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Book to Film Adaptation: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

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Book to film adaptations are notoriously tricky to get right. How do you condense a whole novel into a few hours of screen time without losing the essence of the story? One that was done really well is the adaptation of The English Patient onto the big screen.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is a Booker Prize-winning novel that tells the story of a burn victim who, despite having completely lost his identity, constantly reminisces over a past love affair. The novel follows four main characters that are brought together at an Italian villa during the Second World War. These are the burn patient that the title refers to, his Canadian nurse, an Indian Sikh sapper and a Canadian thief.

How do you condense a whole novel into a few hours of screen time without losing the essence of the story?

The novel itself so dense in poetic imagery that you would think that this would be very difficult to translate onto the screen. Similarly, the non-linear structure of the book, as well as the fact that much of the plot is made up of memories and meditations that take place in the patient’s mind, make this novel a problematic choice when considering film adaptation.

Despite these obstacles, the director, Anthony Minghella, succeeds gloriously. From the rich desert settings to the moving soundtrack, the story of The English Patient is recreated with just as much feeling as evoked by the novel, while Ralph Fiennes’s performance as the titular burn patient is truly incredible.

The love affair of the English Patient and Katherine is one of the most memorable in film – and book – history

Although there are a few minor changes – for example, the focus on the second part rather than the first part of the novel – these work to emphasise the love affair of the English Patient and Katherine, making their romance one of the most memorable in film – and book – history. The clear imperfection of all the characters is illustrated, giving the film the same complexities as the book, while their relationships make it incredibly moving.

A must-read AND watch.

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