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A BOY WHO TURNS INTO A HEDGEHOG, a soldier who snares Death in a sack, a princess who vows to be speechless for three years—these eccentric tales (plus 10 others) are part of HBO's The Storyteller series (Mondays, 7:30 p.m. ET). Stranger even than their story lines, the tales were also inspiration for 1996's Oscar-winning movie The English Patient.
How? Well, once upon a time, in 1986, a then little-known British playwright named Anthony Minghella was approached by Muppet master Jim Henson to pen a children's anthology for TV. Henson, who died of a strep infection in 1995 at 53, "had an image of a storyteller by a roaring fire with a dog," recalls his son Brian, 34. But it was up to Minghella to imagine the rest. "When I showed Jim what I had," says Minghella, 43, "he said, 'The dog speaks! That's neat!' " That dog (voiced by Brian, who heads his dad's company) and the Storyteller (John Hurt) were joined by a who's who of British actors, including Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce, Miranda Richardson and a pre-Ab Fab Jennifer Saunders.
Minghella, who lives in London with his wife, choreographer Carolyn Choa, and their son Max, 12, says "the narrative lessons" he had learned from the fables informed his work on The English Patient. "It has a nurse willing a patient to remember his story in an almost exact repetition of the dog with the Storyteller," he says. Then he smiles: "I'm sure that Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes wouldn't thank me for that analogy."