books to film

Book versus movie: ‘The English Patient’ is luminous on the page and on the screen

In a rare case, Michael Ondaatje’s book stands in its unique splendour while Anthony Minghella’s film blazes in its own light.

“There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace. The new lovers enter the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in a new light. This is done with nervous or tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire.”

Booker Prize winner Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient (1992) details the experiences of four fractured characters – their inured existence and the consequences of their decisions against better judgement. Bound in both vast and narrow spaces (the flaming Sahara and a Tuscan villa) at the close of World War II, for these characters, the sense of isolation and search for identity is intense. Ondaatje’s fine, nuanced and nonlinear writing is formidable but writer-director Anthony Minghella’s 1996 film of the same name uses skillful transitions and flashbacks to visually rearrange what Ondaatje called the novel’s “tactile landscape”.

“The desert could not be claimed or owned – it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names…. “

Activating such meditations, Minghella brings a seductive physicality to the screen –burning sandy slopes which hide individual tracks, a churning storm that blinds horizons and the hypnotic aerial view of contoured land lying as sinuous as human forms. John Seale’s magnificent cinematography, accompanied by Gabriel Yared’s unforgettable score, stir up nostalgia for David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa – sweeping cinematic journeys where music speaks for the soul.

In The English Patient, a Hungarian folk song by Marta Sebestyen is what Minghella feels to be “the perfect index of what the book is talking about – that identity, nationality and boundaries are illusory” (Minghella on Minghella, Faber).

Play
The English Patient (1996).

If all the brilliant and tendentious poetry is peeled away, a reader will wryly agree that Ondaatje’s lyrical novel is “imbued with the spirit of Boys’ Own Adventure” and that “there’s plenty of Indiana Jones in the archaeological discoveries, incredible journeys, (and) wartime intrigues”. At the same time, for all its pomp, Minghella’s 162-minute film stretches its material to gossamer strands, gambling a firm storyline for boundless beauty.

Burnt grotesquely beyond recognition after a plane crash, the “English” patient is Hungarian aristocrat Count Laszlo Almasy (Ralph Fiennes). Along with group of Englishmen from the Royal Geographical Society, he had once been a cartographer who mapped unknown territory in Libya and Egypt. While Almasy’s obsessive and doomed affair with the married Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) comprises only part of Ondaatje’s novel, it is this furtive relationship that throbs at the fiery heart of Minghella’s film. Suggestions and manifestations of past and present love stealthily make their way on screen – all the kinds of love that Katharine smilingly taunts Almasy with – “romantic love, platonic love, filial love…”

And then there is the uxorious love which Katharine’s husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth) has for her. Following one of the most incendiary scenes in the film, Geoffrey sniffs betrayal in Katharine’s hair and shoulders.

Play
The English Patient (1996).

Superb costumes (Ann Roth) and production design (Stuart Craig and Stephenie McMillan) add elegance to a the cast – a ravishing and then war ravaged Fiennes, Scott Thomas as Katherine, and the unfortunately under-rated Firth as Geoffrey. In an award-winning performance, Juliette Binoche plays Hana, the young nurse who feels she is cursed in her relationships, if not a curse to them. After distressing personal losses, she seeks solitude and devotes herself to nursing the moribund patient.

An unforgiving reader may feel that the torrid Almasy-Clifton saga upstages Hana’s tender relationship with Kip (Naveen Andrews) a Sikh sapper entrusted with the task of defusing mines. True as this may be, Minghella alters a scene Ondaatje had written for Kip and an old professor and gives Hana and Kip one of the most uplifting and wondrous moments in the film. Following a trail of lamplights in the dark, Hana finds herself in a deserted church where Kip has arranged to give her a radiant surprise, symbolic of a love that is not muddied by deceit.

Play
The English Patient (1996).

Caravaggio, a compelling character in Ondaatje’s book, is considerably weakened for the screen. He appears before Hana as one who simply knew her father, not as someone who had been part of Hana’s life in a time of peace and had loved her in an avuncular manner. Minghella retains Caravaggio’s identity as a thief and a spy for the Allied forces, but disappointingly uses Caravaggio only to elicit confessions from the dying Almasy. However, under a smoky white light in a Tobruk prison, one swift, debilitating cut to the quick makes Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) deliver his pound of flesh to the film.

Play
The English Patient (1996).

Suturing the viewer’s near visceral engagement with the characters, Minghella gives Ondaatje’s words to the merging, mellow voices of Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas: “We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom…”

In a rare case of text versus screen, Ondaatje’s book stands in its unique splendour while Minghella’s film blazes in its own light.

Previous entries in this series have analysed Maurice and The Revolutionary Road.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

A phone so stunning that it deserves its own photoshoot

Presenting the Moto X4, crafted to perfection.

Precision-crafted glass and metal design, an anodised aluminium frame, easy to hold and featuring beautiful contours, the Moto X4 is crafted to perfection indeed.

With the distinctive placement of the rear cameras, this phone makes a great subject for a photographic series.

Gaurav Sawn Photography
Gaurav Sawn Photography

The light reveals the fluidity of its body; curves that fit perfectly in the contours of a palm.

Gaurav Sawn Photography
Gaurav Sawn Photography

Reclining on a bed of satin, the glass-encased phone blends into the folds of the luxurious fabric.

The slimness, seamlessness and solidity of the phone make for a great profile shot.

A stunning design which is IP68 rated water-resistant too, it is as beautiful as it is strong.

We partnered with photographer Gaurav Sawn to create this series. Says Gaurav, “The glass sandwich design looks extremely good and the reflections on the back panel make the phone stand out. This is a phone that is best used without a case. The curved corners were also very comfortable to hold. All in all, really enjoyed shooting this phone!”

While this phone is elegant and crafted to perfection, it is also extremely tough, being protected from scratches with Corning® Gorilla® Glass that stretches all the way around.

You don’t need to sacrifice of performance either. It’s packed with a 2.2 GHz octa-core Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ 630 processor and comes with a TurboPower™ Charger which means hours of power in minutes!

For the music lover, this phone is a boon. With simultaneous connectivity of up to four Bluetooth® audio devices at the same time, you can build your own stereo system without worrying about cables.

The dual rear cameras – a 12MP that lets you focus faster and get great results even on dark, cloudy days, and an 8 MP camera, with wide angle lens makes your most ambitious photos look all the more impressive.

To get your hands on the Moto X4, and experience perfection, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Motorola and not by the Scroll editorial team.