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Herodotus Goes to Hollywood

Michael Ondaatje's postmodern meditation on identity and history has become a visually stunning romantic saga.

Alan A. Stone

When Saul Zaentz spotted "plangent" in the first paragraph of Anthony Minghella's original screenplay for The English Patient, he knew it was a deal breaker. Zaentz, a hands-on producer, has specialized in bringing "haute culture" to the screen without losing money. Among his achievements are the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the brilliant film version of Milan Kundera's novel. Pauline Kael, who could condescend even to Kundera, pronounced the film far superior to the novel, and put Zaentz "at the top of the heap for his courage" in producing it. The shrewd Zaentz has stayed at the top by knowing the difference between courage and foolhardiness--knowing, for example, that it is foolhardy to bring "plangent" into a negotiation. But Zaentz recognized that Minghella, who was enthralled by Michael Ondaatje's novel, would have to get more than the fancy words out.

The English Patient, winner of Britain's prestigious Booker prize, demands much of its readers--far more than any film can expect from an audience. The text is non-linear, indeed convoluted, and its style is part of its substance: it is a meditation on memory and historicity, and, in Ondaatje's unique style, an homage to Herodotus. Herodotus' Histories is the only possession of Ondaatje's central figure, a badly-burned, amnesiac patient, and provides the inspiration for both his character and the novel.

Herodotus, the first western historian, has special appeal for the contemporary imagination. Simultaneously subjective and objective, he included in his great chronicle all sorts of seemingly irrelevant folk tales and narratives which have since become a historical treasure trove, equal in importance to his factual account of the wars between the Greeks and Persians. Twenty-five centuries later, Herodotus reads like a postmodern, constructing historical reality as a series of narratives told by different people from different perspectives--the right book for the English patient, though not a big selling point for the moguls at Twentieth Century Fox.

Readers of Ondaatje's novel did not have to get the Herodotus connection, but they did need to bring to the text a certain poetic quality of mind. Much of the novel is prose poetry and readers must capture the nuances, supply the transitions, and relish the task of deciphering the obscured storylines that Ondaatje has interwoven and told in different voices. If, however, the fragments of Ondaatje's labyrinthine storyline are assembled in more prosaic order--as they must be for a commercial film--the plot seems far-fetched and almost all the characters appear neurotically twisted and perverse. Moreover, in addition to its elaborate literary style and portrayal of Proustian sado-masochistic relationships, The English Patient has a non-Eurocentric sensibility: the only unflawed figure left standing at the end of the novel is Kip, a Punjabi Sikh who bears a message of political protest from the Third World. These are all formidable obstacles to a commercial screenplay.

No surprise, then, that it took three years of rewriting by Minghella, abetted by brainstorming sessions with Zaentz and Ondaatje himself, to create the kind of script Zaentz thought he could sell to a studio. They must have experienced many desperate moments along the way as they found themselves exenterating the novel and rearranging the entrails. In the end, Minghella succeeded by drastically reworking the novel's story line, partially untwisting its characters, and transforming The English Patient into a sumptuous feast of cinematography and a romantic saga.

Ondaatje claims that Minghella (who also directed the film) has preserved the spirit of the novel. The film does retain some of the book's homage to Herodotus and convoluted structure, shuttling back and forth between Northern Italy at the end of World War II, where the English patient is being cared for after a plane crash, and the Sahara desert in the years before the war, where he is Count Laslo Almasy, a member of a Royal Geographic Society expedition. Still, the screenplay of The English Patient is not a text that improves on serious reflection. That is true of many great films: The film medium conveys better the grandeur of Rome than the glory of Greece, and the camera is and should be the star.

