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Treating the Patient

One of the more traumatic moments for a novelist is seeing his verbal creation embodied on the screen. Were Juliette Binoche, Ralph Fiennes, Willem Dafoe and the rest of the cast of Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient what the author envisioned?

"I didn't envision them at all," he says. "When I was writing the book, I didn't really think of what the characters look like. I didn't think it could be a film, quite honestly. How do you make a film with this kind of complicated story and swirling plots and stuff like that?"

Most people agreed with Ondaatje. Not Minghella.

"It seemed too expensive, too vast, too full of no-nos," Ondaatje explains, listing the objections in addition to its resistance to adaptability. "It was a period film, doesn't have any American actors in it. On paper the central character spends a great deal of his time suffering from terrible injuries lying in a bed. It is not promising fare."

Despite these liabilities, Minghella, with the help of producer Saul Zaentz (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), put together a $30 million budget and a stellar international cast. He also had an inventive screenplay and the cooperation of the author.

"There was a push by Anthony and Saul, and we got on very well," says Ondaatje. "Our first meeting was very clear -- we didn't want the film to be an imitation of the book or an illustration of the book. We talked about limitations of time and all that stuff. And when we did the first draft, it was quite a different thing, not an illustration at all, something quite new and structurally quite different. I could never have done that. I spent five years on the structure of this one thing, so he had to find the right structure for film."

"With a novel that is so extraordinary," says Minghella, "and so complex, there is no room to do a conventional adaptation. For a book that is in itself so anti-narrative, so mosaic-like, so fractured in structure, you have to, as an adapter, invent a story that will lasso some of the more wonderful aspects."

Despite the unnerving experience of seeing his own creation mutating into someone else's, Ondaatje was impressed with the results. "He got all the voices right away. I think I would have pulled out in the beginning if they turned it into a Scottish cartoon or cast Frank Sinatra or Chevy Chase. But I had a lot of control."

And though Minghella's screenplay might suggest a lack of reverence for the original, the novel in fact inspired him to persevere in order to render its themes into film.

"I want to tell stories like this that have intimacy, but only insofar as the intimacy connects with the public world. I think that so much filmmaking and fiction try to pretend that reality is unimportant. They think of fiction as an escape for a couple hours. I think there's a much more interesting role for films and fiction: moral debate and moral complexities, ambiguity, something that might reflect on experiences that we have as individuals. This story seemed to afford that. People fall in love in this film as they do in lots of films being made, but the consequences of that love have some impact on the world."

-- PK

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