How Hollywood Gave 'Cholera' a Delicate Treatment

Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Fermina and Unax Ugalde as the young Florentino in
Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Fermina and Unax Ugalde as the young Florentino in "Love in the Time of Cholera," which opens on Friday. (By Daniel Daza -- New Line Cinema)
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 11, 2007

Hubris is required to take on Gabriel García Márquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera" and render it in celluloid: It's a Spanish language masterpiece by a Nobel Prize winner, spanning over 50 years, a marathon meditation on eternal, faithful love and epic, perennial philandering. One man, one love, many, many partners -- 622, each conquest meticulously recorded, detailed and appreciated.

Then there's the whole magical realism thing, a maliciously mischievous parrot, a seemingly immortal turtle. Not to mention the sufficient suspension of disbelief the viewer/reader needs to swallow that an elderly man has the sex appeal to bed a nubile, and eager, 14-year-old girl.

Not to mention the controversial decision to film it all in English.

So for filmmakers Mike Newell and Scott Steindorff, an Englishman and American, it became a labor of not love but obsession, the intensity of which mirrored that of Florentino Ariza, García Márquez's much-besotted hero. An obsession that entailed much pestering of the famously recalcitrant author. Every single day, for two years, says Steindorff, a TV producer and president of Stone Village Pictures, he called Garcia M¿rquez, until, finally, Colombia's literary paterfamilias agreed: Yes, yes, yes, go ahead, do it.

And then, once the film had been cast (with Oscar-nominated Spanish actor Javier Bardem in the lead) and production had begun, they had to acknowledge the very real possibility of failure. After all, it is the first time that García Márquez has ever granted permission for an English-language film adaptation of one of his novels. Expectations were high: Would Hollywood get it right? Could it get it right?

Humility was in order. So was a greater sensitivity to the source material, a cultural sensitivity to language, people, place. After all, this wasn't "The Da Vinci Code" they were adapting. One need only look to the not-so-distant past for lessons on what not to do: In 1993, Hollywood caught flak for its gringo-fication of the characters in Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits," with Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Vanessa Redgrave, Jeremy Irons and Winona Ryder cast as members of an upper-crust South American family.

Was failure on anyone's mind? "I'm not supposed to say that," says director Newell, whose hits include "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." "The book was so glorious. I used to read the book in its entirety every two weeks, just for pleasure. . . . It's the most wonderful, humane thing that I'd ever read: It just told truths about how people actually are and how surprising they are and the surprising turns they take."

The 1985 novel, published in the United States in 1988, details the travails of Florentino Ariza, a lowly telegraph operator toiling in a lusciously decaying coastal South American town at the end of the 19th century. He falls in instant, swooning love with the beauteous Fermina Daza and swears undying love to her. His love endures even after her social-climbing father tears them apart, even after she marries another man, the well-connected and wealthy Dr. Juvenal Urbino. "For fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights," as the novel states, he waits for her. (Last month the cast received a Hispanic Heritage Award for the Arts in Washington, where the adaptation was a major topic of conversation. The film opens Friday.)

The filmmakers deliberately avoided Hollywood's A-list for major casting decisions. "Mike and I decided that we were going to hire the best authentic actors for the piece and not do it like a Hollywood -- 'Let's get Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie,' " producer Steindorff recalls. "We felt the book was the star." (They decided to film in English, he said, to attract as large an audience as possible.)

The cast is multinational, including a large number of Colombians: Bardem, who is also in the new Coen brothers film, "No Country for Old Men," was cast as the moony Florentino; Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno plays Fermina, while Catalina Sandino Moreno, a Colombian who was nominated for an Oscar for her debut in "Maria Full of Grace," was cast as her sister.

Colombian American John Leguizamo plays Fermina's comically controlling father. Benjamin Bratt, of Peruvian Indian descent, was cast as the white-top-hat-wearing Urbino, while Liev Schreiber makes a cameo as a German immigrant. Emmy-winning Nuyorican Hector Elizondo ("Cane," "Pretty Woman"), Mexican-born Laura Harring ("Mullholland Dr.") and Brazilian actress and Oscar nominee Fernanda Montenegro ("Central Station") were also cast. Colombia's favorite daughter, Shakira, contributed several original songs to the film's soundtrack.

To keep things authentic, the filmmakers decided to make the movie in the coastal city of Cartagena, where García Márquez owns a home and which was the inspiration for the novel's nameless locale. The whole town got into the act, with locals -- more than 5,000 of them -- serving as extras.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company