In The Mix

Primal Prose

Turning 900 pages of fiction into transfixing television was the challenge for David Nicholls, who adapted the works of Edward St. Aubyn for Showtime’s Patrick Melrose.

Benji Wilson
  • Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick Melrose

    Ollie Upton/Showtime
  • Cumberbatch and author Edward St. Aubyn

    Showtime
  • Director Edward Berger and writer David Nicholls

    Showtime

It started, like so many things these days, with a tweet.

A few years ago, Benedict Cumberbatch tweeted that if he could play just one literary character it would be Patrick Melrose, the damaged upper-class hero of Edward St. Aubyn's five semi-autobiographical novels published between 1992 and 2012. You can see the appeal: traumatized by a sexually abusive father, later addicted to heroin and alcohol and finally redeemed by recovery, marriage and fatherhood, Patrick Melrose is a gift for an actor.

With Cumberbatch's soaring status and the novels' panoramic scope — set in the south of France in the '60s, New York in the '80s and Britain in the early oughts — it was only a matter of time before TV studios looking for the next premium limited series came knocking. Showtime and the U.K.'s Sky Atlantic jumped on board, signing up Hugo Weaving as Patrick's sadistic father and Jennifer Jason Leigh as his enabling mother.

But there was a problem. As Cumberbatch acknowledges, St. Aubyn's fiction is distinctly literary; he is a "writer's writer."

"He is one of the most, if not the most, extraordinary modern prose stylists working in the English language," Cumberbatch said at the Television Critics Association press tour earlier this year. Renowned for their vicious wit and gorgeous phrasing, the novels dwell largely inside Patrick's mind. You could reduce the action across 900 pages of fiction to a mere fraction as many. You might even deem the works "unfilmable."

The task of making them filmable fell to British writer David Nicholls. An award-winning author of best-selling novels, he's no stranger to screenplays, having adapted two of his own books (Starter for 10 and One Day) into movies and done the same for three classics (a TV miniseries of Tess of the D'Urbervilles and films based on Great Expectations and Far From the Madding Crowd).

Speaking at his London office, Nicholls says of St. Aubyn's work, "The novels are very celebrated as books but they're not obvious adaptations. There's a lot of great stuff in the books about self and forgiveness, self-awareness, self-consciousness and psychology… and none of that is particularly dramatic. So you have to accept that you're going to lose a lot of things which are really wonderful."

Many of those things arise from Patrick's thoughts, which can loom large on the written page.

"A book can happily be about what people think and feel, but a drama series is about what people say and do," Nicholls says. "Patrick's is a world where people very rarely say what they feel, so it's hard to get people to express what's really going on."

His approach was to get two copies of each of the books, break their spines, tear out the pages and put them into folders. He then annotated them page by page, making no distinction between dialogue and internal thoughts. In the finished scripts, thoughts often become conversations, and Cumberbatch gets to say at least some of what his character is feeling.

It helped that Nicholls knew he was writing for Cumberbatch. "Patrick Melrose is a strange mix of soulful introspection, self-loathing and self- analysis, and at other times [he has] a kind of showman's chutzpah and energy. That's a quality of Benedict's acting: to be soulful, but also frenetic and manic and intense. Early on in the writing, I could picture him doing it, and I saw that he'd be brilliant."

t's well known that St. Aubyn grew up with a domineering, abusive father in the south of France before leaving for Oxford, where he became a heroin addict. He was in therapy by age 25. Nicholls says he met St. Aubyn several times in the writing process, but never asked where Patrick ended and Edward began.

"My feeling was that it was best to never, ever say, 'What really happened?' or, 'What was this really like?' because he's already made that journey. He's already selected the material and brought in autobiographical elements and non-autobiographical elements. There's no point even opening that cupboard door."

For his part, St. Aubyn has been closely involved with the adaptation and is delighted by the outcome. "I was rather bowled over by the films and a little overwhelmed," he says, speaking from his home in West London. "And I'm the person, I suppose, who is in some ways least likely to like them — you know, to be most aware of some distorted relationship either to my life or to my books. But I didn't feel that at all. On the contrary, I felt that it had taken on a new life, which was very thrilling."

He met several times with Nicholls but more often with Cumberbatch. "We had a string of dinners where we talked about the psychology of the role, and about the voices in the central chapter of Bad News. "

The voices appear in a fabled section of that second novel, wherein Patrick wanders around New York in a drug-fueled daze; plagued by internal voices, he battles with himself and the memory of his father.

St. Aubyn says he and Cumberbatch discussed what it was like to descend to such depths. "We tended to speak in terms of Patrick, but sometimes I would slip into a story that wasn't told in any of the books that gave some background to the point he was interested in — and sometimes I would say what I'd invented or compressed. The point was to try and get Patrick."

St. Aubyn stresses that writing the books was itself a sublimation or release, and that seeing Patrick Melrose on screen has not taken him back to the bad old days.

"Listen, this is a completely new thing," he says. "It really isn't essentially to do with me. My relationship with the whole subject matter of the books was already settled and growing more distant. The fact that someone reads them or tells me they've read them, you know, doesn't drag me back toward my lived experience."

If anything, he says, seeing the books become films has given him a further release. "Now, not only has the lived experience been turned into books, but the books are being turned into films. It's like watching a galaxy recede in the back window in Star Trek.

"I don't feel as if, just when I was free, this tentacle has wrapped itself 'round my ankles and dragged me back into the Melrose swamp. It's great for me — and also, I'm so happy that Benedict is now Patrick Melrose."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018