Adaptation and The English Patient
Writer/director Anthony Minguella faced a challenging adaptation with Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize winning novel. The source work included both linear and non linear time lines working in parallel, two strong central character stories (Hannah and Almasy) and a further two fully developed secondary character stories (Kip and Caravaggio). Each character story communicated a distinctive point of view. The novel spanned a number of years and ranged from Egypt, across the Sahara desert and into Italy.
The first 133 pages of the 301 page novel turn on Hanna’s story. Almasy, the English patient, is a supporting character, as are Caravaggio and Kip, who are progressively introduced into the narrative. Almasy’s story dominates the narrative in non linear mode from page 133 to page 261, after which the stories of Hannah, Kip and Caravaggio resolve. Hannah and Almasy have around 130 pages each, but the film doesn’t have room for both of them.
The decision Minguella makes is to reduce Hannah’s story to a subplot. Shorn of the complexity of her novelistic backstory, she is now more important to the film adaptation as a device upon which to elucidate Almasy’s story than as a character with her own journey. From a screenwriter’s point of view, the reasons for Minguella’s decision are clear. The scope, movement, romance and cinematic imagery of the novel all lie in Almasy’s tragic love story. The novel may belong in equal part to Hannah; the film belongs unequivocally to Almasy. While he too inevitably undergoes the reductive knife, the frame of his story remains intact.
Even more ruthless elision is applied to Caravaggio, whose backstory connection with Hannah is dispensed with entirely, turning them from old family connections to complete strangers. Communicating the complexity of the novel’s backstory between the two is beyond the capacity of the film’s temporal limitations. Kip’s story is excised completely from the narrative. He remains only as the love interest for Hannah. Naturally this comes at a considerable cost to the narrative richness of the novel, but here we return to the point that the film is not the novel, nor should it try to be. It is a completely different narrative form, a translation not a simplification.
The adaptive process can be seen at work in the film’s first act. The structure of the novel is considerably altered with the inclusion of the flaming demise of the biplane carrying Almasy and the corpse of his lover Katherine at the front of the film. In the novel, the revelation of this moment in the second half of the narrative on page 175 is part of the unfolding of the truth about Almasy. In the screenplay, the measured unraveling of mystery is sacrificed for dramatic structure: Minguella needs a dramatically compelling inciting incident that asks the intriguing central dramatic question – who is this man, and what has taken him into the sky with this beautiful, dead woman? There is another key difference: in the novel the age and poor condition of the plane is explained before it disintegrates and burns in mid air before falling from the sky – a powerful metaphor for Almasy and Katherine’s doomed love affair. The film, however, has no time for backstory explanations, so Minguella has the plane shot out of the sky by Germans, which – as well as being a strong action point - also usefully establishes the dramatic context of the story in and around World War Two.
The novel opens with Almasy and Hannah already established in situ at the ruined villa. Why and how they are there is dealt with in just two paragraphs on page 12. Film, however, as already noted, is a very literal medium, and Minguella clearly feels that the cause and effect of their presence in the villa needs to be established in the setup of the film. The film must also communicate essential backstory about Hannah to establish context for her character - specifically why this young woman has stayed behind with this one patient, and why she is so fixated with him.
Accordingly, we have interpolated into the film a sequence following a convoy of wounded Canadians – a travelling military hospital - during which Hannah learns (through a notably awkward piece of exposition from a wounded soldier) that her fiancé has been killed in action, “shot to pieces”. Naturally Hannah is traumatised, a condition which is considerably exacerbated when a jeep containing her nurse friend is blown up by landmine in front of her. The convoy stops and Hannah decides that her mysterious “English Patient” must not be moved. Her somewhat tenuous motivation is the determination to save a life in peril in reaction to the loss of two people very close to her.
Of this dramatic cornucopia, only the fact of a hospital -but not its literal blow by blow presence, including mines, nor any of the characters on the convoy apart form Hannah and Almasy - is in the novel, which offers a more potent scenario. The source of Hannah’s trauma in the novel is the death of her father, alone in a barn, from burns acquired in action with the Canadian Army. Her fixation on Almasy is driven by pain and guilt; as another burns victim, he has become a proxy for the adored father she could have saved. The Almasy of the novel is more fragile, more burned and closer to death that the Almasy of the film. In the novel, keeping him alive really does depend on Hannah leaving the convoy with him, and the reason for Hannah’s fixation on her patient is one of the mysteries of the novel, held back right until the end on page 295.
So why were the changes made, given the fact that they weaken the narrative? The answer is casting. Juliette Binoche was a major star when she was cast as Hannah. But Binoche was thirty at the time of production, while the Hannah of the novel is a traumatised twenty year old – a kid, barely out of her teens, who has seen too much of the horror of war at close quarters and is trying to hang on to the threads of her sanity. Clearly Binoche, as Hannah, could not have a father fighting in the Canadian Army, so he had to become fiancé to maintain some kind of emotional gravitas. The puzzling decision is the change to having him “shot to pieces”. There is no immediately apparent reason the burning scenario could not have remained. Almasy’s appearance has been softened for the film as well – instead of the burned, black cinder of figure of the novel, the film presents him as burns victim well on the way to recovery. Fiennes, like Binoche, was a major star, and there may have been reservations about making him look too grotesque. Practicalities of makeup may also have played a part.
