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Anthony Minghella, R.I.P.

By admin Published: March 19, 2008

The death of the writer-director had me remembering an interview I did with him and Brian Henson about 10 years ago. I've pasted the text of the column I wrote after the jump ...

Before he was famous as the director and screenwriter of the Oscar-winning movie The English Patient, Anthony Minghella was a playwright toiling in relative obscurity in England.

But Jim Henson, the visionary producer and director most famous for giving the Muppets to the world, saw something in Minghella in the late '80s that might work with a new project.

"It seemed odd that Duncan (Kenworthy, a producer for Henson) and Jim would have considered me," Minghella said recently. "I had just written a play about the sexual exploitation of women and children in Thailand. I didn't think I was particularly well cast as someone to work for Henson."

But the project Henson had in mind proved perfect for Minghella. It was a series of dramatizations of classic myths and folk tales from different countries, starting with European tales, then moving into other cultures.

Minghella created what became known as The Storyteller. In each, a man -- played by John Hurt in the European tales, Michael Gambon in four based on Greek myths -- tells the story to the audience at large and to the talking dog who accompanies him. (Minghella said that, when Henson told him there should be a dog, Minghella assumed it would talk -- but Henson was surprised, and pleased, to see that the dog talked.)

The activity then moves to the characters in the story, but back periodically to the storyteller and the dog, who bridge parts of the story as well as allowing the action to move away from overly explicit violence.

The Storyteller was complicated, full of dark imagery and tragic stories, but it also enraptured those viewers who gave it a chance. The dog, operated by Henson's son Brian, was an especially artful touch -- a surrogate for the children in the audience, expressing their fears, seeking explanations of the tale. In writing the dog, Minghella said he drew on his own son, who "was at a perfect age to have stories told to."

The 13 episodes of The Storyteller proved an international success, but an unfortunate failure in the U.S. NBC ran some episodes as specials, others as part of the 1989 anthology The Jim Henson Hour, but they got so lost, five episodes, four of them based on Greek myths, were never even televised here.

Until now, that is. HBO revives Jim Henson's The Storyteller at 7:30 tonight for weekly airings, with the first four weeks devoted to the Greek myths: "Perseus & the Gorgon," "Orpheus & Eurydice," "Theseus & The Minotaur" and "Daedalus & Icarus." December will bring the remaining unseen episode, "The Three Ravens," followed by the tales shown before in the U.S., such as the splendid "The Luck Child."

As you may have gathered, whatever its fortunes elsewhere, The Storyteller was a big hit in my house and the "new" episodes are welcome. Brian Henson, now president of Jim Henson Productions (his father died of pneumonia in 1990), hopes more people will welcome it thanks to the HBO scheduling.

"This is the way it should be seen, straight through for 13 weeks," said Henson. "NBC tried different ideas to get people to see it, did not stick with any one."

Minghella also thinks the complex storytelling structure will seem more comfortable to viewers, both children and adults, because "it absolutely anticipated what would happen in film and television for the next decade."

Indeed, the series' movement from the points of view of the characters back and forth with that of the storyteller resembles a lot of recent films, including The Usual Suspects and Minghella's The English Patient. In fact, Minghella calls his big-screen hit "a distant cousin of The Storyteller." Henson is proud, too, of the blending of techniques, from the best available effects technology in the late '80s to old-fashioned puppetry and live actors.

The monsters, at once beautiful and hideous, may frighten some children, but then so many fairy tales have a terrifying core.

The richness of The Storyteller is not simply a challenge to some viewers. It is a major virtue of the productions. "Jim had a fervent belief in the power of the stories," said Minghella. "And he never talked down to children."

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