This story was first published Saturday, Nov. 9, 1996.
The first thing you notice about the new film adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The English Patient (which opens in theatres across North America on Nov. 15) is that Hana, the young nurse from Toronto who cares for a burned-beyond-recognition pilot in an abandoned Italian monastery at the end of the Second World War, has a French accent. To accommodate the French actress Juliette Binoche, the character’s home town has been changed from Ondaatje’s own Toronto to Montreal. A family friend who comes to visit her in the novel is now a young stranger. The death of a major character is entirely restructured. India and England have been left out altogether.
Is this another example of the Hollywood machinery that recreates The Hunchback of Notre Dame as an upbeat cartoon, or turns The Scarlet Letter into a soft-core porno vehicle for Demi Moore? Not quite. The movie is not the novel, but as star Kristen Scott Thomas suggests, the celluloid version of The English Patient may be “a good sister to the book.”
If fans of the novel despair of the film, they’ll have an argument with The English Patient’s author, Michael Ondaatje, who has enthusiastically supported and even participated in making the changes needed to create the movie, written and directed by England’s Anthony Minghella (Truly, Madly, Deeply; Mr. Wonderful).
“I grew up hearing all the usual horror stories about what can happen in an adaptation,” he said. “You know -- Frank Sinatra as the English patient.
“Anthony’s first draft was so different from the book that I thought I could see it becoming a film. If it had been a sort of Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of The English Patient, I wouldn’t have been interested at all.”
In the end, The English Patient, the movie, has been stripped down and reinvented as a 170-page double-spaced script from Ondaatje’s 300-page, poetically heightened, shimmering sea of words. The film, featuring Binoche, Ralph Fiennes, and Scott Thomas, focuses on two love stories, set in Italy and North Africa, and, judging by the reaction from the American press at the preview screening, critics are ready to embrace the film as a return to the good old-fashioned love story.
Miramax Films rescued the independent production of The English Patient when it was languishing without funds in Italy two years ago after Twentieth Century-Fox tried to push them into a bigger-name actress than Scott Thomas. Now the American indie company is pushing the $31-million (U.S.) production as an international art film with Oscar potential. Industry buzz predicts acting nominations (for Scott Thomas and Fiennes) and possibly a best screen adaptation.
Ondaatje entertained offers from several filmmakers when his 1992 novel attracted international attention, but the proposal from Minghella and independent producer Saul Zaentz tweaked his interest. Ondaatje loves jazz and books. Zaentz, best known as a founder of the world’s largest jazz record label, Fantasy Records, has brought to the screen such literary works as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Zaentz said that when Ondaatje requested, but did not demand, a consultative role, he did not hesitate: “You got the author of the original work offering to help out? You’d be stupid not to take advantage.” Ondaatje, in turn, was impressed that Zaentz and Minghella had obviously “yakked about their approach quite a bit before they talked to me.”
The next step was a five-day meeting at Minghella’s home in England, where Ondaatje, Zaentz and Minghella pored over Minghella’s first draft, making changes and cuts. The author went to California after each of several drafts of the screenplay to collaborate further. Ondaatje also visited the set in Italy and North Africa. Throughout the process, says Minghella, Ondaatje played “navigator” while letting the director be the captain on the voyage.
“I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to do the screenplay,” Ondaatje says. “Essentially, you have to dismantle the book, take it through the eye of the needle and out the other side. I wouldn’t have had sufficient distance. There were scenes that Anthony invented, including some wonderful scenes in England, that had to be cut. He could accept the rejection of these scenes. I couldn’t quite.”
Minghella, a 42-year-old former academic, read The English Patient in one sitting in a New York hotel room, and promptly sent a copy to Zaentz. He compares the novel to an almanac of cuttings and thoughts, supplemented with maps and drawings, and saw his role as screenwriter as “to join the dots and make a figurative work from a pointillist and abstract one.” Minghella also found that TheEnglish Patient -- which moves from the interior experiences of a dying patient living in morphine memories to the open battlefields of North Africa -- resonated with one of his own favourite themes, the “hinge between the private world and the public one.” When he finally sat down to write the screenplay, he did not have a copy of the novel anywhere near. He chose to invent, from his memory of the novel’s experience. He focused on the phrase, “The heart is an organ of fire.”
“It’s about a love that is coruscating, catastrophic and uncontrollable. But there are many other kinds of love in the story: the love of a nurse for her patient, the love between comrades and friends.”
Among his own friends, Minghella now includes Michael Ondaatje. He counts the period they spent in England, working over an early draft of the script, as “among the best days of my life. There is no one in the world I want more to like this film than Michael.”
The good will seems deeply mutual. Ondaatje, reputed to be shy of interviews, cheerfully made himself available for the round-table ritual of American press junkets. Charming, with a self-deprecating humour (“I’m lost most of the time when I’m writing”), he answered all questions: Does he consider himself a linear person? (Not at all); Which of his novels is his favourite? (In the Skin of a Lion).
The film world was not entirely new to Ondaatje. From childhood in Sri Lanka, he was a passionate fan of westerns and thrillers, and has made three short films himself in the early seventies, including documentaries on the poet b.p. nichol and the creation of Theatre Passe Muraille’s theatre piece, The Farm Show. He has also written a couple of unproduced screenplays and, during a year as a writer at the Canadian Film Centre, wrote one that was produced, a 20-minute film called Love Clinic.
“I suppose we all wanted to be filmmakers at one time,” he said. “But I’ve learned that to think publicly is quite difficult for me. Anthony would just say, ‘Okay, let’s try that from the left side.’ It would take me several days to make that decision.”
Perhaps his greatest endorsement of the film comes from Ondaatje’s introduction to Minghella’s screenplay (published through Hyperion-Miramax Books): “It is as if people I knew when I was writing a book at midnight, full of dreams, now appear in a new country in daylight and the wonder is not so much of how they made the magical journey, but that I recognize them so well and that I am once again enthralled by them.”