As I mentioned several posts back, I saw the film version of “The English Patient” before reading the book, an interesting phenomenon. It could be the other way around.
What’s different about the two?
The film and book versions of “The English Patient” are different stories about the same characters—if that’s possible. Michael Ondaatje, who collaborated on the film, said, “What we have now are two stories, one with the pace and detail of a three-hundred page novel and one that is the length of a vivid and subtle film…There are obvious differences and values, but somehow each version deepens the other…scenes and emotions and values from the book emerged in new ways…and fit within a dramatic arc that was different from the book.”
I’d say the film (and its marketing) focuses on the love affair/love triangle between Almasy and Katherine Clifton and her husband, Geoffrey. And I’d say the book does not—it’s about (do I have to say it again?) recovery from trauma. There you have it. Of course, a good story is always open to interpretation—what is “The English Patient” about? An infinity of things, maybe it’s about how sand can make you crazy.
The film begins with the powerful image I mentioned a while ago—an unseen artist paints the figures from the Cave of Swimmers, accompanied by the evocative soundtrack. (A huge difference between text and film—film has music which becomes associated with particular scenes and characters.) Then, a scene of Almasy flying a bi-plane carrying a dead Katherine. The Germans shoot him down in flames. Different from the book—I think the film’s beginning focuses on Almasy and Katherine. It poses the question—who are these people? How did they reach this point of disaster?
A film leaves less to the imagination in that it has actual actors playing the characters. In a book, although there may be considerable description of a character, a lot is left to the reader’s imagination—the character’s appearance is more open. Your Almasy might not be mine. It can be unsettling to read a book and then see a film version’s choices about what the characters look like. It may provoke fierce arguments—"That actor was just wrong! He didn’t look anything like the way I pictured that character! Ahhh!”
If you see the film first, you are left with stubborn visual/aural images of the actors that impact your reading. It’s still difficult for me to read “The English Patient” without imagining that Almasy and Katherine look like the younger Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott-Thomas. When I “see” the characters, I “see” the actors.
The actual story is different in each version, and I think this is what Ondaatje was getting at when he talked about the film and book deepening one another. The love affair is presented essentially the same, but other features diverge. Hana and Caravaggio don’t seem to know each other the way they do in the book, although it’s played with a bit of mystery. Caravaggio is captured by the Germans and tortured in Tobruk instead of Florence. Kip’s character is not so central, there is nothing about his “double-ness” with Almasy. The ending has Almasy persuading Hana to give him an overdose of morphine, and we see him fading to death as she sobs. The ending has no flash-forward, Kip does leave, although his anguish over the atomic bombing is played down. Hana leaves the villa with Caravaggio, a beautiful last image is of her regarding a young girl who’s also riding in the truck she’s in. I think it refers to Hana’s younger self, the girl who’s central to Ondaatje’s “In the Skin of a Lion,” and speaks to the idea that Hana has changed—grown up—over the course of the story. Very different from the book.
Why does the film show things that were not in the book and leave other things out? Well, best beloved, a film is a different beastie than a book. Why did the focus change from recovery from trauma to a tragic love story, marketed with a heavy dose of romance? A cynic might say to make money. I say—no, stop. The film is beautifully done. Perhaps the filmmakers hoped to reach a larger audience.
I think “The English Patient” is one of those happy text/films that complement each other. The film expands on certain themes, omits others. If you read the book and see the film—or vice versa—you have a deeper sense of the characters—particularly Almasy and Katherine. Your experience of the story is enriched. An example—in the book, Kip lights flares to see the Renaissance frescos in the Cathedral. In the film, he shows them to Hana, giving her a flare and hoisting her up to the ceiling—a unique, magical experience that he “gives” her. It expands on the wonder of the scene in the book and adds the element of caring between Kip and Hana. It seems very congruent for both the characters.
Well okay. Who’s for “The English Patient?” Me. I love it.
Next week, a new story.