A burned mapmaker. A Civil War soldier trying to find his way home. A female detective in Botswana. And a monstrous man named Ripley.
These are all leading men in films by Anthony Minghella. Like producer Saul Zaentz, Anthony Minghella was a king of literary adaptations. After writing and directing The English Patient in 1997, Minghella went on to adapt The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Cold Mountain (2003), and the TV Series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (2008).
When Zaentz tapped Minghella to adapt Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel, Minghella had a daunting task: to translate Ondaatje's lyrical prose into a (relatively) straightforward cinematic narrative. Minghella focused on the book's strong imagery… which accounts for the stupendously beautiful shots found in The English Patient.
Trivia time: Minghella actually broke his ankle shortly before the film began shooting, and spent most of its production on crutches. But hey, that's still better than being burned alive and lying helpless in bed like the film's title character. Minghella's blood, sweat, and tears paid off, and he won a Best Director Academy Award for The English Patient. Minghella died in 2008. (Source)
If you wrote a book and wanted to see the best possible film version of your story on the big screen, Saul Zaentz (1921—2014) was your guy. He produced the film adaptations of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), from Ken Kesey's novel; Amadeus (1984) from the play by Peter Shaffer; The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) from Milan Kundera's novel; and The English Patient (1996) from the novel by Michael Ondaatje. (Source)
Zaentz purchased the rights to The English Patient in 1992, even though the book was so complicated that some considered it un-filmable. Zaentz resisted the big studio's push to cast Demi Moore in the role of Katharine Clifton. (At least they didn't want Ashton Kutcher for Caravaggio, or Bruce Willis for Almásy.) (Source)
And, a few years later, The English Patient proved a huge success thanks to the instincts of Zaentz and the film's director and screenwriter, Anthony Minghella. That year, Zaentz was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, an award for "creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production."
Zaentz may have won the gold trophy, but he didn't feel he was getting paid for it. Zaentz sued Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein (the head of the film's distributor, Miramax), alleging he wasn't paid his fair percentage of the profits. Zaentz died in 2014 before he case came to trial. That's nowhere near as tragic as Katharine's fate in the film… but it's still sad. (Source)
The English Patient might be one of the most sensual films ever made. Love isn't something you just feel in your heart. You see it, smell it, taste it, hear it, and touch it. All of the senses combine in this movie.
The lush cinematography sweeps over the desert, letting us see the shifting dunes and the Cave of Swimmers, which resides in "a mountain the shape of a woman's back." Katharine's thimble is filled with saffron, a fragrant spice. The film is filled with many close-ups of hands, hands touching rocks, hands touching skin, hands without thumbs. (Sorry, Caravaggio.)
Even morphine addiction is given a sentimental touch as Almásy says he has "come to love the little tap of the fingernail against the syringe. Tap. Tap. Tap." Sounds often bring back memories for Almásy, including the sound of Hana playing hopscotch outside.
Finally, the film even lets us experience taste, like when Hana feeds Almásy a plum. "It's a… It's a very plum plum," he says, because tastes can be so hard to describe. Feelings and senses are, in general, hard to describe… which is why the movie shows them to us instead of trying to put them into words.
Gabriel Yared frequently collaborated with director Anthony Minghella, scoring not only The English Patient, but also The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Cold Mountain (2003), among others. His score is appropriately epic, setting the tone for sweeping scenes of desert landscapes and passionate affairs between hotel-room sheets. He also incorporates traditional music, giving the film it's exotic flavor, like a modern-day Casablanca. One such song is a traditional Hungarian song with haunting vocals.
Yared's score earned him an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy. Talk about success.
Elaine Benes ruined The English Patient. "That movie stunk!" she said after seeing it the first time. "Quit telling your stupid story about the stupid desert and just die already! Die!
"I hate it! Go to hell!" she said the second time.
But this all hinges on the fact that The English Patient was super, super popular at the time. It was a box office smash that swept the Oscars. People were—as you can see in the Seinfeld episode—watching it multiple times in the theater while clutching fistfuls of damp tissues. It was like a more-adult version of Titanic.
But in the years since, the film is all but forgotten. There are no 10th Anniversary DVDs of The English Patient. No reunion photo shoots in Entertainment Weekly magazine. Needless to say, you won't see The English Patient diet—condensed milk, couscous, and lots of sunlight—anywhere any time soon.