In 1996, when I was sixteen years old, I went with a friend to the movie theater in Mattoon, Illinois, and we watched The English Patient together on the big screen. It was one of the best days of my life.
My friend felt the opposite. She didn’t care for the movie at all, and she laughed uproariously throughout all the slow, quiet scenes that are meant to be serious, including the moment when Ralph Fiennes turns the movie into a literal “bodice-ripper” by tearing the front of Kristin Scott Thomas’ white dress.
There were only six people in the audience that day, so my friend and I were surrounded by a sea of empty chairs. The other four people looked like two married couples in their late sixties. One couple sat in the front row, the other in the back row, and my friend and I sat in the middle.
Every time she burst into laughter, the sound interrupted the movie, and the couples shot us dirty looks and/or muttered and hissed about how disrespectful we were. I didn’t laugh, but I smiled in support of my friend’s right to laugh, since she found the movie appallingly ridiculous, and therefore humorous. When we left the theater, she said that I’d picked the worst movie ever, and she gave me an earful about how she was never going to suffer through something that shitty ever again. As she announced I’d lost my movie-picking privileges after choosing such epic drivel to watch, I drove us across the highway to the Walmart. At the time, the only place to buy novels in Mattoon was at Walmart.
Once inside the store, when my friend wasn’t watching, I found a copy of The English Patient on the magazine rack. Of course, being sold in tandem with the movie’s release, the trade paperback’s cover featured the film poster, and I felt a wave of euphoria picking it up. An ugly gold sticker slapped over the title announced the book was half-off the list price.
I definitely had plans for the $7.00 in my pocket, plans that involved other people, but I bought that book in secret, because at sixteen, I was a selfish and secretive asshole, with a mind that hungered for things I couldn’t explain and still don’t really understand.
Whatever the fallout was for this rash and secretive purchase, I cannot remember. I just know I had to cancel doing something I had promised to do, went home, and stayed up all night reading the book. I read the novel again the next night, and again the night after that. I think I read that book eight times in the first week alone. As a teenager, I had a lot more stamina for reading for hours on end, with no breaks at all, like I’d fallen into a trance and could barely even breathe. At some point in my obsessive rereadings, I finally picked off that ugly gold sticker. I remember thinking it took me more time to do that than to read the whole book.
Many penned and digital words have been written about The English Patient, the movie as well as the prize-winning novel. I love the movie a great deal, but I love the novel more, because the novel is far, far darker than the movie could ever be. To enter the world of that story is to be plunged into a much starker evaluation of racism and colonialist discourse than what was put in the film. There is also pagan love, talk of demons, a reanimated corpse, and ancient fairy tales. My heart found its cadence when I read that book.
Ten years ago, I met a woman in Aspen, Colorado, who had such an intense loathing for the film, she savaged the movie in public, and a handful of bar patrons applauded her emotional screed. My friend in Illinois would have cheered, had she witnessed the diatribe. When the woman heard me quote lines from the novel, and learned I had the gall to disagree with her, she asked, “How can you love that shitty movie? How?”
She was beside herself, and her three martinis hadn’t helped. Her eyes had gone wild, her frizzy hair was practically sparking with rage. She almost grabbed my shoulders to shake me. I kept slinking away from her but we were in one of those small, sophisticated bars that encourage entrapment. Hedged into that crowded space, I had to face the fact that this woman and I both loved Michael Ondaatje, only she was sure that my love for “Hollywood’s f*cking hack-job of a movie” meant I didn’t understand what the author was really writing about, and my so-called “love” for his work was a sign of mindless bandwagon-hopping of the very worst kind.
I found the whole conversation absurd. It was my first experience of being yelled at in a bar about my “uninformed” appreciation of literary fiction, and I thought the messenger was completely unqualified to be riding my ass. Sure, she had at least two extra decades of reading on me, and I was certain she’d read a great many more books than I had. But I knew my Ondaatje. By the time of this fracas, I’d read all of his published work: all of his novels, all of his poetry. In the eleven years since my first binge-read of The English Patient as a teen, I had consumed everything else he had written. I also carried my original copy of The English Patient around like a talisman, including two trips to India, when books are the last thing anyone should be backpacking with.
