`The English Patient' has just opened in America - to rave reviews. David Thomson on how a great novel can become a great movie
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`The English Patient' has just opened in America - to rave reviews.

David Thomson on how a great novel can become a great movie

"FILM and the Novel" remains a perennial of academia, a nice polite flower yet a funeral bloom for excitement. Kids are seeing Sense and Sensibility and Emma, reading the books, and finding to their dismay that Jane Austen was not a sit-com writer, but an ironic intelligence. Movie-makers raid the library for proven successes and stories they can't invent. And because the films so often travesty the good books, so the wisdom has spread that bad literature makes the best films. (In the dark, Michael Crichton is bigger than William Faulkner.) As a rule, seeing the movie to know a book better is as stupid as reading the rip-off novelisation of a hit picture. Films and books are as separate as men and women. But which is which?

"In spite of film seeming so operatic and spectacular a medium, it's actually more modest than a book in its use of language. Because a book has to do so much to raise you to an emotional level that you simply see on film. It's all there. I don't think I could ever write a screenplay."

The speaker is Michael Ondaatje, the novelist (born in Sri Lanka, educated in England, and now a resident of Canada), who saw the final version of The English Patient only in late October, at the New York junket introducing the picture to the press. He was "tense as hell" about it, and a similar apprehension may affect those who have loved the book.

Ondaatje went to the New York screening as a fellow-soldier with producer Saul Zaentz and writer-director Anthony Minghella. He had no credited role on the film beyond writing the book. But he had attended prolonged script conferences. He had offered an author's ideas (an author can have second thoughts), and he had become the first person Zaentz and Minghella wanted to please. The novelist went to Italy and north Africa for three weeks to observe filming.

But prior to New York, the last cut Ondaatje had seen was three hours 20 minutes - the release version is two and a half hours. (Minghella's first assembly had run over 4 hours.) So Ondaatje had reason to be tense. He'd loved the three-hour-20 version, even if it had abandoned all the English scenes from the novel. More still must have been lost in bringing the film down further.

When Anthony Minghella read the book he was intoxicated, so stirred by the story he wanted to see it. Yet as he applied himself to research and writing, he saw two opportunities in The English Patient, or two ways it might become his: "I've always been very interested in details of behaviour - the way people are together. And here was a story where I could pursue that on a large historical canvas, moving from the tiny to the huge, cut by cut. I also saw a chance for a kind of catalogue of loves - love of country, a nurse's love for a patient, innocent romantic love, love of the desert and learning, and the catastrophic love at the heart of it all."

An atmosphere, a place and a few faces. Four people come together in an abandoned Italian monastery in 1944: the "English patient", dying slowly from terrible burns; Hana, his young nurse, who believes that anyone who loves her will be destroyed; Caravaggio, another victim of the war, thief or spy, a man who has lost his thumbs; and Kip, a Sikh, a bomb-disposal expert. As they meet and talk, we learn that the patient is not English but Hungarian. He is Count Laszlo de Almasy, a noted desert explorer, a man who fell in love with a married woman, Katharine Clifton, before the war began, an affair that led to tragedy and the air crash in which Almasy was burned.

Ondaatje's book is a series of stories or situations not conclusively attached as narrative. For instance, Caravaggio in the book has joined the others out of curiosity. On the page, that rather passive presence can be sustained if the writing that explores his thoughts is vivid enough. On screen, Caravaggio will be there (played by Willem Dafoe). Straight away, he has appearance, voice, a way of moving and watching, things that bypass explanation. But once he is there, he must have a purpose or a need. Otherwise, he becomes a useless bystander.

So Minghella sought to make Caravaggio dramatic and useful. He gave the character the motive of revenge. In turn, that helped him place the Almasy- Katharine affair in a context of espionage and betrayal well suited to the desert war in north Africa. That network of plot does not exist in Ondaatje's book, but it made strings with which Minghella could pull the narrative taut.

