Set in North Africa and Italy before and during World War II and based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje, THE ENGLISH PATIENT is an elliptical epic which follows the histories of four characters stranded in a ruined monastery in Italy. Each is a victim, damaged in some mysterious way by the war. Slowly, they reveal themselves; in the process, the true identity of the 'English patient' - the unknown survivor of a plane shot down over the Sahara who lies dying in the monastery - is made clear.
Their stories are driven by passion - either the raw passion between lovers or the compulsive passion which drives men to explore remote and inhospitable regions and to pursue those they think have wronged them. It is a love story and a spy story on an epic scale, in which the nature of love has repercussions across time and continents.
Michael Ondaatje's mesmeric novel has the deceptive appearance of being completely cinematic. Brilliant images are scattered across its pages in a mosaic of fractured narratives, as if somebody had already seen a film and was in a hurry to remember all the best bits. In the course of a single page, the reader can be asked to consider events in Cairo, or Tuscany, or England's west country during different periods, with different narrators; to mediate on the natures of winds, the mischief of an elbow, the intricacies of a bomb mechanism, the significance of a cave painting. The wise screen adapter approaches such pages with extreme caution. The fool rushes in. The next morning I telephoned Saul Zaentz in Berkeley, the only producer I could think of crazy enough to countenance such a project, and suggested he read the book. He's made a brilliant career out of folly, and is one of the few movie-makers who loves to read. I have never seen Saul without a book within his reach. He called me back a week after to teil me not only did he love THE ENGLISH PATIENT, but that Michael was coming in from Toronto to give a reading from it that weekend at a bookstore near Saul's home. I encouraged him to see this as an omen.
When I began work on the screenplay, a number of things were immediately evident - I was completely ignorant about Egypt, had never been to a desert, couldn't use a compass, couldn't read a map, remembered nothing from my schoolboy history lessons about the Second World War, and embarrassingly little about Italy, my parents' country. I promptly borrowed a cottage in Durweston, Dorset, and loaded up my car with books. I began adult life as an academic, and nothing gives me more pleasure than the opportunity to tell myself that reading is a serious activity. I waded through eccentric books on military history, letters and diaries of soldiers in Northern Africa and Southern Italy, pamphlets from the Royal Geographical Society written before the war. I found out about the devastation visited on my father's village near Monte Cassino, discovered we had a namesake who was a partisan leader in Tuscany, learned about the incredible international crucible that was Cairo in the 1930s.
The one book I didn't take with me was THE ENGLISH PATIENT. I had been so mesmerized by the writing, so steeped in its richness, that I decided the only possible course available was to try and write my way back to the concerns of the novel, telling myself its story. I emerged from my purdah with a first draft of over two hundred pages (twice the length of a traditional screenplay) which included, even after my own rough edit and mach to the bewilderment of my collaborators, episodes involving goat mutilation, scores of new characters, and a scene about the destruction of a wisteria tree in Dorset which I swore privately would be the most memorable in the film. Needless to say, none of these inventions survived to the first day of principal photography. Over successive drafts - each of which were subject to the ruthless, exasperating, egosless, pedantic, and rigorous scrutiny of Michael and Saul - some kind of blueprint began to emerge. We met in California, Toronto, London, and, best of all, in Saul's home in Tuscany where I am ashamed to admit there were memorable discussions held in the cool, aquamarine pool, our chins bobbing on the surface of the water, punctuated by bouts of what we call water polo but which were essentially a form of licensed violence to work off all our various pent-up hostilities, and at which Michael proved to be the master.
Numerous people made this screenplay better, notably Maura Dooley (who had, several years previously, introduced ine to Michael's work), Sydney Pollack, Evgenia Citkowitz, Julian Sands, Michael Peretzian, Judy Daish, Alan Rickman, Sarah Ewing, Annette Carducci, Walter Murch and Ralph Fiennes. I'd also like to thank Duncan Kentworthy for providing me a safe-haven to write,The Royal Geographical Society in London, for allowing me access to photographs and papers, Andrew Phillips at the British Library for unearthing a particular treasure, and Saul Zaentz for being the kind of producer that writers and directors kneel down and thank God for. Then, of course, there is an entire cast and crew, listed elsewhere here, who have lent their skills and passion to this material as it moved from script to screen. My heartfelt gratitude to them all.
One significant aspect of this published text is the extent to which it differs from the script I began shooting with. The evolution of the material has continued in post-production as scenes have been compressed or eliminated and, in particular, the structure of the film—with its transitions between events in Egypt and in Italy—has been radically revised. Walter Murch, the film's editor, must take special credit for this, and our collaboration gives real meaning to the nostrum that the writing process continues in the editing room.
I hope the army of admirers of Michael Ondaatje's novel forgive my sins of ommision and commmision, my misjudgments and betrayals; they were all made in the spirit of translating his beautiful novel to the screen. I was determined and encouraged to have my say about the people and events described in the book, and was obliged to make transparent what was delicately oblique in the prose. It seemed to me that the process of adaptation required me to join the dots and make a figurative work from a pointillist and abstract one. Any number of versions were possible and I'm certain that the stories I chose to elaborate say as much about my own interests and reading as they do about the book. And I can't apologize for this. It's a testimony to Michael's enormous modesty that he presided over the process with neither indifference nor contempt, and continues to lend his wit and intelligence to us as the film nears the moment of what we call completion but which is only abandonment.
Cast & Crew
Directed by: Anthony Minghella
Written by: Anthony Minghella
Produced by: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Scott Greenstein
Cinematography: John Seale
Main Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Almásy), Juliette Binoche (Hana), Willem Dafoe (Caravaggio), Kristin Scott Thomas (Katharine Clifton), Naveen Andrews (Kip), Colin Firth (Geoffrey Clifton), Julian Wadham (Madox)
Nominations and Awards
- European Cinematographer – Prix Carlo Di Palma 1997
- European Actress 1997
- People's Choice Award 1997
- European Film 1997
- EFA Feature Film Selection 1997