Michael Ondaatje on The English Patient

Sep 23, 1997

If one writes a great chapter in a novel,  it will seldom be taken out of a book for reasons of time or rhythm. A novel allows you longer arms, a deeper breath. Anthony’s scenes of Kip in England, which were wonderful and haunting, did not survive. Time spent on that flashback would have diverted the audience from the main plot for too long, and seeing Kip’s bomb-defusing work would have held no tension because we would know he had survived it. In the novel, we are more within the meditations of Kip as he works on several bombs—but these were some of the passages and nuances that ?lm could not carry. For the ?lm, Kip’s bomb work had to be live, in the present, in Italy. There were other losses in the translation to ?lm, but in each case they were understandable choices. They also made the ?lm better.

For me, the long roots of Hana’s and Caravaggio’s psyches, Kip’s training in England, his reaction to the atomic bomb, and his eventual fate will always remain in the original country of the novel. What we have now are two stories, one with the intimate pace and detail of a three-hundred page novel, and one that is the length of a vivid and subtle ?lm. Each has its own organic structure. There are obvious differences and values, but somehow each version deepens the other. Both Saul and Anthony fought with everything they had for the kind of ?lm they believed in, for the cast they wanted—even when it might have meant abandonment by a studio. What they took from the book was its spirit, and they always protected that.

What held us was that something new and different was emerging. The characters grew in Anthony’s script, speaking the way I imagined they would speak. And, when the actors arrived, they too brought their individual sense and senses to the characters and gave them those glances and gestures that came from their own imaginations.

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 recognize them so well and that I am once again enthralled by them. That was the gift I never expected.