Delirious in a different kind of way

An interview with Michael Ondaatje


Gary Kamiya
November 18, 1996 10:58PM (UTC)

those who marvel at the luxurious energy of Michael Ondaatje's imagination, the muscular exuberance of his storytelling, the gem-like intelligence of his language, may not be surprised to learn that his own family history has been as fantastic as his prose. As he relates in his marvelous memoir, "Running in the Family," Ondaatje grew up in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the child of a strong-willed mother and a brilliant, maniacally eccentric father who was given, when in his superhuman cups, to pulling revolvers on trains and forcing them to run back and forth at his pleasure. As Ondaatje explores his Dutch-Ceylonese genealogy, he paints a sad, hilarious, unforgettable picture of lives lived to a surreal tropical hilt: an entire society consumed by compulsive gambling, whether on the race-track or on which crow would leave a wall first; endless affairs; bitter, witty feuds carried out in the "comments" section of hotel registers.

Ondaatje left Ceylon for England, and later moved to Canada, where he lives in Toronto and teaches at York University. Besides "Running in the Family," he is the author of three collections of poems "The Cinnamon Peeler," "Secular Love" and "There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do" and four novels: "In the Skin of a Lion," "Coming Through Slaughter," "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" and "The English Patient," which won the 1992 Booker Prize.

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Salon spoke to Ondaatje in San Francisco, where he was on tour promoting the film.


Let me ask you about the genesis of "The English Patient." I was curious how it came into being. Because it does have a narrative skeleton, but over that is a fantastically imaginative, rich overlay of words and images. What came to you first an image? Or was the entire plot present in your mind from the beginning?

No, the plot wasn't there until I finished the book, probably. I don't really begin a novel, or any kind of book, with any sure sense of what's happening or even what's going to happen. Almasy [the badly-burned "English patient" whose tragic love affair with Katherine Clifton forms the heart of the book] wasn't in the story in my head. Kip [the Indian sapper, or bomb-disposal expert, whose love affair with the English patient's nurse, Hana, offers a counterpoint to Almasy's story] wasn't in the story. Caravaggio [a shadowy thief with bandaged hands] wasn't in the story. It began with this plane crash and it went on from there. Now, why did this plane crash? What did that have to do with this guy in the plane? Who was the guy? When was it happening? Where was it happening? All those things had to be uncovered or unearthed, as opposed to being sure in my head.

Then there was a nurse and there was a patient, there was a man who was stealing back a photograph of himself. It was those three images. I did not know who they were, or how they were connected. So I sat down, I started to write and try to discover what the story was. And build from those three germs, really. I tend not to know what the plot is or the story is or even the theme. Those things come later, for me.

The film has a more straightforward plot explication. I wonder if films have to do this with narratives, whether they have to emphasize the strongest narrative thread. Especially in the case of a polyphonic story like yours, with multiple central characters. In the film they reduced the role of Kip substantially; a lot of his character's depth was removed. You were deeply involved in the creation of this film did you go in wanting to stay close to your original vision, keep all of the voices in, and then realize it wouldn't work? Or did Anthony Minghella just say, from the beginning, "It won't work in film this way, and you have to go with my directorial instincts"?

I trust his directorial instincts. And I don't know film. I do know that film is much more visceral, in terms of its effect on the reader. It's much more immediate, and because of that it seems to be limited in a specific place. If a stranger dies in a movie, it doesn't really affect us as much as someone we've followed for an hour and a half. Whereas in a book, you can invent a stranger on the last five pages of a novel, and give that enough empathy for the reader to be devastated.

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I think that is one of the differences between film and books that is very interesting. In a book, you can suddenly leap to another world and bring that world into the room. So the choices made here aren't so much about the politics of the movie-makers, they're about the technical limits of film a medium that can also give us something quite devastating by saying less. Anthony, obviously, was very aware of this and he took some of the stuff that he couldn't put in and worked it into the fabric of the other characters. A lot of Almasy's stuff is drawn from other parts of the book.

Could you imagine this film with the material about Kip in it? Would that have made it too long?

Well, Anthony actually wrote all that stuff. All those things were in several drafts. The stuff he wrote about Kip's life in England was beautiful.

Yes, those were some of my favorite parts of the book.

When I heard they were going to make the movie, I thought, well, I know what's going to work is the stuff in England. Because it's like the old-fashioned movies, "Cockleshell Heroes," that we saw when we were kids. And the stuff Anthony wrote was terrific. Kip's training [as a bomb disposal expert] it was all there. Then when we looked it at later, we realized that we had written this little half-hour movie in England in the middle of this one, which the movie would never recover from. Not because it was bad or even weak; in fact it was quite wonderful. But you can't have a diversion for 20 minutes while Kip trains in England. You have so many flashbacks already to have another one in England would have been too much. I think Anthony wanted to make Kip important. He did as much as he could. I don't think he could've got all that stuff in there.

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One of the themes of the book is redemption, transformation particularly with the character of Hana. In the film, she's a simpler and less damaged character, and her redemption is easier.

The healing in the book takes much longer there's a sense of history, which a book can catch, but a film almost can't.

I think your book is a little darker than the film, in that regard. The film ends with Hana riding in a truck and this lovely blurred green flashing, after that unforgettable shot of the plane over the desert. It's magnificent filmmaking. Whereas you end with Kip, in India, later you're sort of off on another planet. That's maybe a more equivocal tone than in the film.

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I didn't know how they were going to end it, because I didn't know how to end the book. I end up with someone dropping a fork in Canada and somebody catching a fork in India. But I thought the stroke of genius in the film was that little girl in the back of the truck, this kid watching. Everything that Hana has been is passed to that little kid, and when she's 20 years old, she's going to remember that ride in the truck and that woman who got on the truck with her. I thought that was such a wonder, it was so brief, but that was the open door to the continuation of some kind of future. How do you do that in a book? God knows. You can't get to that doorway. That's an example of how film can do some stuff that books can't.

