It may have been possible for a movie version of "The English Patient" to capture the spirit of Michael Ondaatje's sublime novel, but the current film directed by Anthony Minghella must disappoint anyone who has read and loved the book. In principle it need not have been so.
Although the words of novels do not find absolute equivalents in the images of film, film offers the power of physical reality to which a novel can only refer. "Words, Caravaggio," says Count de Almasy in the novel, "they have a power." Yet the vistas of desert landscape in the film create a vast drama of their own and are a brilliant metaphor for the two central characters' all-abiding passion.
A failure of nerve of the filmmaker, and the demand that Hollywood-financed films resemble each other and demand little from the audience, led to "The English Patient" becoming a pale shadow of the brilliant original.
In Ondaatje's novel, two pairs of lovers must sustain their love against the background of the Second World War. History is their great adversary as it invades the private places of their lives. (Almasy carries with him a copy of Herodotus, the founder of this discipline). The explorer Almasy is a man whose humanistic world view prevents him from seeing life in terms of the selfish needs of the nation-state. He is an internationalist. It doesn't matter to him whether he is Hungarian, as he is, or English, as he is called.
His lover is a married woman named Katharine Clifton, and their love at once becomes obsessive. Katharine dies because the English believe Almasy is a German and so will not help him to rescue her; Almasy refuses to give her name to his captors, a famous name which they would have known, because her name, her nationality, do not define her. In exchange for his maps, the Germans agree to help Almasy return to Katharine, who lies dying in the Cave of Swimmers.
Politics controls his fate, but his choices are made beyond the petty politics of any nation-state. He is too late. Almasy's love extends beyond death, as in a necrophilic embrace he offers himself one last time to the woman without whom his life lacks all integrity and purpose.
The second pair of lovers is Kip, a sapper born in India now serving the British, and Hana, a Canadian nurse. Although they are young, their love is as profound as Almasy's and Katharine's. In the culminating chapter of "The English Patient," titled "August," Kip hears on his radio news of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Picturing in his mind's eye "the streets of Asia full of fire," he understands at once: "They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation." As the winds of the desert brought Katharine and Almasy together, so now Kip feels "all the winds of the world have been sucked into Asia."
Kip moves to the foreground as the novel's hero. As he decides that his fate rests with his own people, his own nation, as the needs of the nation-state, which Almasy had so long transcended, overcome him, he returns to India. Deprived of Kip's love, Hana must return to Canada alone. A woman "whose wild love leaves out luck," she faces an unhappy future.
Not a Hollywood ending
At the novel's heart-stopping final moments, occurring years later, Kip's little daughter drops her fork. At that very instant, oceans and continents away, Hana's shoulder dislodges a glass from a cupboard. Kip's hand swoops down and he catches the fork. His heart is still synchronous with Hana's, as if somewhere outside of time they have not lost each other.
None of these scenes appear in the film.
What went wrong with the film version of "The English Patient" for anyone who cherishes the novel can be attributed to the influence of Hollywood. The classic Hollywood cinema, which financiers still believe alone makes money, demands a great deal of physical action: war, fire, mayhem, and blood. We must witness Caravaggio lose his thumbs.
Films supported by the big banks must also stick to themes which will not offend what used to be called "the silent majority." To finance his film, even if Minghella wanted to, he could not create a work dependent upon the play of the complex ideas of Michael Ondaatje's novel.
Commercial considerations dictated that the film focus only on Almasy and Katherine. The mise-en-scene advocates the pleasures of high passion, obscuring Ondaatje's point that obsessive love is more destructive than it is ennobling. On the Charlie Rose television interview program, Minghella talked of "the healing power of love," an idea antithetical to everything the novel shows us.
Hollywood demands a handsome young hero and so Minghella takes Ondaatje's Almasy, a man who has lived long enough to choose all-consuming love, and turns him into a young prince. As brilliant as Ralph Fiennes is in the film, he is too young to embody the profundity of Ondaatje's tragic character.
Kip and Hana appear in the film, but their love is treated as passing and inconsequential. Kip becomes a figure of comic relief, dashing over the landscape in search of bombs to dismantle. Hana is a passive observer who comes of age through her wartime experience; we last see her with a happy smile on her face as if with the end of the war suddenly everything has been made right. Ondaatje described losses exacting a lifetime of grief. But Hollywood must have its happy ending. It is as if Steven Spielberg himself were looking over Minghella's shoulder.
Ondaatje relied on suggestion: he did not need to show us the English yahoos who refuse to help Almasy, nor the Germans only too glad to do so. In the film we see both. In the dumbing down so common to American movies these days, we are given a scene of Almasy escaping from a moving train onto the desert. Hollywood's rating system also eliminated the excruciating scene of necrophilia.
Meanwhile the explorers are reduced to Indiana Jones-style adventurers, their political motives simple-minded. Almasy's friend Madox commits suicide in the film because Almasy went over to the Germans. In the novel his action is a despairing protest against jingoism, against the ugly nationalism which causes wars and destroys the international community of science and scholarship. Ondaatje calls him a "man who died because of nations."
Absence of insight
Most painful for an admirer of the novel is the absence of its central insight, that moment which forms Kip's political education. Lest American audiences be offended, there is no "August," no mention of the atomic bombs which forever diminish his life, and Hana's.
There is no inherent reason why an Englishman of Italian origins could not adapt the work of a man born in Sri Lanka. Minghella's imaginative transitional strategies, for example the overlaps in which a sound in Italy reminds Almasy of a car's horn in Africa, suggest that film as a medium is fully adequate to convey even the elusive nature of memory.
Yet it may be a good thing that Minghella's desert romance leaves Ondaatje's novel undamaged. If you want to know what all the fuss is about, read the book. At last sighting the reissue, yes, picturing Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas embracing on the cover, had climbed to number eight on the New York Times paperback best seller list.
The first six books of Joan Mellen's 13 were about movies. They include "The Waves At Genji's Door" and "Big Bad Wolves." She teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Pub Date: 12/15/96