Minghella's screenplay does have one indisputable virtue: it is a marvelous vehicle for the actors. Ralph Fiennes as the English patient/Count Almasy, Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Clifton, Juliet Binoche as Hana the nurse, and Willem Dafoe as David Caravaggio all give brilliant performances. Ironically, Zaentz and Minghella lost their studio deal by insisting on this superb casting. Fox thought that the screenplay would need celebrity actors with guaranteed box-office appeal. Zaentz was courageous in his obstinacy and Miramax, a division of Disney, bailed out the expensive production, which was filmed on location in Italy and Tunisia. (The production built the "Saul Zaentz Highway" into the Sahara to get all the equipment on-site for the "Cave of Swimmers," which figures importantly in the film.)

But if Minghella's film matches the novel's original spirit, that success is due more to its splendid visual quality than its narrative. The English Patient is stunning, filled with archetypal, exotic, and oneiric images. The film contrasts the browns of the desert with the greens of Northern Italy, the scarified face of the burned English patient with the handsome profile of the Count. Constantly finding creative camera angles and perspectives, the cinematography intrigues and fascinates from the opening scene. And it sustains that intensity for more than two and a half hours.

The English Patient begins with a close-up of a painter's brush drawing exotic figures on a textured surface. We have no idea who the painter is or what the figures represent. Eventually we will learn that Katherine Clifton is the painter and that she is copying figures from the walls of the "cave of swimmers"--a real cave discovered by European explorers of the desert between the two world wars. Ondaatje's story was loosely based on historical events and characters who were involved in Saharan expeditions. Minghella makes them into a team whose members are of diverse nationalities; united in their love of the desert, they will be torn apart by the outbreak of World War II. Count Almasy, the expedition leader, falls desperately and passionately in love with Katherine Clifton almost as soon as the recent bride arrives with her husband to join the expedition. Mr. and Mrs. Clifton are jaunty upper-crust British who fly into the desert in a yellow biplane, supposedly a wedding present from Katherine's parents. (In reality it has been supplied by the British Government: her new husband is a British spy assigned to make aerial maps of the desert for use in the impending war.) The cave of swimmers, which Almasy discovers, plays a central role in the Almasy-Clifton love affair and the arcane drawings that begin the film will eventually reveal their significance.

Like the novel, the film has a quasi-musical structure in which intriguing images are introduced and only later developed and explained. Even the desert is at first unrecognizable, presented initially as an abstract undulating surface. Viewed through the distanced lens of the camera, the barren beauty of the desert landscape gradually reveals itself. The sand dunes shaped into hillocks by the passage of the winds fill the screen. Between the eye of the camera and this forbidding landscape comes a fragile propeller-driven biplane. We can barely discern a female figure slumped lifelessly in the front seat and behind her the pilot. The plane, which seems pitifully unequal to the Sahara, is brought down in flames by German anti-aircraft guns. A camel caravan of Arabs pull one survivor out of the wreckage who is burned beyond recognition. Saved by native healers, he is the English patient. Almasy, amnesiac after the crash, recovers his memory in bits and pieces as the film flashes back and forth between the abandoned Italian monastery where Hana nurses him and the desert expedition before the war, until we finally understand the obscure but beautiful beginning.

Minghella needed more than splendid visual beauty, however, to win his audience. Apart from its literary and psychological complexities, the problem with Ondaatje's novel is that it fizzles to an end rather than reaching a dramatic conclusion; even worse, the novel's last chapters center on Kip, and American moviegoers are unlikely to identify with a Punjabi Sikh. (Ondaatje himself was born in Sri Lanka, so it would not be amiss to suggest he has put something of himself into the character.)

Kip is a familiar if not stereotypical colonial, torn between identifying with what is best in the admirable English and chafing under their imperial arrogance. While he often compares himself with his older brother, who despised the English as an article of faith, Kip has risked his life in their war, volunteering as a sapper who defuses bombs and disarms booby traps. A lieutenant, his technical efficiency has earned him the complete respect of his English non-commissioned officers. In the novel Hana comes to the dark-skinned Kip as to a river for its cool relief. His service to Britain and his affair with the nurse, psychological reflections of one other, dissolve into rage when he hears that white people have dropped their atomic bombs on Japan. On this note of third world solidarity, Kip fires up his Triumph motorcycle and sets off on a journey that almost kills him.