Without the rich backstory of the novel or her tender years, Hannah can’t play as the traumatised woman/child of the book. If someone is traumatised, the audience needs to see why they are traumatised to understand their behaviour. Minguella takes the path of least resistance, rewriting Hannah as a far less wounded character. Binoche’s Hannah is bright, chirpy and can-do. Fragments of the traumatised persona of the novel remain, but fail to convince. Likewise fragments the twenty year old Hannah also remain – the game of nocturnal hopscotch being a notable case in point - but the scene loses its emotional resonance of a girl yearning for the lost innocence of her so near yet so far childhood when the scene is played by a thirty year old.
Binoche’s casting ripples through the narrative like a stone into a pond. Katherine Clifton is twenty three in the novel, but the casting of Binoche at thirty meant that a similarly aged actress – Kristen Scott Thomas, who was thirty four at the time of the production – had to be cast, and the part changed accordingly. After all, thirty four year old women don’t generally behave like twenty three year olds – or at least not without creating questions of plausibility, and certainly not in a romantic tragedy. This presents Minguella with a problem. In the novel, Katharine’s adulterous affair with Almasy is given moral absolution – at least in part - by the impetuosity of youth. “She was an innocent, surprised at something in me,” Almasy recalls on page 145. “… I was forgetting that she was younger than me.” But at the time of production, Fiennes was thirty two, so in the film Almasy and Katherine are, in practical terms, the same age.
For a screenwriter and producers concerned about the audience casting a potentially fatal (for the box office) negative moral judgement on one of the two halves of the film’s great love affair, a way has to found to let Katharine off the moral hook – which Minguella does in the scene at 41 minutes, where Geoffrey Clifton tells Almasy that he has “known Katherine since she was three. We were practically brother and sister before we were man and wife.” It may be perilously close to clutching at ethical straws, but the subtext of this key scene is clear: Katharine had never really loved her husband - not in the sense of romantic passion. She had married more out of habit than anything else. Her bond to Geoffrey is really only friendship and a mistaken circumstance of legality. She is now, according to this logic, morally free to discover the love of her life, and the full passion of romantic love, in Almasy.
If Katharine has to be rewritten as woman in her mid thirties, so does her husband, Geoffrey Clifton. He can no longer be a fresh faced young Oxford graduate, the corollary being that the film loses the novel’s point of contrast between Clifton and Almasy.
The first act contains a compelling example of extent of the reductive narrative process of adaptation. In the film, there is five minutes of screen time between Almasy’s first meeting with Katherine and her subsequent (prophetic) fireside telling of the story of Gyges and the Queen of Lydia. In the book, the separation is 90 pages.
Arguably the most profound change in the adaptation, also in evidence in the first act, is the conversion of the novel’s non linear presentation of Almasy’s story into a conventional linear form. Almasy’s story in the novel is a jigsaw puzzle, fragmented and disconnected from linear time, which may or may not be true. Not only does the reader have to assemble the puzzle to see the entirety of the framing narrative, but they also have to establish where the truth lies – and, as it turns out, not even Almasy himself knows the whole story. In its non linear form his story is a mystery with a tragic love story wrapped up within it. Perhaps Minguella and others involved in the film were concerned at the prospect of challenging a mainstream cinema audience with a non linear narrative. Whatever the reason for the conversion of Almasy’s story to linear form, the effect is profound. Instead of a mystery, the story shifts genre to become a straightforward romance – certainly, an epic, tragic and deeply resonant romance, but a conventional love story in its essential form.
The revelation of Almay’s identity as the first act turning point at 33 minutes – less than a third of the way through the film - directly reflects this creative decision. In the novel, Almasy’s identity is confirmed on page 252, with the end of his story the final revelation of what happened in the desert with Katherine and Geoffrey Clifton. The contrast in timing clearly illustrates the different narrative priorities of the novelist and the screenwriter. By removing the question of the English patient’s identity at the end of Act 1, the screenwriter focuses the remainder of the film squarely on the love story.
A novel is a work of art, and the response of the reader to that work is necessarily a purely personal response. Adaptation of the work is an extension of that response. As such, there can be no right or wrong in adaptation, only preferences. Far more people saw Minguella’s film adaptation of The English Patientthan read Ondaatje’s novel, and for those people the film is the original work. How close the film comes to capturing the essence of the book is, in the end, not the point. As a cinematic narrative, The English Patient was a spectacular success, garnering nine Academy Awards, two Golden Globes and six BAFTAS. On a budget of $US27 million, it took $US232 million at the box office. By the purely objective measures of awards and audience, the changes Minguella made to the source material in his adaptation obviously worked.