The woman’s argument centered on how the movie had changed Kip (Kirpal Singh — pictured above), the sapper who the nurse (Hana) falls in love with. In the book, when Kip leaves Italy to return to (what was then) India (the story is set before Partition, when India and Pakistan divided), he does so after learning the Unites States has dropped two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Devastated by the news, Kip realizes that America would have never dropped the bombs on Germany, and that the decision to test-drop a new weapon and avenge the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Germany had done so many equally terrible things in the war, was motivated — and made possible — by racism.
Kip is an Indian Sikh, a sapper trained by the British military, a soldier who loses his best friend (in the movie and book) to one of the many hidden land mines they’ve been working so hard to remove. Before his untimely demise, Kip’s friend Harvey is a beautiful figure, in the movie as well as the book. Harvey admires Kip, is tremendously loyal to Kip, and even though — as a white subject of the British Empire — his racial superiority could’ve led to any number of stereotypical comments, Harvey never — not once — treated Kip as an ethnic, religious, or racial Other to be mocked. For Kip, Harvey represents the best of what Western civilization can be; Harvey embodies all that Kip loves most about the West.
In the movie, Harvey’s death provides the impetus for Kip to withdraw from Hana’s love, turn away from Western hegemony, and return to his native India. In the book, however, it is clear that the dropping of the nuclear bombs is the final poison Kip cannot forgive, marking the end of his loyalty to Western civilization and the hegemony he can no longer support.
The woman in the bar thought I hadn’t understood all these points. Though our conversation was nowhere near as articulate as I’ve summarized here, in the emotional context of our clash in the bar, all she needed to do was refer to the “nuclear bombs” in the book, and I knew exactly what she was talking about.
To study “the decision to drop the bomb” on Hiroshima is to be plunged into a terrible piece of American history. As militarists, patriots, and jingoists, there is no end to the amount of rationalized justification made for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Forced Japan to surrender” and “saved American lives” are the two most-frequently repeated reasons touted in America’s defense. Bring up this subject alone, and people will often start shouting those two phrases before any conversation begins.
When a student of history looks deeper, however… sifting through all the documentation, the casualty numbers, the operations in the Pacific, the communications between the White House and the Japanese military that were already underway before Nazi Germany even fell… the rationalizations for those nuclear bombs become hollow war propaganda, and many a student of history ends up where Michael Ondaatje ended up with Kip: that the emotions of racism won the day, the same way racism won when the United States set up those Japanese concentration camps on American soil.
If you are a defender of America’s nuclear bombing of Japan, and find this blog post infinitely offensive, please be advised that I’m aware of the animosity toward my opinions, and I assure you, I have been called “an ignorant bitch,” “a bleeding-heart liberal,” and “a complete fucking moron” more times than I can count.
Yet I persist in my study of history here, and I refuse to tout the party line. As far as I am concerned, I can still love my country and be honest about my country. Love does not need to come with delusion. Love, in fact, most often exists because forgiveness exists. As someone who also enjoys reading the Gospel of Mark, I believe it is sometimes impossible to tell the difference between mercy and love. I could never bear to read about “the decision to drop the bomb” without a great deal of mercy — first and foremost, for myself, as a citizen born to the nation that created and used nuclear weapons in war. That legacy is felt in my blood, and part of the reason why my teenage-self read and reread The English Patient so many times in one week.
I do not condemn the movie made of my most-beloved book because the screenplay left out all conversation of America’s nuclear bombs. I certainly understand why the woman in the bar did so. What is considered “palatable” and “acceptable” art by the American public is often completely at odds with historical fact and historical truth.
Yet I love the movie. I love the movie. To watch The English Patient is to witness a poem told with image and sound. I knew this from the instant the movie began, because the opening scenes lit me up, made my entire spirit feel radiant, as if I were a penitent kneeling at the bones of a saint.
