The horribly early death of Anthony Minghella has reminded us all how good he was, and how unusual, in the scale of his ambition and the emotional power of his films, in modern British cinema. None of his movies is perfect, but all of them leave an impact, and all have something to teach the rest of us. Minghella always described himself as a writer who was lucky enough to direct. Although he built his career on his original work, most notably Truly Madly Deeply, his three most famous films — The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley and Cold Mountain — are adaptations. I’m currently working on two adaptations: The Story of my Disappearance and Lady Audley’s Secret. So what can the rest of us learn from the Minghella method?
In Faber’s Minghella on Minghella, he is very clear about his approach: he would read the novel several times, then put it away and never look at it while writing his screenplay. The screenwriter’s responsibility, he argues, is to the film, not to the novel: “I don’t think the filmmaker has any responsibility whatsoever to the novel”. On the other hand, he also says that the adapting screenwriter should be “the perfect reader” of the book, “the enthusiastic messenger … remembering the best bits, exaggerating the beauty, relishing the mystery … probing the moral imperative of what he or she has read”.
This is where things get confusing. The Talented Mr Ripley is an outstanding movie. It’s exquisitely acted, beautifully shot, and is one of the finest screenplays of the past decade. But it does, by any standards, entirely contradict the moral imperative of the novel. Patricia Highsmith‘s Ripley is cheerfully amoral, literally a psychopath in that he has no sense of other people’s feelings. Tom is pure super-ego, behaving according to human nature, not human civilisation; he murders not because of his tormented soul, but because someone has interfered with his dinner plans. And that’s why we love him — and secretly envy him. Minghella, on the other hand, gives Tom what Sidney Lumet calls a rubber ducky: “Somebody once took his rubber ducky away and that’s why he’s a deranged killer”. Poor Tom, in the movie, just wants to be loved. To which Highsmith would undoubtedly say, well, boo hoo. The moral imperative in Highsmith is we are who we are: deal with it, whereas Minghella’s is everyone deserves to be loved.
Minghella was a romantic, and an optimist: he once wrote that he wanted to make films that “insist on a dog fails to eat dog world”. His last work, a hugely enjoyable adaptation of The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, is a perfect example of that spirit. What’s harder to explain is what drew him to either Ripley or The English Patient, both of which are far less morally forgiving, or optimistic for humanity. It’s as if he didn’t so much wish to adapt these novels as to fit them to his own purposes. But does this invalidate them as movies? I don’t think so. After all, the film doesn’t change the novel; the book on the shelf is exactly what it always was. What Minghella teaches is not fidelity to the novel, but fidelity to ourselves: the job is not to rewrite someone else’s novel, but to create a film that’s all our own.