There's a scene in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" where Prideaux (Mark Strong) is in the class room teaching, then suddenly an owl pops out of the fireplace. Prideaux quickly dispatches it. Later on, in the same class room, Prideaux is talking to Smiley (Gary Oldman) and we see a stuffed owl on the wall.

That (and the bee scene) always seemed rather random to me. Or am I missing some deeper meaning?

  • to me it seems like a harry potter quote - the hell why they included it - but the last rows pupils just reminds heavily to to Ron. and come on an owl emerging out of a burning fire place - in a meanwhile pretty serious plot - there must be crew's joke behind the scenes
    – user861
    Commented Feb 15, 2012 at 0:09

7 Answers 7


I always assumed it was a sign that an otherwise unassuming and placid teacher had a ruthless streak and could deal swiftly and, if necessary, brutally with a situation.

---The book explains it (and it was written pre-Harry Potter). The owl had been nesting in the disused chimney. When Prideaux fired it up a half-dead owl was smoked out onto the classroom floor, shocking and startling the boys. Prideaux whisks it up and out of the room. Later the boys find the dead owl on the rubbish heap, its neck neatly twisted and broken. The point is that Prideaux is a skilled killer. Also in the book, Haydon is killed by persons unknown, his neck neatly twisted and broken.

The movie version compresses the more nuanced details from the book (that also foreshadow the different details of Haydon's death). But the essence that Prideaux is a capable and ruthless killer when required are preserved in a simpler, shorter scene.

  • 2
    An anonymous user added the second paragraph - should really be its own answer, but I can't convert it to another answer.
    – iandotkelly
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 0:51

The significance of the bee scene is that, unlike the others in the car, Smiley is totally focused on the things that matter (the mole) and able to completely ignore trivial distractions like the bee.

  • 5
    i disagree about the bee. Smiley does deal with it by simply opening his car's window while the others in the car just waved at it. this shows that Smiley is "above" other when concerned about solving problems
    – user757
    Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 20:42

In a flashback we see Jim is tortured wearing the headphones while being exposed to disturbing screeching sounds. Something snaps when he hears the owl making a similar sound.


The owl scene is much more subtle, it is introduced right at the beginning of the book. At the end, it is never explicitly revealed who killed Bill Haydon but it is strongly implied "Stooping over him, he caught the smell of alcohol - he guessed gin or vodka - (Prideaux drank vodka) ... It wasn't till he tried to lift him that his head flopped over, and the rest of him followed as dead weight" (Prideaux had wrung the owl's neck). QED it must've been Prideaux wot dun it.


I say the owl, disturbed from his chimney, is a metaphor for betrayal or a secret let loose, a symbol of wisdom and a portent for Jim Prideaux of exposure, hence his prompt execution of the bird.


I'd like to keep going on the significance of the owl. In the classroom, the owl was euthanized. Very shocking to the boys, but served to further build Jim's mystique and awe among them. Jim Prideaux and Bill Haden were inseparable in their youth, possibly lovers. So, there may be an element of mercy killing on top of the revenge in Haden's murder. Add to that the owl was stuck in the chimmey and then burned, symbolic of how Haden was trapped, caught and destroyed. The TV version and the BBC audio book skipped the owl scene altogether. The movie botched both the owl scene and the death of Haden. A gun? Hurrumph.


If I had to guess, I think that maybe the director chose to stray from the literary narrative, or add more symbolism to the owl's role in that scene than perhaps the author originally intended.

In my interpretation of the scene, I think that the owl represents Smiley, or at least, the watchdog element that was going on behind the scene. I've only seen the movie once, and while ornithology may be more my field of study, anyway, I just wanted to put this theory out there... I think that owls are not only wise, but that they also happen to play a more critical, complex role in the ecosystem. 

Birds of prey, and any other birds that hunt mammals and smaller birds, actually end up governing or otherwise managing/"policing" animal communities. They do this by hunting on instinct, targeting specific individuals that stand out from the herd/flock, and it's their instincts as individual predators that cause lasting impacts on the fauna community as a whole. Maybe I'm just applying my bird nerd perspective onto the director's own intentions for the film, but that's how I see it, anyway...

I just think that the owl might represent Smiley. Just wanted to throw that out there.

  • 1
    What makes this theory of yours more likely than the accepted answer that it's simply an abbreviation of a couple of scenes in the book?
    – DavidW
    Commented Jun 9 at 15:02

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .