In Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, a geographer mapping the Sahara Desert wonders if there is a name for the hollow of a woman’s neck just above the breastbone. When he finally gets his answer, he is told it is the “vascular sizood,” although there is no such thing. “I’d given it the wrong name,” Ondaatje recalled last week in an interview with Maclean’s. “I’d been planning to fix it later on and give it the proper name, but I’d forgotten.” Now, five years after its publication, the novel has a new incarnation as a ravishing epic. Adapting it for the screen, British writer-director Anthony Minghella had to lose entire sections of the story, but he kept in the business about the erotic geography of the neck— using the correct name. “Anthony looked up the medical terminology, and found it was called the suprasternal notch,” says Ondaatje. “So the joke between him and me now is that he named it, but I found it.”
Movies adapted from well-loved literary fiction are often disappointing. But with The English Patient, an unusually close collaboration between author and director has produced an exceptional film. Although the movie is not a literal adaptation of the book, its literary complexity shines through. While Ondaatje did not co-write the screenplay, he consulted with Minghella at every stage of script, and joined the film-makers on location (in Italy and Tunisia) and in the editing room. “I was very lucky to have wound up with this crowd,” says the 52-yearold author. “I was allowed to participate without being ultimately responsible for the product. Anthony and I both feel the film and the novel are very different creatures.”
With Ondaatje’s blessing, Minghella— creator of the 1991 hit Truly, Madly, Deeply —has captured the heart of the novel while simplifying its narrative. The basic story remains the same. Near the end of the Second World War, in a ruined Tuscan monastery, a traumatized Canadian nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche) devotes herself to caring for a single patient, Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), who has been severely burned in a mysterious plane crash over the Sahara. The only key to his past is a scrapbook pasted into a volume of Herodotus.
Flashbacks reconstruct the events leading up to the crash: as part of a British expedition mapping the desert on the eve of the war, Almásy falls dangerously in love with a colleague’s wife, Katherine (Kristen Scott Thomas). Interwoven with his memories are the stories of two soldiers who show up at the monastery— Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a Canadian thief turned war hero who is suspicious of Hana’s patient, and Kip (Naveen Andrews), an Indian bomb-disposal expert in the British army.
Ondaatje’s novel is deceptively cinematic. His scenes are intercut like film. Yet, with multiple voices flipping back and forth through time, hopscotching around Italy, Africa, England and Canada, the narrative is obtusely poetic. “Brilliant images are scattered across its pages in a mosaic,” says Minghella, “as if somebody had already seen a film and was in a hurry to remember the best bits. But films live or die on the strength of their narrative and psychology. Michael is not that intrigued by narrative or character in a strict sense.”
Consequently, Minghella narrowed the story’s central focus, concentrating on the romance between Almásy and Katherine. And, cutting between the Tuscan ruin and flashbacks to the desert, he lets events unfold chronologically. It is as if he had taken a cubist canvas, an artfully crumpled map of images, and carefully unfolded its angles until a figurative painting emerged.
And what a painting it is. Not since David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) have landscape and romance been so sensually folded into the sweep of history. Like Doctor Zhivago, The English Patient is a tragedy of lovers separated by cataclysmic events, but it is a much better, more complex film than Lean’s Russian opus (which has not held up very well over the years). And like Lawrence of Arabia, it finds breathtaking images in the liquid sands of the Sahara Desert. But the
sand is not scenery so much as metaphor—the shifting skin of memory itself.
While the images have the power and opulence of a Hollywood epic, the film’s intimate excursion into erotic obsession is more reminiscent of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. Minghella peels away the narrative layers of this adulterous romance gingerly, like a bandage. And a lyrical intelligence infuses the love scenes—Fiennes slipping a cream-colored dress off Scott Thomas’s shoulder as Silent Night wafts through the sound track.
The cast is superb. Fiennes (.Schindler’s List, Quiz Show) projects an inscrutable magnetism, his severe features echoing the angular beauty of Scott Thomas. Her performance is a revelation. After stealing scenes from the sidelines in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bitter Moon and Angels and Insects—she finally blossoms as a romantic lead.
Binoche, meanwhile, strikes a mercurial balance between fear and compassion. Dafoe as a Canadian takes some getting used to, but he suits the roguish vagabond Caravaggio.
“In writing a novel, usually I don’t have an image of what my characters are like from the outside,” says Ondaatje. “I’m behind the skull. But they all seemed very right to me. Ralph Fiennes isn’t doing the kind of aria that leading men do sometimes. He’s more reactive. There’s a sense of four or five people really creating something.”
What is rare about The English Patient is that it has the scale of a Hollywood epic but seems untarnished by Hollywood compromise. With American producer Saul Zaentz, whose literary adaptations range from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Minghella pitched his script to the studios. Twentieth CenturyFox was keen, but insisted on casting bigger stars. “In their position, I might have felt the same way,” says Minghella. “They were being asked to finance a $30-million [U.S.] epic about memory and nationality, by somebody who’s directed tiny films. With their cold eye, they concluded that it wasn’t a good deal for them.”
In the end, Miramax Films financed The English Patient “with no interference whatsoever,” says the director. Throughout the process, Ondaatje served as a sounding board, helping Minghella put some creative tension between his twin roles as writer and director. “Sometimes he argued on behalf of the film, sometimes on behalf of the script,” Minghella recalls. “Very rarely did he argue on behalf of the novel, although everything I did was in danger of annihilating the novel. He’s the most modest of men, reluctant to assert his authority as the author.”
For Ondaatje, helping The English Patient to the screen marks a breakthrough. It was a movie, Scaramouche, that drew him to reading as a child in Sri Lanka. The influence of cinema is refracted through his writing, and he has made some forays into filmmaking. But he has learned “that while it’s an art form I’m highly respectful and envious of, it’s something I couldn’t do. It’s like performing and writing simultaneously.”
Minghella’s film, meanwhile, should bring hordes of fresh readers to Ondaatje’s novel. “It’s an interesting symbiosis,” says the director. “What’s fun is that people can’t remember any more what was in the novel and what was in the film.” Then he adds, ‘Traditionally we’re supposed to be at the philistine end of the arts. But a film—when it isn’t held hostage to commercial anxiety—can be the most potent art form we have. It can show you the close-up of a woman’s neck and give you a whole world, a desert landscape, in the next cut. That expanding and contracting eye, the iris, is so visceral.”
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