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Is Patrick Melrose Too Glamorous?

The miniseries starring Benedict Cumberbatch struggles to show the complexities of trauma and recovery on screen.

Ollie Upton/Showtime

It took me far too long to read Edward St. Aubyn’s five “Patrick Melrose” novels—perhaps because, around the time that At Last, the final installment of the pentalogy, appeared in 2012, a friend described St. Aubyn’s sentences to me as “cruelty crystals.” She offered up this verbal blurb as an endorsement—the prose is so sharp it can cause papercutsbut at the time, I wasn’t looking to clomp through stinging nettles for pleasure. So for a while, I knew only the hazy outlines of the story: that Patrick Melrose, the main character (loosely based on St. Aubyn himself) is an opiate addict living in 1980s London (and later, a reformed man grappling with the banality of sobriety), a child of horrific sexual abuse at the hands of his aristocratic father, and also a pretentious blue blood with a permanent snarl and a scathing bon mot never more than a sentence away.

I knew that Melrose’s caustic one-liners would make Noel Coward look like a lamb; that could guzzle gimlets as fast as he could train his eye on others with disdain. What I didn’t know, however, until I finally dove into the books, was that all of St. Aubyn’s withering remarks are soaked in pain. In the books, Melrose was, between the ages of five and eight, raped by his father, David, a patrician British doctor who is a skilled but frustrated classical pianist. His mother, Eleanor, is a wealthy, alcoholic American who more or less turned a blind eye to her son’s abuse as she, too, was a regular victim of her husband’s malevolence and decided to medicate herself into a dense stupor. Much of the violence against young Patrick took place in the family’s palatial estate on a French vineyard, and the novels are about the terroir of suffering, how it seeps into the skin and stays there.

It takes a deft hand to capture a heart so heavy, which is why St. Aubyn’s writing is sometimes accused, at least from the outside, of being a frothy, guilty pleasure—like an extra dollop of whipped cream on top of strong coffee. But from inside the books, the syntactic icing is so clearly a protective measure, a droll band-aid. St. Aubyn, now 58, was also abused by his father when he was a child, and has said several times that he wrote the Melrose novel cycle as a literary laundromat for his own story; he told The New Yorker that “This whole journey is toward the truth, or toward authenticity, agency, and freedom. How could it possibly help to plant a lie in the middle of it?” And yet St. Aubyn also acknowledged that “by telling the truth, I’ve distorted the message,” that he melted his own story into Patrick’s in order to throw up a smokescreen; he wrote the books in order to gaze directly at the worst thing that ever happened to him, but from a distance, through a glassine barrier.

In a new miniseries, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and airing on Showtime over five Saturday evenings, each of the Patrick Melrose novels—Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and At Last—has been boiled down into a single episode (the novelist and playwright David Nicholls did the adapting, Edward Berger directs), so that the installments feel both lush and overstuffed at once. It helps that each novel covers only a 24-hour-period in Patrick’s life, so that there is not an unmanageable amount of material to shove into every hour. Still, the pleasure of the Melrose novels is never in their plotting; very little tends to happen in them, until something truly horrible happens. This swerving tone—from blithe to pitiable, humorous to harrowing—works well in the books, when we are glued to Patrick’s side and treated to his acid tongue and exquisite descriptions. Hotel rooms, to Patrick, are never just hotel rooms. They are suites “with as much chinoiserie as a person could be expected to take.” When he shoots cocaine in a bathroom in Bad News (the druggiest of the books), he doesn’t get high enough and he feels that he has “missed that blissful fleeting sensation, that heartbreaking moment, as compressed as the autobiography of a drowning man, but as elusive and intimate as the smell of a flower.”

The miniseries does pull plenty of lines directly from the books, and in Cumberbatch’s mouth, you can still hear the snap of St. Aubyn’s sentences. You can hear the actor’s affinity for the language from the moment he saunters on screen to answer the phone in Bad News, a bloodstain on the sleeve of his expensive Oxford shirt. And yet, as with almost all adaptations of truly singular works of fiction, there is something lost in the screen translation. In the books, there is little that is romantic about Patrick’s self-immolation. It is clear from the start that the heroin and sex and thousand-dollar hotel suites are shorthand for compensating, for sublimating, for doing anything he can to pull himself out of trauma and into some semblance of an adult life. His quips feel exhausting, and he seems exhausted. You pity Patrick, you ache for him, you hurt for the boy he never got to be and the haunted man that he has become.

