smiley, who appears in nine novels between 1961 and 2017: an unassuming, mournful, lethally intelligent master spy who is forever coming out of retirement to clean up some ungodly mess left by his amoral leaders. His most famous adventure is 1974’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, probably the greatest espionage novel ever, in which he must identify and draw out a traitor in the heart of what Le Carré calls “the Circus.”

Bond and Smiley are hardly comparable, but that’s what makes comparing them interesting. They represent very different visions of the espionage world, and profoundly different expressions of the British national self-image. That’s why it’s almost a question of national importance to Brits to ask: Who would win if Bond and Smiley faced off?

(I’m mostly going to deal with the characters as they appear in the original books here, but with some consideration given to their screen incarnations too. There are some spoilers!)

Life on screen — 10 points

James Bond is one of the highest-grossing film franchises of all time, and certainly the longest-lived, with 25 official entries over 60 years. His movies have been overstated, glamorous, occasionally wobbly action spectacles that left the source novels behind a long time ago. Bond has been played by actual screen legends Sean Connery and (unofficially, in the 1967 film Casino Royale) David Niven, as well as such decent, committed actors as Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig. He has also been played by Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan.

Smiley’s screen presence is relatively modest, but the actors who have portrayed him are in another class. Most famously, the great Alec Guinness played him in BBC TV adaptations of Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People, and Gary Oldman took on the role in Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 Tinker Tailor film. Denholm Elliott and even James Mason have also played versions of the character.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley reads papers at a desk
Alec Guinness as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Image: BBC

You can argue that the chilly, cerebral BBC Tinker Tailor, with its mesmerizingly still Guinness performance, is a better piece of dramatic fiction than any James Bond film. You’d be right, but you’d be stretching the point, given the comparative worldwide reach of Bond’s movies. Of course this is a win for Bond.

Bond: 10 points
Smiley: 0 points

Violence — 10 points

James Bond does a lot of killing, without much thought or remorse. We know this. But what’s notable about the books is how much violence is visited upon him. The man is constantly getting beaten up, pulverized, and tortured in graphic detail. (If you found the testicle-whipping scene in the Craig Casino Royale wince-inducing, you should try reading the original.) Fleming’s relish for these scenes is frankly unhealthy, if not outright self-hating. But Bond’s stoicism is impressive, and the violence visited on him does give the books an intense, cathartic edge the films mostly lack.

Smiley never does or suffers anything violent on the page. He is bookish, and though he has certainly done his time in the field, we know him mostly as a desk man. But he isn’t completely without menace. Tinker Tailor gives us the memorable image of Smiley lying in wait for his quarry in a dark room, shoes off, gun in one hand and a piece of string to guide him in the other: “a fat, barefooted spy… deceived in love and impotent in hate.” It’s a deliberately pathetic description, but you know he would use the gun without hesitation if he had to.

Still, an easy win for Bond, a sadist and a subject of sadism.

Bond: 20 points
Smiley: 0 points

Romantic life — 10 points

Surely this is a win for Bond? He may be the world’s most famous lothario, and he leaves heartbroken beauties in his wake wherever he goes. Well, if you measure romantic success by notches on a bedpost, sure. Bond even has a whole novel — The Spy Who Loved Me, one of the better ones — written from the point of view of one of his fleeting conquests. But if you look deeper into the heart, things get a little more complicated, and frankly, they don’t look great for either of our heroes.

Bond genuinely falls in love once, with Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. They marry; hours later, Blofeld kills her, and Bond falls to pieces. That’s the only real happiness Fleming allows him. (In the movies, Daniel Craig’s Bond probably enjoys the richest romantic life, but still spends most of his time either mourning Vesper Lynd, or failing to commit to Madeleine Swann. When he finally does step up in No Time to Die, things don’t go well for him.)

Diana Rigg as Tracy points a gun at George Lazenby as Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Diana Rigg and George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Even the woman Bond marries wisely holds him at gunpoint
Image: Eon Productions/United Artists

Smiley marries far above his station, to an aristocratic beauty called Ann. Unfortunately, she’s a serial adulterer who keeps running off with Cuban racing drivers and other James Bond types, not to mention sleeping with his best friend, a Soviet mole. It’s a life of torture and humiliation for George, but he loves her, and in her way, she loves him — she keeps coming back.

Tough break for both men. This is one of the few things on which Fleming and Le Carré agree: the life of a spy isn’t conducive to romantic bliss. Narrow win for Smiley, who at least can always say he has someone.

Bond: 20 points
Smiley: 10 points

Hobbies — 10 points

Bond likes gambling and playing golf, perusing the menus of posh restaurants, and buying fine clothes and luxury goods. In theory, these interests make him manly, worldly, and cool. But have you ever had a worthwhile conversation with someone who just wants to talk about gambling and golf?

Smiley is an intellectual who enjoys the life of the mind. He collects engravings and “reads deeply among the lesser German poets,” even trying his hand at translating some of them. More than once, he retreats from the world of espionage and re-enters academic life. He also enjoys a brief career as a Poirot-style drawing-room sleuth.