The movie begins with a close-up image of paper, one of my favorite things in the world. This image tells the viewer — right away — that they are watching a film concerned with texture. Both the literal texture of how things feel to the touch, as well as the texture of meaning, meaning that has either been laid bare in the singular or layered together like ancient bedrock. The paper’s color and texture look more like sandstone than paper, and that immediate likeness holds the scope of human history in its message: prehistory combines with recorded history here, all the tribes of humanity to ever exist on the earth are condensed in this moment.
Then the tip of a paintbrush appears, and someone begins to paint a figure. Later, the audience learns the painter is Katherine Clifton, and she is recreating the figure on a cave wall, painting on paper what already exists on the sandstone in front of her. The symbolism of her paintbrush forces time to collapse yet again: we are watching the cycle of history, told in seconds. As the lines on the paper are formed, the figures in the cave live again, they are reanimated before us, the same way generations of humans are reborn again and again.
During this opening scene, a woman sings an old Hungarian lullaby, voicing notes full of pathos and reverence, a song that the audience later learns is symbolic of Count Ladislaus de Almásy’s childhood.
While the woman sings, we wonder: what is this painted figure, exactly? As the limbs slowly take shape, this person might be walking, or dancing, or marching to war. This figure might be falling, or asleep, or a corpse on the ground. Anything is held in that initial drawing, every action of human life is bound in that simple picture.
Then the music shifts to stringed and wind instruments, as the audience watches a plane in flight over the desert, over sand and sandstone: the paper’s texture stretched over the earth like a map. The politicization of maps is one of the story’s strongest themes, and my favorite theme of the book. In every empire, the drawing of lines is a known weapon of war. In every empire, cartography is the work of story and symbols to motivate and justify war.
As the camera focuses on the plane with the same care given the paper, the audience sees Almásy flying an airplane we later learn belongs to his English friend, Madox. Katherine Clifton sits in the seat in front of Almásy, and she is no longer alive. She is, in fact, a corpse, but in truth, she is a reanimated corpse, her body held alive by Almásy’s terrible and infinite, passionate love.
In the novel, the reader learns just how reanimated Katherine Clifton is in those fleeting moments of the plane flying over the desert. Those particular missing scenes from the novel are yet another place where the movie diverges sharply from the book.
The novel is dense and oblique, asking questions of demons and shadow and the spirit at the heart of all human life. Ondaatje’s poetry is like trying to read Sanskrit, sometimes, and I don’t think I’m really up to the challenge, as much as I try. Any prose that complex and lyrical can extend into places a Hollywood movie cannot.
But the film engages with other meanings, and it is the juxtaposition of recorded image and sound that works in a way a novel cannot. The movie is beautiful on its own terms. It speaks to the viewer in a language beyond words, and there is an infinite power in that language as well.
The fate of Almásy’s friend, Madox, is another place where the novel and film differ. In the movie, Madox shoots himself after learning Almásy was a spy, after Almásy gives away British maps to the Nazis in an act of betrayal.
The book does not blame Madox’s suicide on Almásy’s behavior. After the men say goodbye to each other, and Madox returns home to England to wait out World War II, the novel explains that Madox went to church one Sunday, listened to a lofty sermon in praise of war, and immediately shot himself. The novel never deviates from the tenet that war is a senseless human hell, and Madox’s suicide by shooting himself in the mouth while attending a sermon is an act of protest, a violent way to disagree with the belief that the purpose of Christianity is to justify war.
I love Madox — in the movie and in the book. He is such a great character. Plus, he loves Tolstoy. I have infinite respect for any Englishman who loves Tolstoy.
None of these are points I can make in an argument with an intoxicated, angry woman in a bar. She wasn’t trying to have a discussion, but to convince me I was brainless and wrong. I can cop to the fact that I am often brainless and wrong.
But I wanted to make these points, anyway.
And now I have.