It is clich? to say, when literature is adapted to cinema, that ‘the book was way better than the movie.’ It always is, as well it should be; literature is by far the more visual medium, wherein you spend days, weeks, even months savoring the scent of love, weeping with the pain of loss, or being sick with the compulsive taste of obsession. Occasionally a movie adaptation comes along that stands on its own as a solitary work of vision, and can be appreciated separate from its source, but never can the emotional charge and truly artful story telling of a master work of literature be crammed into two hours of images and sound bites on the silver screen. Love in the Time of Cholera is no exception.
The 1985 novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a luscious feast of love and obsession, the illusions of youth, aging and death, the questions of sanity and sickness, and the nobility of suffering for the sake of love. The language is thick with magical realism, poetry and metaphor. The attempts of this film to paint with a broad swathe the colors of Marquez’ language on the screen flops like a wet noodle.
The movie stays faithful to the outline of the novel in a somewhat skeletal fashion and moments of the richness of the story do shine through, but a few shining moments do not make for an overall pleasing film experience.
The story takes place over 50 years straddling the turn of the century in Cartegena, Colombia. It is the tale of the obsessive love (or illusory insanity) of the starry eyed youth Florentino Ariza (played by the tragicomic Javier Bardem) for the beautiful young flower of all of Cartegena, Fermina Daza (played by a not so floral Giovanna Mezzogiorno). The depth and intensity of Arizas love for Fermina is illustrated beautifully in the novel, in the many letters he pens to her professing his eternal, undying love, devotion and fidelity where in his longing for her he can do nothing but compulsively eat flowers until he is sick. The film reduces him to nervously barfing in a back alleyway. His slightly demented commitment to his ideal of the nobility of love is shown briefly in the film when he is confronted by Fermina’s father Lorenzo Daza (John Leguizamo (how is it that the only actual Latino in the film has the absolute worst Spanish accent?)). Lorenzo stands angrily when Florentino will not back down in his love of Fermina. ‘Don’t make me shoot you.’ He threatens and pulls back his jacket to expose the pistol holstered there. Without hesitating Florentino pulls back his own jacket and points to his heart. ‘Shoot me here. To die for love is the most noble way to die.’
Fermina becomes convinced that their love is an illusion of youth, nothing but a childish passing fancy and marries the wealthy doctor Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) with the overwhelming approval of her social climbing father. Florentino is crushed but holds onto his love for her for the next 51 years and, in his own mind staying chaste (while seducing 622 women?) to her. In the novel Garcia uses the story as a backdrop to ask the big questions of love, sanity, the permanence of our decisions in life. The depth of the heartfelt writing is colored by the use of language and imagery; the flamboyant life and sounds of the jungle, the scent and vision of plague and death, blatant sexuality, race gender, art, poetry, science, religion – Yet, beyond it’s skeletal outline, the film does no justice to the imagery evoked in the novel. The use of the pandemic cholera as a metaphor for the obsessive insanity of the lovesick is reduced to two or three shots of streets filled with dead people (what does cholera have to do with any of this?). The questions of such an obsession and its fine lined proximity to lucid dementia, the raw, animalistic nature of lust and passion, the thick layers of symbolism and philosophy that are the only way to speak of the ultimate mystery that confounds us all; love. All of this is lost in the translation from paper to cellophane.
So yes, ‘the book was way better than the movie’ and no, the movie does not stand as its own work of art. Indeed, how could a work of art, so rich in language and symbolism translate to the screen? It simply cannot. So while this seminal work of a literary master will likely tell it’s tale of the lovesick obsessions of youth for many generations to come, this film is destined to be regarded as a dud of a side note in the story of the Marquezian cannon. Like a favorite bumper sticker of mine says; ‘Don’t Judge a Book by its Movie.’
Review by : Rueben Davis