The genius of Edward St. Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels is in how relentlessly they amalgamate horror and beauty. The loosely autobiographical series—once named the Melrosiad by a Guardian reviewer—depicts child sexual abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, and a smorgasbord of emotional torture, but does so in such entrancing prose that it insulates the reader from the unbearable. Heroin, in St. Aubyn’s writing, is “as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm.” The failure of a love affair is when “the jeweled daggers that used to pierce one’s heart are replaced by ever-blunter penknives.” Patrick’s mother, deliberately myopic to her husband’s abuse of her son, is “perfectly preserved in the pickling jar of money, alcohol, and fantasy.”
The question for a television adaptation, then, is how to translate this layer of literary embellishment for the screen, with infinitely fewer words to work with. Patrick Melrose, which debuts Saturday on Showtime in a five-part miniseries starring Benedict Cumberbatch, pulls it off. In the hands of the screenwriter David Nicholls and the director Edward Berger, the distancing device of metaphor is replaced with lush, hypersaturated imagery. There’s a savage kind of beauty in the way a mustard-colored velvet slipper crushes a ripe fig into the dusty ground, and in a bright-red spot of blood that forms in the crook of Patrick’s blue-and-white striped shirt.
With the exception of the fourth installment, each of the Melrose novels takes place in a single day, a structure that lends itself neatly to episodic television. Nicholls switches the order of the first two books so that the miniseries starts with Bad News, in which a heroin-addled, 20-something Patrick is informed that his father has died, and is summoned to New York to pick up the late David Melrose’s ashes. It’s an effective trick that prolongs the inevitable question as to why Patrick is so hopelessly lost and miserably self-anesthetizing. Then, in the second episode—set at one of the Melrose family homes in the south of France when Patrick is a child—we find out.
Adapting the Melrosiad is a passion project for Cumberbatch, who once described Patrick alongside Hamlet as the two roles he desperately wanted to play. The books are somehow both intensely honest (writing them seems to have been a relatively therapeutic way for