Finding Yourself in a Lost World
The English Patient
by Michael Ondaatje
The novel, published in 1993, received the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction and The Governor General's Award for Fiction in English. The 1996 film version, directed by Anthony Minghella, won seven Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress ( Juliette Binoche as Hana), Cinematography, Sound, Costume, and Film Editing. These awards indicate that both versions are recognized as outstanding. However, anyone who has both read the novel and viewed the film will recognize that although there are many similarities, the versions are more different than alike. The novel presents a strong theme about a young couple's search for individual identity, while the film seems more concerned with entertainment.
This novel is similar in form to Ernest Hemingway The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway's novel, about five members of the "lost generation," expresses the existential nihilism prevalent among survivors of World War 1. A much more optimistic view emerges from The English Patient. Ondaatje also brings together five seemingly lost souls; all but one has survived the war, and by a series of strange circumstances are placed in a unique setting. On this point, the novel and film agree. The time is 1945 and the place is a bombed out-convent, which, after having been abandoned during a land battle, is being used as a field hospital. As the Allied invasion of Italy is moving on northward and a field hospital must follow closely behind the battle lines, the convent is again practically abandoned. Remaining at the convent as refuse from the war is a Canadian nurse, Hana, who chooses to remain with a critically burned patient, known at the beginning only as