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“The World’s Biggest Drama”
“The world’s biggest drama is not found in Europe or the Middle East or North America – the world’s biggest challenges and dramas are found in Africa.”
-- [quote from United Nations emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland] Warren Hoge, “U.N. Relief Director Appeals for Help in Crises Throughout Africa,” The New York Times, May 11th, 2005
When independent British film producer Simon Channing Williams read an advance copy of John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener in late 2000, he wrote an impassioned letter to the author’s lawyer, Michael Rudell. In the letter, the producer pleaded his case for being given the chance to turn the novel into a film. When Rudell replied and suggested a meeting, Channing Williams volunteered to fly from London to New York that same evening. The producer explains, “I wanted to prove to him how serious I was about making it into a movie, because I thought the book was so extraordinary. It delves into the rapaciousness of big business, the abuse of the African peoples, governmental corruption, and at the root of it all, an utterly compelling love story. It was such a heartfelt, angry book, and, sadly, I believe it will remain relevant for many, many years to come.”
As the movie took shape, screenwriter and novelist Jeffrey Caine took on what he calls the “professional challenge” of adapting the novelist’s work. Caine comments, “I’m a long-time admirer of John le Carré’s writing and have always felt – in common with many of his readers – that the films made from his novels have rarely done them justice. The Constant Gardener struck me as having the potential to be a strong film; an emotional personal love story wedded to a timely political theme and a suspenseful structure. For me, the heart of the tale was always the human story of
Justin and Tessa; that of a politically uncommitted man discovering only after her death the true nature of the woman he loved and thereafter devoting himself to continuing her work, growing even closer to her than he was during her lifetime.”
Caine adds, “It was important to Simon and to le Carré that he approve the screenwriter, so the final step before I was hired was a lunch at which I had to convince le Carré that he’d come to the right store. Seems I managed that.
“During the development process – which took over two years – he sent in quite a few sets of notes on the various drafts and attended some of the script meetings. Happily, he’s movie-wise as well as book-wise; he knows that in order to make a novel work on the screen, much has to be done differently. In fact, he often urged me to change even more than I was inclined to change.”
He retained the book’s nonlinear approach, noting, “Because of what happens to Tessa – killed off on page one – it was necessary to use flashbacks. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to engage emotionally with Tessa and Justin. The balancing act for me was to provide a sufficiently intriguing forward thrust to the narrative without giving away too much of the plot too soon and without sacrificing either the personal story of Justin’s growth to understanding or the underlying thematic content.”
The 2002 film (released in many territories in 2003) City of God alerted Channing Williams to an exciting new director, Fernando Meirelles, who had successfully visualized, and conveyed, a powerful story from a part of the world most people never get to see.
John le Carré’s novel addressed the issue of corporate social responsibility and giga-profits in one of the world’s biggest business sectors, the pharmaceutical industry. In a syndicated article at the time of the novel’s publication , the author wrote:
I might have gone for the scandal of spiked tobacco…I might have gone for the oil companies…but the multinational pharmaceutical world, once I entered it, got me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. Big Pharma, as it is known, offered everything: the hopes and dreams we have of it; its vast, partly realised potential for good; and its pitch-dark underside, sustained by huge wealth, pathological secrecy, corruption and greed.
As City of God continued to run in theatres (and, in the U.S., for over a year), director Fernando Meirelles cleared his schedule to seriously research The Constant Gardener. He says, “I’m from Brazil, and over the past several years, we have been making generics, and if you try to make cheap versions of patented medicines, you very quickly learn a lot about the unbelievable power of the drug industry lobby. I’ve been reading about this for the past few years – on Oxfam’s website, for example – and I realized that making a film is a good opportunity to prod them. The Constant Gardener is not so much political but, as a person from a developing country, I understand what happens in one. So I felt I could represent the Kenyans’ interests in the movie.”
The behavior and business practices of some pharmaceutical manufacturers have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, with wider coverage in the media and stronger pressure from numerous consumer watchdogs and interest groups. Le Carré’s novel contributed to a greater awareness among the general public of the industry’s potential to do harm as well as good.
In order to justify their pricing and close guarding of patents, some drug companies repeatedly cite the high costs of the research and development (R&D) and clinical trials they must undertake to bring a new product to the market. Watchdogs counter that drug companies rarely incur these R&D costs themselves, but instead avail themselves of publicly funded research – and then guard the results. Many have voiced doubts about the $800 million figure that the industry claims is needed to bring a new drug to market, pointing to the disparity between the pharmaceutical manufacturers’ R&D and their marketing budgets. The latter, the argument goes, is where the big money is truly allocated.