The "operatic" quality in film Ondaatje referred to is its insistence that action resolve character. That may be a grave limitation to film, for it is not how life works. Thus, some may object that Minghella has tidied up Ondaatje's book, until a mystical air of uncertainty (or possibility) has vanished. Perhaps film serves an age that craves certainty, whereas the novel challenged a greater openness of mind.

The triumph of the film is one the book inspires: these different strands do make a whole; within the momentous scale of world war, we treasure the intimacy of tiny stories. For just as film has the energy of presence, so it flies on the suggestiveness of association - cuts that suddenly join and heal. In this area, both Minghella and Ondaatje pay tribute to the creative work of the editor and sound designer Walter Murch.

To take one example of his art, there is a love scene between Almasy and Katharine in a cramped inner space. Furtive lovers they have sought refuge in a closet in the British embassy in Cairo as a Christmas party for soldiers and staff goes on in the courtyard outside. The cuckolded husband sweats in a Father Christmas suit. We hear the breathing of the lovers, the sigh of their clothes, the rather fatuous festive singing outside, with bagpipes, carols and "Silent Night" in the blaze of noon. And birds in the caves of the building, their dainty song complicit with the lovers. It is a staggering gathering of sounds - and it is a scene that does not occur in the novel. Because you can't hear books.

And in books we do not see faces. On screen, though, they are the window to sensibility. With a book, the look of beloved characters shifts to accommodate the several people we know who might inhabit the fictional lives. But nothing ever settles, and so characters are always intriguingly immaterial or elusive, bending to our nature. The faces of Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas eliminate that mutability, and beguile us with inescapable physical attraction. To watch a film is to fall in love; to read a book is to explore human uncertainty.

But the known faces, so vast, so sensual, give us so much. Fiennes has an engraved look; Thomas can make herself as glassy as society women of the 1930s, blase against the lens. That masked air suits their secret lives in the film. They are both somewhat aloof, people a little fearful of the violence of their inner feelings. Do I mean the actors, or the characters? It's not clear; that mingling is essential to the perilous fantasy of movies.

There is a riveting scene, in the desert at night, where Katharine tells the circle of explorers a story - about a classical king, his wife and the wife's lover. She sees Almasy's face in the firelight watching her (note that in the book, stricken with the moment, he looks away - truer yet less cinematic), and she knows that her casual tale has found a fateful listener. In turn, he makes her into a trapped teller. Two faces in the night, seeing and being seen - no other medium can make such conquests so simply.

Readers often resent the continent-like faces of real actors as characters they have cherished. Not that great screen acting needs to act up. In their best moments, these faces simply carry the characters. They carry something else, the mystery of film careers - so Fiennes here is a little bit of the Nazi commander, and a hint of TE Lawrence (a part he played on TV), and Thomas is not entirely without that woman who went unloved in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

What does an author feel? Michael Ondaatje has always enjoyed film. He was well disposed to the project, and he is generous now that it is done: "It is as if people I knew when I was writing a book at midnight full of dreams, now appear in a new country in daylight and the wonder is not so much of how they made that magical journey but that I recognise them so well and that I am once again enthralled by them. That was the gift I never expected."

There is much to admire in the way Minghella and Ondaatje have handled their tricky partnership. Minghella was nearly a brother to the novelist, yet he had to insist that the film was his. Ondaatje was often deeply touched to see his world realised, and - on the set - he noticed how difficult it was for him to see that recreation and write new lines for his characters. So he was astonished to see the assurance with which Minghella knew the story and was able to lead the show, answering so many questions from cast and crew. Authors are not used to such fierce, needy collaborators. To Ondaatje, Minghella's prowess seemed like writing while playing tennis at Wimbledon. So Ondaatje has come away much impressed by the association of film-makers, yet all the more certain that his place is in the desert of lonely creation.

! `The English Patient' opens in Britain on 14 March. A longer version of this piece appeared in the January issue of American `Esquire'.