David Nicholls on Adapting the ‘Ultimate Subjective Experience’ of ‘Patrick Melrose’

For the Showtime limited series “Patrick Melrose,” David Nicholls adapted five of Edward St. Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical novels dealing with death, addiction, marriage and parenthood. “The books were fascinating because they were never envisioned as a kind of saga. They were written one by one, and after each book, he thought that was the end of the story,” Nicholls says of St. Aubyn. Nicholls felt it was important to stick to the structure of the books, each of which presented as “a snapshot from the character’s life” for the series, rather than to fill in the gaps of time between events to create a more “conventional” family drama.

Drawing in a Larger Audience

Whenever adapting a popular work, a portion of the audience comes with pre-existing expectations. “If you leave one [plot point] out, there’s a sense of being unfaithful to this sacred text,” Nicholls says.

What greatly appealed to him about the “Patrick Melrose” novels was that although he considers them “modern classics,” they are not hugely well known.

“I feel a duty, because I love the books, to be pretty faithful, and yet I also love that for a huge part of the audience, this will be a discovery,” he says.

The first step in getting into this particular set of stories was to learn the books well enough that Nicholls knew them “back to front” — and then to “take a step back to see what stayed in [his] head as important and what [he] loved.”

“I was very influenced by the way Francis Ford Coppola broke down ‘The Godfather,’ so I broke each of these books down similarly and looked through them for the moments that I felt were most important and would work the best dramatically,” Nicholls says.

Unreliable Narrator

Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the titular character as an adult, was attached to the project early on, and Nicholls says it was important to him to write the premiere with his performance in mind.

“This is the one where the voices and the sound and the visuals and the pace of the editing have to absolutely reflect a single person’s point of view,” he points out.

The episode adapted from the “Bad News” book, specifically, was told through Patrick’s eyes, and since he is the type of character who “absolutely doesn’t say what he feels,” notes Nicholls, voiceover became a key part of the scene, despite his normal “wariness” of the device.

“I know that there are incredible dangers with it and it’s a very blunt instrument and often doesn’t work, but if any book could justify its use, then it’s this because he’s in this extraordinary schizophrenic, manic frame of mind and the person that he communicates with most is himself,” he says.

The first time the audience hears Patrick’s inner voice is when the addict rides in a taxi after learning his father has died. The juxtaposition of the shiny Manhattan skyline outside of the window was written specifically to play off of “the twitchiness of Patrick’s hand” and his wild eyes as he is “desperately trying but failing” to be sober.

“It’s the ultimate subjective experience,” Nicholls says.

Nicholls wanted to be sure to keep the story’s late May timeframe intact in his onscreen version, too.

“Each of the books have a very strong seasonal feel,” the “Patrick Melrose” adapter says. “In ‘Bad News’ it’s a beautiful summer in New York, but [Patrick] never takes his coat off. He’s always sweating, he’s always shaking — he talks about his coat as his shell. So that was to note that this man, everywhere he goes, should be wearing more clothes and be a little bit more uncomfortable than everyone.”

More TV

  • Adam Lambert, of Queen, performs at

    Adam Lambert Back to 'Idol' to Mentor Finalists Through Queen's Catalog

    Adam Lambert famously launched his career on “American Idol” a decade ago performing a brilliant audition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He wrapped that amazing eighth season performing with the band on the season finale, and years later earned his current spot as the front man touring as Queen + Adam Lambert. On April 28, Lambert comes full circle as he steps [...]

  • Lily Tomlin SAG Lifetime Acheivement Award

    TV News Roundup: Netflix's 'Laugh-In' 50th Anniversary Tribute Sets Premiere Date

    In today’s TV News roundup, Netflix sets the premiere date for its 50th anniversary special of “Laugh-In.” DATES “Laugh-In: The Stars Celebrate,” the 50th anniversary tribute to the original series by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, will premiere on Netflix on May 14. The special, which was taped at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, pays [...]

  • Texas Tech's Norense Odiase (32) shoots

    Live+3 Ratings for Week of April 8: NCAA Championship Game Dunks on Competition

    The final of the 2019 NCAA basketball tournament, in which Virginia triumphed over a spirited Texas Tech team, unsurprisingly finished way out in front in the Live+3 ratings for the week of April 8. Although the sports broadcast’s scripted competition made some gains, its 5.4 ratings still more than doubled that of “Grey’s Anatomy” in [...]

  • Mueller Report Release Draws 11 Million

    Mueller Report Release Draws 11 Million Total Viewers Across TV News

    Coverage of the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into whether President Donald Trump committed obstruction of justice unsurprisingly caused a ratings bump across TV news yesterday. In terms of overall viewership, around 11 million people tuned in to see Attorney General William Barr’s news conference regarding the report’s release, and the news coverage surrounding it. According [...]

  • Neilsons Measurment Problems TV Digital

    WarnerMedia Pulls Out of Audience-Targeting Alliance Open A.P.

    WarnerMedia is going its own way when it comes to helping advertisers find specific groups of TV-watchers. The company, a founding member of the audience-targeting media alliance known as Open A.P., said Friday it would withdraw from the group, citing its desire to pursue its own strategy under owner AT&T. AT&T purchased Time Warner in [...]

  • BLESS THIS MESS - "The Chicken

    Listen: Lake Bell, Dax Shepard on Returning to Broadcast TV With 'Bless This Mess'

    Welcome to “TV Take,” Variety’s television podcast. In this week’s installment, Variety’s executive editor of TV, Daniel Holloway, chats with Lake Bell and Dax Shepard, stars of ABC’s “Bless This Mess,” which debuted on Monday. The show centers around a newly married couple, played by Bell and Shepard, who decide to ditch their shoebox New York City [...]

  • superstore renewed season 3

    'Superstore' Showrunner Justin Spitzer Steps Down as He, Gabe Miller, Jonathan Green Renew Overall Deals at UTV

    “Superstore” executive producers Justin Spitzer, Gabe Miller and Jonathan Green have all renewed their overall deals with Universal Television. In addition, Miller and Green will take over showrunner duties on “Superstore” while Spitzer — who also created the series — will shift to develop new projects for the studio beginning with the 2019-2020 season. “I [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content