Screenwriter Adapts 'Love' for the Silver Screen

The film version of Love in the Time of Cholera opens in theaters Friday, more than 20 years after Gabriel Garcia-Marquez published the classic novel. The film's screenwriter, Ronald Harwood tells NPR's Jacki Lyden how he turned the language of Marquez into the passionate lines for Javier Bardem and Benjamin Bratt.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Of all his books, the writer Gabriel Garcia-Marquez has said that it is "Love in the Time of Cholera" that will survive because it is his most humane novel.

Mr. GABRIEL GARCIA-MARQUEZ (Author, "Love in the Time of Cholera"): (Spanish spoken)

LYDEN: Marquez, the Columbian-born author, is now in his 80s and lives in Mexico. He finally gave permission for a "Love in the Time of Cholera" to be made into a film more than 20 years after it was written in 1985.

The film opens in theaters next week starring Javier Bardem, Benjamin Bratt and Liev Schreiber, among others. It's an epic story about a man who falls in love with a woman in an unnamed South American city. He remains true, certainly in love with her through war, disease and 622 affairs over the next five decades.

But the work of turning this beautiful novel loved by millions into a movie script fell to Ronald Harwood. Harwood is a screenwriter, who has adapted other classics for films, and he joins us now.

Welcome, Ronald Harwood.

Mr. RONALD HARWOOD (Screenwriter, "Love in the Time of Cholera"): Thank you very much.

LYDEN: What went through your mind when you were approached with the possibility of adapting this 1985 classic "Love in the Time of Cholera"?

Mr. HARWOOD: What goes through my mind whenever I have to adapt anything is - especially with a long work - what do you leave out? That seems to be the crucial thing. The first decision, though, is what is the book about. What are you going to make for film about?

It can't just be a great sprawling epic event. It has to have a central theme. And I decided that it was a mystic, extraordinary love story, which I think it is. And I think Gabriel Garcia Marquez thinks the same. When he calls it's humane that's why because it's about love.

LYDEN: This certainly isn't the first time you've adapted a classic. You adapted Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country," Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," "The Pianist" from a Polish novel. Was Marquez something different, or do you have (unintelligible)?

Mr. HARWOOD: No. They're all original works of that kind present a different problem. The first thing is you shouldn't be intimidated by the material. If you agree to do it, you should, one, to be faithful to it, to the heart of it. And I hope I have done in all the other versions that I've been asked to do.

LYDEN: You talk about the heart of it. Let's listen to a clip that perhaps in both book and film, for me, really are the beating heart, if you will, of this film.

(Soundbite of movie, "Love in the Time of Cholera")

Mr. JAVIER BARDEM (Actor): (As Florentino Ariza) Fermina, I have waited for this opportunity for 51 years, nine months and four days. That is how long I have loved you from the first moment I cast eyes on you until now. I will repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity, everlasting love.

Ms. GIOVANNA MEZZOGIORNO (Actress): (As Fermina Urbino) Florentino Ariza, get out of here. Get out. And don't show your face again for the years of life that are left to you.

LYDEN: Now, why don't you tell us what's going on here? This is Javier Bardem. I'm hearing it the hero, Florentino Ariza.

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, it's the almost the beginning of the novel. What the story is, is that a young boy, Florentino Ariza, falls in love with a young woman, and she thinks she falls in love with him. And he declares his love. He asks her to marry him. And her father takes her away from the city, which is, of course, Cartagena. And he keeps faith with her for 50 years. She marries. She has children. She grows older, of course. And he waits until her husband dies. He goes to see her again, declares his love. It's a vast book. It covers that 50-year period in some detail.

LYDEN: Certainly, there is no magical realism in this. Although one could argue that perhaps the idea of a man waiting patiently for five decades and being completely…

Mr. HARWOOD: Magical realism.

LYDEN: …and keeping his log of 622 assignations might be a little bit stretching it.

Mr. HARWOOD: There's no magical realism in "Love in the Time of Cholera." And people think there is. Somebody said to me the other day, how do you deal with a magical realism? Obviously, they haven't read the book because there isn't. It's a very realistic book.

Among all the writers that I know, he and Anton Chekhov, are the two who most use the detail of human existence to express character and atmosphere. And the detail in "Cholera" is astonishing. The observation of a long marriage, for example, the habits of people's lives are observed in the most minute and telling detail. He is a master of that.

LYDEN: People think of Marquez as so romantic, but there's a line that you have worked with here where Fermina, this is many years into her marriage with the doctor, is talking about happiness and what love is. And the doctor says to her…

(Soundbite of movie, "Love in the Time of Cholera")

Mr. BENJAMIN BRATT (Actor): (As Dr. Juvenal Urbino) I love you above all else, more than anyone else in the world. The important thing in marriage is not happiness but stability.

Ms. MEZZOGIORNO: (As Fermina Urbino) And love? Loving is more difficult than love.

Mr. HARWOOD: Marquez, like me, has had a long marriage. And I happen to agree with him. Stability is very important in a marriage. But Fermina has a slightly romantic view of it still. And she's never been totally at ease in her long marriage because she has this lingering loss of Florentino when he was young. It's very complex-fashioned. Marquez does it absolutely beautifully. Those are his lines, not mine.

LYDEN: How do you compare your task to that of, say, Marquez's English translator, Edith Grossman? She said, fidelity is our noble purpose but it does not have much as anything to do with what is called literal meaning. A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax where these are peculiar to specific languages and not transferrable. And I thought that your task was a bit like hers.

Mr. HARWOOD: It's akin but not alike. Faithful translations are seldom beautiful, somebody once said. And beautiful translations are seldom faithful. I think she's a marvelous translator. I don't speak Spanish, but people who do have said it is a wonderful translation because she captured the spirit of Marquez's language.

I have to capture the spirit of Marquez's imagery or translate the spirit into imagery, which then has to be translated again by the director and the cinematographer. And that is a similarity, but I think translation is immensely difficult.

LYDEN: Did you have any conversation with Marquez? Was that this at all?

Mr. HARWOOD: No. I've never met him. I'm very nervous of meeting the source authors of books I adapt, because I'm always scared they're going to say you must have that scene where they go up the mountain or whatever it is. And you know that that can't be done in the movie. But I didn't meet Marquez, but he's seen the movie apparently and was very - he sent me a very complimentary message so I'm very touched by that.

LYDEN: Ronald Harwood is the screenwriter for the forthcoming film, "Love in the Time of Cholera."

Ronald Harwood, a great pleasure. Thank you.

Mr. HARWOOD: Thank you.

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