Artillery Row

Long-form television it is, then

The home of mid-budgeted literate films aimed at adults is no longer at the cinema

A quarter of a century ago, the late, great Anthony Minghella adapted Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient. It now increasingly looks like the kind of film that is seldom made any longer. It comes across as a mixture of Lawrence of Arabia and Rashomon, and combines exciting scenes of bomb disposal and wartime action with more intricate musings on the nature of truth, identity and patriotism, all wrapped up in a moving love story between Ralph Fiennes’ dashing yet ambiguous Count László de Almásy and Kristin Scott Thomas’ glorious Katherine Clifton. It was nominated for 12 Oscars, and won nine. Were it not for the fact that Minghella bettered it a few years later with his peerless adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, it would be remembered as a sublime achievement from a wonderful and much-missed filmmaker.

The debate has raged on for some time as to whether cinema or television is a “superior’ medium

We live in an era where great works are now being endlessly revived and elongated for profit, however, and so it was with a mixture of a sigh and a cry that I read the recent news that The English Patient is to be remade for television. Initially, the news sounded innocuous enough. The up-and-coming screenwriter Emily Ballou, who was involved in the bizarre Tom Hardy drama Taboo, has been commissioned to write a script that is billed as “a new interpretation” of Ondaatje’s novel, rather than a straightforward, lengthier remake of the Minghella film.

While many might wonder why a new adaptation needs to be made, given how elegantly and intelligently the film managed to fillet a difficult and even opaque novel, there should be room for fresh interpretations of the classics. Howard’s End was superbly filmed by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant in 1992, but another recent adaptation, scripted by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Matthew MacFadyen and Hayley Atwell, was no less psychologically acute and benefitted from four hours’ running time, rather than the two that the Merchant-Ivory film was crammed into. And there are many other examples of where a great work rewards reappraisal. Although I believe that Minghella’s version of The Talented Mr Ripley is unlikely to be bettered, I am intrigued by the writer-director Steven Zaillian’s new series, simply entitled Ripley, which will feature Andrew Scott as the eponymous suave psychopath. It would be a dull world indeed if great novels, plays and stories could only be adapted once and never again.

Yet there was also a rather depressing corollary to the story of the new English Patient adaptation. Buried in the news was the revelation that Miramax TV, the offshoot of the once-great film company driven into the ground by the wickedness of its founder Harvey Weinstein is now actively trying to turn its films – or “intellectual property” as they are now described – into long form television series. These will include everything from the recent Guy Ritchie film The Gentlemen to semi-forgotten Nineties pictures, such as the Guillermo del Toro horror Mimic and the Jane Horrocks musical drama Little Voice. And this is before we get onto the major Miramax films produced while Weinstein was in his pomp. It seems almost inevitable that at some point, we will see the likes of Shakespeare in Love – already adapted into an inferior stage play – Pulp Fiction and Good Will Hunting turned into eight or ten-hour behemoths, appearing on a streaming service near you.

The debate has raged on for some time as to whether cinema or television is a “superior’ medium, ever since the arrival of streaming services and the increasingly accepted idea of ‘box set binging’. Those who prefer TV talk loftily about the possibility of Shakespearean breadth and depth of character, the richness of being able to follow a storyline and characters over dozens of hours of programming, and the never-ending possibilities of the medium as an expansive art form. Few would disagree with the comment that Better Call Saul, a spin-off from Breaking Bad, has taken its iconic originator in fascinating and unexpected new directions, and has indeed expanded and deepened an already richly conceived universe. Plus it’s simply easier to watch an hour or two of television on Netflix or Amazon Prime than to schlep out to the multiplex or arthouse, with all the attendant costs and fuss that that involves.

As someone who has traditionally regarded the act of going to the cinema in much the same way that a religious man treats going to church, it has been a source of great sadness to me that it seems to be rapidly declining as an art form. Its practitioners have been complaining that, for some time, the only films released are either mega-budgeted superhero movies or micro-budgeted arthouse pictures aimed at small but selective audiences. Mid-budgeted literate films aimed at adults, such as The English Patient, are no longer being made. Instead, their natural home is television.

There is a vast amount of money being spent on television, but most of it is being spent in an uninspiring and unexciting fashion

Yet even here there is compromise and disappointment. The Netflix drama Bridgerton attracted vast viewing figures, as well as some controversy for its anachronistically diverse and woke presentation of the Georgian era. Yet the chances of, say, Evelyn Waugh or EM Forster’s novels being similarly adapted for Netflix or a rival seem remote. There is a vast amount of money being spent on television, but most of it is being spent in an uninspiring and unexciting fashion. And the BBC has hardly covered itself in glory lately, either, not least with its catastrophic decision to allow Emily Mortimer to ruin The Pursuit of Love  and thereby destroying any chance of a faithful, enjoyable adaptation of Love in a Cold Climate.

Night after night, I have found myself scrolling through the innumerable streaming services that I subscribe to, like a chump, in a desperate search to find something worthwhile to watch. During lockdown, I took solace in William Boyd’s peerless adaptation of his novel Any Human Heart, and even enjoyed the much-compromised four-part trot through Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. But very little of what I have found to watch has been made in the past few years.

So while I cannot help but wish Ballou and all who are involved with the new adaptation of The English Patient good luck – and hope that it will provide me with something to binge watch over a few nights – my greater fear is that, compared to its Oscar-winning progenitor, it will seem like the reckoning after the feast, cynically presented to capitalise on an intellectual property rights deal. And that would be a double tragedy, both for the industry and for people, like me, who simply want to watch something good on the telly. It looks like I’m going to be scrolling for a while yet, alas.

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