Can rotund characters be represented by less rounded actors?

Donald Clarke: If authors can keep an open mind about appearances, so can readers

Does it matter if an actor in an adaption looks little like the character described in the book?

Bear with me. Who, among these performers, is physically the odd one out: Timothy Spall, Arthur Lowe, Gary Oldman? With apologies to Spall, now slimmer than he once was, he and the late Mr Lowe, still turning up as Captain Mainwaring in repeats of Dad's Army, are generally thought of as roundish performers. Oldman, who broke through as the angular Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy nearly 40 years ago, has tended towards literal straightness. Yet Oldman has now played two English spymasters whose respective creators envisioned as looking, in order of appearance, like Lowe and Spall.

John Le Carré originally liked the notion of Lowe playing the owlish George Smiley and, during a brief dramatised segment on a 1977 arts programme, that character actor indeed became the first person to polish the Smiley spectacles on television. Two years later Alec Guinness, slightly less of a physical fit, made the role his own in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Little heed was paid to Le Carré's description when Oldman arrived as Smiley in Tomas Alfredson's excellent 2011 adaptation of the same novel. If the author didn't care then why should we? You can see Le Carré as a revelling guest at the film's crucial Christmas party.

The production team look to have fattened Oldman up a tad, but he remains a considerably less mountainous figure than the version in Herron's books

Last week, Oldman turned up in Apple TV’s sleazy, ash-stained take on Mick Herron’s espionage novel Slow Horses. Jackson Lamb, head of a satellite branch of MI5 that caters for losers and rejects, could, in manner and bearing, hardly seem less like Smiley. Whereas Le Carré’s chief, educated at a “minor public school” and Oxford, enjoys baroque German literature and fine painting, Lamb’s hobbies are farting, swearing, untangling underwear from his buttocks and nosebagging his way through the foulest fried food. Yet both men are furiously intelligent. And both, before Oldman got his mitts on the roles, tended towards the portly. “Lamb could be behind a closed door and his paunch would remain evident,” Herron writes in Slow Horses. “He resembled, someone had once remarked, Timothy Spall gone to seed.”

The production team look to have fattened Oldman up a tad, but he remains a considerably less mountainous figure than the version in Herron’s books. The physical presence is, nonetheless, closer to the original than, on casting, seemed possible; Oldman’s Lamb appears eased along on waves of oozing pestilence. His Smiley sat at greater distance from its inspiration — colder, less open to the occasional glad hand — but both these performances attempt to capture the primary energy in different physical shape. Relax your prejudices and you will enjoy unmistakable variations on the core melody.

Enthusiasts for a source text have more cause for complaint when the actor's deportment or appearance radically alters the character of the protagonist. For some decades the definitive on-screen Miss Marple was the stately British character actress Margaret Rutherford. Moving about the set like the most well-appointed of galleons, she made Agatha Christie's sly accidental detective into a merry, bumbling duffer. It is wrong to assume that Ms Rutherford's generous shape would have prohibited a less comic approach, but her amiable recurring persona — see her Oscar-winning Duchess of Brighton in The VIPs — certainly relied, to some extent, on her ability to occupy large parts of a room. The Rutherford films remain fun, but the less voluminous Joan Hickson, who played the role on TV from 1984, sits quietly forward as a more convincing translation of Christie's own creation.

'Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful,' Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind begins. These words were rarely uttered about Vivien Leigh

Not that one need necessarily care. The urge for faithfulness in adaptation, always present, but never more unavoidable than in the whiny internet age, is too often presented as an unqualified virtue. Alfred Hitchcock was happier adapting pulp novels that, without worrying about the complaints any assault on a classic would engender, he could tear to shreds and reassemble to his own sordid tastes. It doesn't bear considering how, if the James Bond novels had been published in the 2010s, social media would react to the creative dismemberment Eon Productions visited on those texts 60 years ago. That began with casting a broad-chested Edinburgher as a character who, in Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd likens to the cadaverous American singer Hoagy Carmichael (remember that the next time some blowhard reminds us that Ian Fleming's Bond wasn't black).

Le Carré ended up thinking of Alec Guinness when writing later Smiley books. He was happy to act alongside Oldman's very different Smiley in Alfredson's film. Fleming accommodated himself to Sean Connery. Christie wasn't too keen on the Rutherford films, but she still dedicated The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side "to Margaret Rutherford in admiration". If those authors can keep an open mind about appearances then so can the average reader.

Consider the most financially successful adaptation of all time. "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful," Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind begins. These words were rarely uttered about Vivien Leigh.

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