In the past two years, we have started to see, for the first time, the beginnings of public resistance to rapacious pricing and other dubious practices of the pharmaceutical industry. It is mainly because of this resistance that drug companies are now blanketing us with public relations messages. And the magic words, repeated over and over like an incantation, are research, innovation…But while the rhetoric is stirring, it has very little to do with reality. First, research and development (R&D) is a relatively small part of the budgets of the big drug companies—dwarfed by their vast expenditures on marketing and administration, and smaller even than profits. In fact, year after year, for over two decades, this industry has been far and away the most profitable in the United States. (In 2003, for the first time, the industry lost its first-place position, coming in third, behind “mining, crude oil production,” and “commercial banks.”) The prices drug companies charge have little relationship to the costs of making the drugs and could be cut dramatically without coming anywhere close to threatening R&D.
-- Marcia Angell, “The Truth About Drug Companies,” The New York Review of Books, July 15th, 2004
Activists also accuse some Big Pharma companies of ignoring innovation to develop barely distinguishable “me-too” drugs based on proven “blockbusters,” focusing their efforts on what ails the rich Western market – e.g., heart disease, baldness and geriatric impotence – while slighting and outright ignoring the unprofitable, rampant diseases of the developing world. The latter countries are being ravaged by AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria (the last-named affecting approximately 500 million people a year and, by some estimates, killing a child approximately every 20 seconds). While these nascent nations bear an outsize burden of disease, they account for only a tiny fraction of Big Pharma’s profits.
When all other arguments fail, some spokespeople for the pharmaceutical industry remind that theirs is not a philanthropic enterprise, and that their greatest responsibility is to their shareholders. This, at least, is a point on which the companies and their critics agree; the industry has made hundreds of billions of dollars (in 2002, total sales reached an estimated $430 billion).
Beginning in 1997, Brazil has been able to successfully reduce its death toll from AIDS by half, defying the pharmaceutical manufacturers and ignoring the threat of trade sanctions to provide low-cost anti-retroviral drugs. The country also fielded an
aggressive prevention campaign. Despite the progressive model Brazil has instituted, the efforts in Meirelles’ native country have not been replicated worldwide.
Seconding Meirelles in his passion for the material, Simon Channing Williams remarks, “I’m not a political animal. But what we are exploring is happening today, in the world we all live in.”
Meirelles studied Brian Woods’ and Michael Simkin’s U.K. [Channel 4] program Dying for Drugs as documentary evidence on the practices of some pharmaceutical companies in the developing world. Jeffrey Caine states, “Most of the research had already been done by le Carré and is in the book. What isn’t in the book was provided by some very well-informed medical contacts and fed to me in small spoonfuls as directed. It’s all very well to say, as no doubt some will, ‘Big Pharma is too obvious a target.’ But evils need to be publicized and to go on being publicized as long as they exist, which is forever.”
Ralph Fiennes states, “There are huge questions about Big Pharma. Fernando gave me some background material, including Dying for Drugs. The companies are not obliged to disclose a lot of information about how they test or make their drugs. There’s big, big money involved in the development, patenting, and marketing of a new drug; there’s no question that the pharmaceutical industry has one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States. I’m sure there are companies out there wanting to produce good, effective drugs at reasonable prices but a lot of people want – and need – to ask tough questions of the industry as a whole.”
Rachel Weisz agrees with Fiennes. She notes, “It’s David and Goliath; the little people taking on the great big corporations. I believe that pharmaceuticals are second only to oil now; it is a massive business. They make all this money, yet people in developing countries can’t afford the drugs that could save their lives.”
Dr. Bonnie Dunbar, a molecular biologist and former professor at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine who now makes her home in a suburb of Nairobi, vouches for accuracies in the film’s plot. She comments, “I was quite fascinated by the parallels with things I have experienced in my professional life. The lobbying by the international organizations, as well as the amount of money poured into cover-ups ring true to me. Hopefully the murder aspect of the story is not true-to-life, but when there’s big money involved...”
Caine says, “I don’t expect The Constant Gardener to change the conduct of international pharmaceutical companies. It might – best case – draw the attention of audiences to certain widespread practices of Big Pharma and in some small way help create a climate for more responsible behavior. The most important thing for me is that the film should illustrate the nature of commitment.”
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