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

Patrick Melrose
Justin Downing/SHOWTIME

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.”