The English Patient: Critics, Audiences, and the Quality of Fidelity

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Author: David L. Kranz
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,387 words

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[(essay date summer 2003) In this essay, Krantz surveys the critical debate surrounding the fidelity of the film version of the The English Patient to the original novel and examines the ways in which audiences respond to each version.]

Michael Ondaatje's 1992 novel The English Patient and Anthony Minghella's 1996 cinematic adaptation have stirred up considerable critical debate concerning the degree to which the movie has adequately and appropriately adapted the novel. Though few in our post-structural era expect or even desire absolute fidelity from a film adaptation, given differing formal strengths and limitations in the two media, the economic requirements of the film industry, or the ideological and artistic subjectivities involved in any representation of a text, Minghella's The English Patient has been the subject of a number of critical statements which either affirm or pejoratively question its faithfulness to Ondaatje's source.

While initial reviews on both sides of the Atlantic were overwhelmingly rapturous in their praise for Minghella's adaptation and many held that it translated Ondaatje's poetic novel to the screen successfully, academic critics have since been divided over the quality and extent of that success. On the side of the film's essential fidelity, for example, Douglas Stenberg sees author and auteur meshed in a "creative fusion" of similar romantic purposes expressed by similar "motifs of natural phenomena": water, bodies as landscapes, hands, and cavernous arts (255). He finds, merely by listing quotations from Ondaatje and offering related descriptions of the film, that novelist and filmmaker share a "spiritual literacy" (259), strong anti-nationalism, clear faith that love can transcend time, and stylistic proclivity for an "uncharted flow" (262) of ambiguities and incongruities which promise illumination. Joining Stenberg is Eleanor Ty, who argues that in "both the novel and the film, the flashbacks, the shifting points of view, [and] the narrative vignettes produce an unstable subject position for the readers or viewers" (11). Ty finds that both text and film have a fluid, communal, and international caste that critiques national imperialism and war, noting that despite the backing of Disney's Miramax studio, the movie "is visually exotic and has an un-American and un-Hollywood quality about it" (11).

In opposition, Jaqui Sadashige constructs two versions of The English Patient: a complex postmodern novel and a reductive Hollywood romance. Sadashige finds that, unlike the film, the "endless proliferation of discourse" or "din of voices" in Ondaatje's work "disrupts and denaturalizes narrative unity, teleology, and objectivity" (243) while simultaneously bringing postcolonial and post-structural concerns to the foreground: "the desires of [his] characters emerge from the particular circumstances of their selves as gendered, nationalized, racialized, and textualized subjects" (246). In her view, Minghella's film, to the contrary, has a distinct and conventional narrative focus in Count Almásy who, now clearly identified as the patient, is obviously the central character. Furthermore, she thinks the film provides an absolute closure which the novel assiduously refuses to supply, largely by changing the ending in a way which elevates the personal and romantic over the public,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100084237