Of course, a man so undone by his past that he chooses to stumble through life as a banal and destructive hedonist doesn’t make for the most compelling television. Patrick’s sobriety—which comes, blessedly, after the second book—makes for even less dramatic intrigue (as Leslie Jamison wrote recently in The Recovering, “If addiction stories ran on the fuel of darkness—the hypnotic spiral of an ongoing, deepening crisis—then recovery often seemed like the narrative slack, the dull terrain of wellness, a tedious addendum to the riveting blaze.”) So, Nicholls and Berger decided to shuffle things around a bit. Instead of beginning the series with Never Mind—the first Melrose novel and the one that takes place on a hot day at the Melrose family French estate, where the abuse begins—they start with Bad News, the novel in which a twenty-something Patrick learns that his father has died and that he is responsible for going to New York to retrieve the body.

Bad News is the most madcap of all the books; for one thing, it is the novel with the most vice in it, as Patrick is in the midst of a full-blown heroin habit and is sleeping with several women. He spends most of the novel careening around 1980s New York in a posh suit looking for Quaaludes and getting impossibly high in various fancy rooms. It could almost seem alluring if you squint; all that excess, all those rare steaks from the Odeon. As a kick-off to the series, it is a logical choice—for one thing, you get Cumberbatch right away, and not his child actor avatar—but it is also a bit misleading. If you have not read the Melrose books, you might think that this is a show about a petulant prince who likes to party; the abuse is hinted at in the episode, as Cumberbatch suppresses tears next to his father’s coffin, but you don’t yet feel the wallop of it. If you read the novels in order, on the other hand, you’ve already spent hundreds of pages with Patrick as a child, seething as you want to reach into the pages and protect an innocent boy from a monster. When you reach Bad News, then, there is little thrill to be had in the swirling adventures. On screen, there is much more glamour—even as Cumberbatch turns green from withdrawal—than there ever is on the page. Here is a bonafide movie star, moving through a nostalgized New York on a coke binge. It begins the show with a bang, wheres the Melrose story really begins with silent horror.

When we do reach Never Mind, the second installment is terrifying. Outside the large, crumbling house in France, a fig tree keeps dropping ripe fruit onto the ground, where it turns black and rots. The guts of the figs end up all over the episode, smeared across the story like entrails. When Patrick is assaulted for the first time—Nicholls raised his age in the show from five to eight—he sees a tiny green lizard on the wall of his father’s bedroom, and imagines himself transported out of his body and into that of the creature. Between the decaying fruit and the slithering reptile, the episode is full of unsettling images—set against the bucolic background of the French countryside, the aesthetic echoes a momento mori painting.

The third episode, Some Hope, takes place decades later, at a lavish society party at a sprawling manor in the Cotswolds. No one seems to be having all that much fun—Patrick, now sober, the least of all. Being around careless wealthy people, the types who harbored and lauded his father, surfaces old wounds, and he finds himself confessing his abuse to his best friend Johnny on a Georgian balcony as fireworks go off. In the series, this moment is played as a release; the liberating rush of uncorking a lifetime of suppressed agony. But in the novel, St. Aubyn bookends the moment with the bittersweet revelation of “the thing he had not been able to say to Johnny: that his father had wanted, through the brief interludes of his depression, to love him, and that he had wanted to be able to love his father, although he never would.”

Even as Patrick starts down the road to healing, he is all mixed up, still attached to his demons, hesitant to let them go. Cumberbatch does his best to play the moment for grief, but onscreen it looks more like glory. What the Melrose novels do—like what all the best fiction does—is slowly shuck away the hard exterior around its main character, exposing a bloody center oozing with empathy. The series simply doesn’t have time for this; it only has five hours to roots around inside Patrick’s body and pull out his viscera so we can see it. This may make for good TV, but it only made me crave the immersive experience of reading the books—of taking that long, slow walk with Patrick out of hell, with a few zingers along the way.