And so it’s happening. The filming for the 2018 Sky Atlantic mini series „Melrose“, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character, is well under way. Apparently Cumberbatch had been telling the truth, when he answered the question of which character he really would love to play with „Patrick Melrose?“. His obvious passion for Patrick and the novels right there and then made me curious and I’ve read the whole series of autobiographical novels written by Edward St. Aubyn – Nevermind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and At Last – a while back already.
The books’ timeline spans over decades – Patrick Melrose being only 5 years old at the outset and over 40 at the end, with each novel actually describing the events taking place in usually just one day or even only a couple of hours, focussing on the actual event taking place at the time. And yet we see the family’s history unfold in the various flashbacks telling about events of the past that have so obviously impacted the here and now, leading to what Patrick Melrose is going through – from being abused by his father as a child over becoming a drug addict to finally recovering and seeing his way through the net of lies and intrigues of the past, finally to emerge as a different person, not unscathed, but still alive.
In my opinion, the overarching theme of the books is that of dysfunctional relationships – marriages, families, childhoods – dysfunctional lives in general, shining a spotlight on the British upper class in decline, but being in denial about it, self-loathing – it wasn’t long into the first novel until I spontaneously thought „like father like son“.
The books are written in past tense. There’s an omniscient narrator, flitting in and out of the minds of the characters, so that we as readers know more than the respective characters do. The omnisicient perspective allows the reader to gain a much more precise and complete comprehension of the events described, being aware of the entanglements of present and past.
So with all the background knowledge, we find that we do understand Patrick better than he does himself at times as we are able – very much unlike him – to actually see through that enormous construct of lies, hatred, and abuse.
Edward St. Aubyn has a gift for writing, using powerful figurative language, underlined with subtext. It’s a joy to read his beautiful prose, the words starting to visualize into a vivid scenery in one’s mind, even though the story is so harrowing for major parts of the books. And yet, one watches the storyline unfold and can’t help but be torn between giggle fits and being appalled at the sheer horror of what he is going though. At times I felt both, guilty for grinning at the sharp wit of the grown-up and sober Patrick and at the same time feeling endlessly furious about what had lead his ancestors up to his father to be as decadent and evil as they were.
What also struck me is the stark contrast between the beautiful settings – the more posh upper class surroundings of the southern France (Provence), New York City, London – and the inner state of the characters, which mostly is as rotten as the figs lying around on the terrace of the French domicil.
I think I can imagine what attracted Benedict Cumberbatch to the novels and why for him as an actor this must be a very appealing character to play. Helpless, yet strong, stubborn in his own way, recovered from his addictions, yet struggling still to be a better person and a better father, when in the course of the storyline more things become unearthed and more things happen.
It will be interesting to see how director Edward Berger and Benedict Cumberbatch will approach this project. Screenwriter David Nicholls will definitely have had to make some different choices in order to make the story adequately cinematic and yet to still capture and keep the spirit of the books. There will no doubt be omissions and probably not few alterations in order to adapt the written words to something palpable when watching it in the frame of a 5 hour mini series. The locations seem to go without saying (and we actually know it is being filmed in France, NYC and the UK/London, so in the original settings), and as each novel focusses on only one event, it’s somewhat obvious to use the respective events as the main stage for each of the 5 parts – but who knows, this is just my 2 cents worth. I’m absolutely willing to be surprised (yet again) and I absolutely trust Benedict and the team around him to do just that.
In a recent interview for Financial Times, St. Aubyn said having one’s book adapted for screen is like „… you’ve handed in a fish and you’ve been given back a fishbone. So initially it’s slightly alarming. But when I went down to the set, I saw why David had done something brilliant.“ E. St. Aubyn in FT
My conclusion: Edward St. Aubyn’s „Melrose Series“ is an intense, at times troubling, but enjoyable read and certainly an ambitious project to bring to screen. If you haven’t read the books, please do – you’ve got a year until Melrose airs on Sky Atlantic!