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Against all odds, 'English Patient' hits the big screen


November 14, 1996
Web posted at: 5:30 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Cynthia Tornquist

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Recreating the hardships of the Sahara was just one of the many hurdles filmmakers faced bringing "The English Patient" to the big screen. movie icon (1.1MB/25 sec. QuickTime movie)

"It was difficult, but (at least) we weren't in the middle of the summer, (then) it would have been unbearably hot," said Ralph Fiennes of "Schindler's List" fame.


However, the greatest challenge occurred long before the cameras began to roll as writer-director Anthony Minghella struggled to transform Michael Ondaatje's epic novel into a screenplay.

"Well, my first distillation was twice the length of the novel, I have to say. It was no distillation at all," Minghella said, who also directed "Truly, Madly, Deeply."

And then there was the problem of money.

"This is not a film that's easy to sell because it's full of no-nos," Minghella said. "It's a period film. It's a film about history. It's a film that has all kinds of times and locations. It's a film about a man burnt beyond recognition."

The film tells the story of four people who find themselves in a ruined monastery in Italy at the end of World War II. Each character is a victim of the war, including the mysterious English patient, around whose life two love stories are intimately played out.

It's only as the tales of the past and present unfold that we learn the true identity of the burned man -- played by Fiennes -- and all about the woman for whom he risked it all.

"I think it's a very glamorous role in a perverse way. I think to go from being in a classic love story, it has a tragic romance about it," Fiennes said.

Though the filmmakers took dramatic license, the film captures the heart of the book.

"I think in spirit it addresses the same themes. It's all relative," said Willem Dafoe ("Tom & Viv"), who plays Fiennes' old family friend.

Anyone who cried reading the book will do the same watching the film.

"I know that when I left the theater having made the film and I was seeing the film, I was absolutely devastated," said Kristin Scott Thomas ("Four Weddings and a Funeral").

The story reminds us of how potent passion can be. It was also passion that drove the filmmakers to bring "The English Patient" to life in its current film incarnation despite difficult odds.


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