It is impossible to know how Ondaatje meant his readers to understand Kip's reaction. Does he expect us to believe that in 1945 there would have been such Third World solidarity between South Asia and Japan? Perhaps, but it seems to me that Ondaatje is intentionally anachronistic. He wants us to see that all history, all memory, is revisionist--and that all wars appear in retrospect as tragic mistakes in which men, confused about their identities, fall upon their brothers. Indeed, he is so overcome by his passion for revenge that he almost kills the already burned and helpless English patient, who is not even English. In playing with time and identity, Ondaatje pays further homage to Herodotus.

The other narrative of the novel--which involves Hana, the English patient, and the spy, thief, and morphine addict David Caravaggio--collapses into unfinished ambiguity. We are led to assume that Hana, for whom the English patient was an obvious father figure (her own father was burned to death fighting in France), will never be capable of intimate love with a man. David Caravaggio, another father figure for Hana, is in fact her father's friend, whose erotic interest in her she had recognized since girlhood. We never learn what happens to him, nor are we told how the English patient dies. Unlike the movie, which ends when Hana gives her patient a lethal injection to stop his suffering, Ondaatje's text has no final scene. If the novel leaves us with any psychological message it is that western civilization has left its members incapable of human love. This is not a new idea, and it is surely not appealing to escapist movie audiences. Minghella had to remove this large "plangent" from the heart of Ondaatje's novel.

For starters, he eliminated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and made Kip a compliant colonial who initiates the affair with Hana and then leaves her because he is emotionally broken by the booby trap death of his British sergeant. But Minghella's real coup was to make the relationship between Count Almasy and the newlywed Mrs. Clifton into a 19th-century adulterous romance, shades of Stendhal's The Red and the Black: love is a passion only in adultery.

On Ondaatje's pages Almasy is an older man whom Mrs. Clifton takes strange sadistic pleasure in battering during their erotic encounters. This father-figure perversity, which runs through the novel, is Electra-lyzed in the film. On screen, Hana, Mrs. Clifton, Caravaggio, the English patient, and Kip are all the same age. Minghella makes Mrs. Clifton into one of those women who makes the mistake of marrying for reasons that are sensible but have nothing to do with love. Then she meets a man, Count Almasy, who sets her aflame--"the heart is an organ of fire" is the phrase taken from the novel. The Count, who is for Mrs. Clifton the exotic other, is equally passionate. He struggles to be a gentleman, urging her husband not to leave her in the desert when he is called away from the expedition for several days. But when Mrs. Clifton and the Count are marooned together by a sandstorm, their restraints are overthrown. The scenes between them are erotically compelling without ever becoming vulgar. Minghella does everything in his considerable creative powers to make the audience sympathize with these two people who seem so perfectly matched. We feel their passion is stronger and more pure because it is forbidden.

As the Count/English patient, Ralph Fiennes is the center of two love affairs. Mrs. Clifton loves the handsome count with a violent, profane, uncontrollable passion that eventually leads to her death. Hana comes to love the English patient in a sacred and tender way when his whole face is an ugly scar, and she is healed by the experience. Fiennes is equally compelling as the impetuous lover and the bitter pedantic patient: it is difficult to imagine any living actor who could have brought more to this double romance.

Everyone involved in this film has reason to feel satisfied with--even proud of--their accomplishments. But one comes back to Minghella, who refused to succumb to Ondaatje's conclusion about the impossibility of love, reimagined his story as a romantic saga, and invented a sad but hopeful ending for it. When Hana finally leaves the monastery gripping Herodotus' Histories in her hands, we know that she is a survivor ready to discover the world. As the truck carrying her away passes a row of poplar trees, the camera turns them into flashes of green and the film ends as it began with a poetic visual image. This is not Ondaatje's novel, but he is right in saying that the film preserves the "spirit" of his book.

Originally published in the February/ March 1997 issue of Boston Review


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