Ifirst read The English Patient in one gulp, sitting in a room on 77th and Columbus the morning after I’d finished a sweltering summer of ?lming in New York.
When I put the book down, it was dark, and I had no idea where I was. Michael Ondaatje’s mesmeric novel has the deceptive appearance of being completely cinematic. Brilliant images are scattered across its pages in a mosaic of fractured narratives, as if somebody had already seen a film and was in a hurry trying to remember all the best bits. In the course of a single page, the reader can be asked to consider events in Cairo, or Tuscany, or England’s West Country during different periods, with different narrators; to meditate on the natures of winds, the mischief of an elbow, the intricacies of a bomb mechanism, the significance of a cave painting. The wise screen adapter approaches such pages with extreme caution. The fool rushes in. The next morning I telephoned Saul Zaentz in Berkeley, the only producer I could think of crazy enough to countenance such a project, and suggested he read the book. He’s made a brilliant career out of folly and is one of the few moviemakers who loves to read. I have never seen Saul without a book within his reach. He called me back a week after to tell me not only did he love The English Patient, but that Michael was coming in from Toronto to give a reading from it that weekend at a bookstore near Saul’s home. I encouraged him to see this as an omen.
Over successive drafts—each of which was subject to the ruthless, exasperating, egoless, pedantic, and rigorous scrutiny of Michael and Saul—some kind of blueprint for a film began to emerge. We met in California, Toronto, London, and, best of all, in Saul’s home in Tuscany where I am ashamed to admit there were memorable discussions held in the cool, aquamarine pool, our chins bobbing on the surface of the water, punctuated by bouts of what we called water polo, but which was essentially a form of licensed violence to work off all our various pent-up hostilities, and at which Michael proved to be the master.
I hope the army of admirers of Michael Ondaatje’s novel forgives my sins of omission and commission, my misjudgments and betrayals; they were all made in the spirit of translating his beautiful novel to the screen. I was determined and encouraged to have my say about the people and events described in the book and was obliged to make transparent what was delicately oblique in the prose. It seemed to me that the process of adaptation required me to join the dots and make a figurative work from a pointillist and abstract one. Any number of versions were possible, and I’m certain that the stories I chose to elaborate say as much about my own interests and reading as they do about the book. And I can’t apologize for this. It’s a testimony to Michael’s enormous modesty that he presided over the process with neither indifference nor contempt and continues to lend his wit and intelligence to us as the ?lm nears the moment of what we call completion, but which is only abandonment.