When you saw this finished film, did it teach you anything about your own book? By seeing this kind of simulacrum of what you've done, did it give you an objective perspective, so that you'd say, "Oh, this is something that I really like or don't like"?

Yes. It is very much like having someone who's a specialist in feet suddenly say, "Do you realize that everyone is walking backwards in your story?" And you suddenly recognize certain constant habits of yours, or something you touched on briefly that now gets emphasized in the film, is in fact quite a wondrous little moment, that you didn't really explore, but Anthony did.

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Anything in particular? Any moment that stands out?

In the book the relationship with Katharine and Almasy is sort of only in the patient's mind. There is a chapter called "Katharine" that deals with that love affair, with the first part of it anyway. What Anthony improved, I think, was a scene where he says "I hate ownership." In the book she hits him, just whacks him one and that is the end of the scene. I think the way they did it in the film was better she just separated herself without touching him. Then they have a little scene with Hana and the patient, then they go back. This is where film is more subtle. You think "This is over now," and then there's an obsessive drawing back to each other.

The scene in the film when Kip pulls Hana up to look at the frescoes in the church was really majestic. The audience at the screening actually applauded. It's obviously an important scene in the book, but in the film, it seems to acquire a kind of centrality it's an epiphany of joy and hopefulness. And it seemed like a very clever idea to change it from the book, because in the book Kip lifts up is it a sergeant?

It's a classicist, actually. Get Alec Guinness up there! [laughs] When they were going to shoot this scene, and I knew it was going to be the Hana character, I yelled out,"Stop, stop, get an old historical classicist!" [laughs] But that scene is an example of how film can get delirious. To get delirious in a book, you have to do it in a different kind of way.

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In the book, Hana is extremely detached and wounded. Whereas Juliette Binoche is just so eternally and wonderfully radiant. I don't think she can turn it off.

Now, you're talking about an actress who was in "Blue," who portrayed several shades of depression.

But even there, I thought she had an innocence. She was not burned out. And in this film she seemed less damaged. Was that a conscious decision?

I think that Anthony thought, basically you've got a guy in a bed who is burned, and to have as another main character a woman who is utterly shell-shocked perhaps you could have a bit more fighting back.

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All of the directorial changes seemed to have an extraordinary subtlety.

Yes. Almost all of them seemed to be there for an intelligent purpose, as opposed to "Hey, let's have more sex!" or something like that.

In the scene where Almasy carries Katharine out of the cave, he is actually screaming with grief. That really stuck in my mind. It was a terribly powerful note, but a dangerous one, in a way. It's something, again, that the discreet veil of fiction can cover. You don't know what his facial expression is. You didn't write it. In a film, that can go into melodrama. What did you think about that?

I think it's a dodgy thing. Who knows? But what I like about it is that Anthony wasn't afraid of that emotion. You can look at every movie made in the West, and love or passion is ironic, or embarrassed. It works, because the guy has been so contained all the way through. He's not a lovable hero. He's a difficult man. That's the payoff; when he does that, you believe it.

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Watching this film, did you sometimes just feel like a kid in a candy store? Like "I can't believe that I imagined this, and then somebody went and showed it to me." It must be a tremendous feeling.

Yes. And to have five hundred guys building a road in a desert! All these people!

Oh yes, the "Saul Zaentz Imperial Highway." [The name -- after the film's producer -- bestowed upon a road the crew widened on location in Tunisia.]

Everybody who was there wanted to have a road named after themselves. Anthony wanted the Minghella Road, I wanted the Ondaatje Road. (laughs) The road that leads nowhere.

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This is an element that has nothing to do with the film, it's only in the book. I had some questions about Kip's radical change after the A-Bomb was dropped, when he becomes enraged and breaks with everyone. It made sense intellectually, but it seemed a little deus ex machina-like to me.

Okay. That's interesting. If ever there was a deus ex machina of our generation it was The Bomb. So how do you evoke that in a book? I thought about this a lot, actually. I thought about it a lot since I wrote it, because a lot of people have real problems with that scene. Some people think it's the essential scene, some people can say it's not. I was trying to convey that a public act like this does fuck up people utterly. It is what happens to Almasy as well. So, in a way, it's a kind of parallel story about fate.

When I realized that that was where something was going to happen, when I went back and rewrote the book, I tried to somehow prepare the reader for it, with the arguments with his brother, the stuff in Naples, in a city that's been blown up, references to words like "nuclear," buried bombs, all those things, because I couldn't say, "We know this is going to come in August." It was a very odd thing. It was like preparing for Othello without anyone talking about him before he comes onstage. Usually you have 18 people talking about what a wonderful guy he was, and so it was a real problem how to do it. And I am not sure I did it right. I just think it is a thing where it suddenly happens like that [snaps fingers] and it is a complete deus ex machina. I don't know. Maybe I didn't prepare it enough, but when I wrote it, I couldn't prepare it any more than I did. Because, you couldn't tip your hand on that. I don't know how it can work, I don't know how to make it work better.

What other films made from books have you liked?

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Hmm. Well, "The Leopard" [from the di Lampedusa novel]. I can tell you a book I love that was made into a terrible film. That was "Endless Love" by Scott Spencer. Everyone knows the movie because of this notoriously bad film that was made by Zefferelli. If you ever see it, pick it up. It's a great book.

Did you ever see the movie of "Death In Venice"?

I did. I don't think I got fully into it. Actually, there's a funny story. I was in Sri Lanka recently and somebody told me "Death in Venice" had played there. Very quickly it came and left, and everyone was so surprised. It turned out the distributors thought it was a western! (Laughs)


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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