Literature Vs. Adaptation: The Patrick Melrose Novels – An inevitable failure or ambitious success?


Edward St Aubyn’s series of novels, entitled The Patrick Melrose Novels, masterfully depict the life of Patrick Melrose, from his early experiences of childhood to the lasting affects of abuse on his adult life. The five novels explore a different portion of Patrick’s life, starting with his neglected and traumatic youth, moving into his young adult years as a heroin addict and ending with the reflective optimism to the state of his life in his forties. The novels masterfully create an interconnected and growing world, dealing with harsh and relevant themes. With Patrick Melrose at its centre, the novels show his reaction to such a world and the people that exist within it. Mirroring such detail and intense exploration of such themes would be difficult to say the least. So how does the the 2018 TV adaptation hold up?

To start with, a glaring difference from the offset is the decision to condense the first and second novels into the first two episodes. Where the first novel of the series, Nevermind, deals solely with the childhood of Melrose, followed by the second novel, Bad News exploring affects of Patrick’s abusive father in the form of a drug addicted young adult. The T.V series blends them both into two episodes. In doing so, there is no longer a distinct individuality between the two novels, both being distinctly separate and giving sufficient time for the young Patrick Melrose to grow as a character and gain initial rapport with readers. One of the greatest and most unique parts of Aubyn’s novels is that they illuminate intimate parts of Patrick’s life, starting young and developing as the novel progresses. Instead, the T.V. series throws us straight into Benedict Cumberbatch as a grown drug-addicted Melrose, with his childhood abuse, so delicately dealt with in the novel, reduced to short flashbacks.

With childhood being a necessary component of the series, particularly as a basis for his relationship with his parents, it’s hard not to be disappointed. However, this is redeemed by the superb performance by Cumberbatch, who perfectly embodies Melrose. Particularly in the first two episodes, Cumberbatch perfects the intricacies of Patrick’s internal speech, the accents he puts on when high off heroin, and the general demeanour of an uninterested, careless and supposedly pain-free young man. This performance improves as the T.V series progresses, and Cumberbatch excellently mirrors Patrick’s need to mature and grow.

However, later episodes, ‘Some Hope’, ‘Mother’s Milk’ and ‘At Last’, do not mirror their novels counterparts in terms of character development. The novel Mother’s Milk deals largely from the perspective of Patrick’s eldest son, and although the series achieves partly what the novel does (showing the inherited insecurities of Patrick as a father), the show cannot quite reach the metaphoric parallels that the novel does. Similarly, Patrick’s time spent in suicide watch in At Last is largely brushed over in favour of a focus on supporting characters – large portions of which feel vague and unnecessary.

Despite slight negatives, the focus on Melrose is done accurately and the use of source material is refined and specific. The show is able to reflect core elements of the novels, but falls short through its attempts to brush over important developments. This cannot be taken as too harsh a criticism as the show was restricted to 90 minutes episodes – certainly not enough time to fully depict Auybn’s expansive world. The series does adequate justice to the novels, and as a stand alone mini-series, is superb. Yet, because of the stature and brilliance of the novels, it stands as good visual supplementary martial to Aubyn’s masterpiece.


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3rd Year English Lit student, interested in all thing literature! Big lover of Romantics, Modernism and American poetry.

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