In short, they’re both bores, but I will give this one narrowly to Smiley, on the grounds that his interests, while dull, are at least soulful — as opposed to Bond’s, which suggest he’s at best, a shallow himbo, and at worst, a proto-Patrick Bateman psychopath.

Bond: 20 points
Smiley: 20 points

Grudges — 10 points

For most of his adventures, Bond doesn’t have enough of an inner life — or let his enemies live long enough — to build up a good grudge. That all changes with his ill-fated marriage. After this tragedy, Bond goes to seed, and it’s more or less by accident that he ends up with a chance to kill Blofeld for what he did, which he summarily does. It’s a decent enough revenge, but it lacks agency or poetry.

Smiley is tormented for at least 20 years by the fact that his Soviet nemesis Karla once stole Smiley’s cigarette lighter while Smiley was interrogating him in a Delhi prison. The lighter was a gift from Ann, and Karla taking it shows that he’s identified Ann as Smiley’s weakness, which he eventually puts to use by instructing a double agent to sleep with her. In Smiley’s People, Smiley learns that Karla has an illegitimate and mentally ill daughter in Switzerland, and he uses this leverage to cruelly blackmail him into defection — for a spymaster a fate worse than death. This essentially means that Smiley wins the Cold War, but loses some of his humanity in the process.

An engraved lighter stands on a desk. The engraving reads ‘To George from Ann, all my love’
Smiley’s lighter, as depicted in the 2011 Tinker Tailor film
Image: StudioCanal

Now that’s a proper grudge. Easy Smiley win.

Bond: 20 points
Smiley: 30 points

Tradecraft or, you know, actual spying — 10 points

James Bond is an absolutely terrible spy. He travels under his own name most of the time, and even when he doesn’t, his good looks and flashy taste make him extremely noticeable, as does the carnage he tends to leave behind him. In the real or almost-real world of espionage, he would not be an agent at all, he’d be a fixer or an assassin. In Fleming’s words, voiced by Judi Dench’s M at the start of Casino Royale, he’s a “blunt instrument.” In Le Carré’s evocative lexicon, he’d be considered a “scalphunter.” (Did you know Le Carré was responsible for putting the terms “mole” and “honey pot” into general use?)

Smiley is not only a genius of tradecraft, he’s gifted with the most precious asset a spy can have: total anonymity. Even his wife calls him “breathtakingly ordinary.” Give him a plastic bag, a raincoat, and a hat, and he can disappear off the face of the earth. But it’s his penetrating understanding of human nature — half compassionate, half ruthless — that really gives him an edge in unpicking the plots and treacheries of the secret world.

Could Bond have built intelligence networks under cover in prewar Germany? Could he have turned the head of Moscow Center into a defector, as Smiley does to Karla? There’s no contest here.

Bond: 20 points
Smiley: 40 points

Politics — 10 points

Why does any of this matter? Because Bond and Smiley are battling for nothing less than the soul of postwar, post-Imperial Britain.

Bond is a triumphalist fantasy, an avatar of British exceptionalism and hard power: sexier, tougher, classier, and deadlier than the rest, possessing the only agency that matters in world affairs. The globe is his playpen, and America is his sidekick. In the films, he drives Aston Martins, but in the books, it’s something even more emblematic of the establishment: a vintage Bentley. He is callous, and yet he is always right. He gives no fucks.

Smiley gives all the fucks. He lives in a world of regret and realpolitik, mourning the collateral damage of the Cold War, the loss of decency among his peers and political leaders, and what he sees as Britain’s moral decline. He’s a sad patriot and a reluctant warrior.

To define it in Brexit terms — as everything in British cultural life must be defined, post-2016 — Bond is Leave, Smiley is Remain. (Le Carré, a staunch Europhile, made the latter explicit in Smiley’s cameo in his 2017 novel A Legacy of Spies — the setting of which would make Smiley well over 100 years old, but we’ll let it slide.)

I suppose who wins this round depends on your point of view, but I’m not going to pretend I’m not partisan. Team Smiley all the way.

Final tally
Bond: 20
Smiley: 50

Are you actually suggesting that Smiley is better than Bond?

My game, my rules: That’s the joy of Who Would Win Week. But also: yes. Yes I am.

Of course Bond would best the overweight desk jockey Smiley in a physical fight. But in no world would it ever come to that. In Bond’s world, Smiley is M, or someone like him, giving the orders. In Smiley’s world, Bond is a hapless pawn like Tinker Tailor’s Ricky Tarr or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’s Alec Leamas, to be manipulated and sacrificed, or pumped for information and then discarded. If they were on the same side, Smiley would be the one doing the deal to extract Bond from his latest explosive crisis and clean up whatever mess he’d made. If they weren’t, Smiley would easily sniff him out, entrap him, expose him, and turn him, maybe putting him into play against a bigger fish. He’d do it with compassion for Bond, a damaged weapon wielded by higher powers. But he’d do it with a little cruelty, too, because Bond is a nasty man with a nasty attitude. And Smiley never could abide nastiness.

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