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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Film adaptation of LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA

I actually watched this nearly a month ago (during the same span of days when I watched Strawberry Shortcakes and Funuke, Show Some Love Your Losers!, quality stuff) I was so appalled by the film then that I decided I really have nothing to say about it.

Just another failed novel adaptation that should never have been made, that was it.

But since my upcoming production will be an adaptation of sorts, I intend to reevaluate what are the best ways to do a film adaptation of a novel, and what I should try to avoid.

Most of the time when I was watching a movie, I try to ignore its source material and enjoy the movie for what it is. Film and literature are different mediums, so it's a little pointless to whine about how the film doesn't follow the book closely enough. It's just that if I have read the source material myself, I can at least make some brief mental comparisons and see what were the creative liberties taken by the filmmakers to 'improve' upon the film.

Take the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy for example (two posts in a row that mention LoTR! How geeky!) I think they are marvelous films, and I seriously cannot imagine how they could be better if Peter Jackson decides to stay faithful to it word-by-word. The characters will be less fleshed out, it'll be really slow-paced, the battle scenes will only be mere montage and not amazing setpieces, with Tolkien's attention paid more upon Middle-Earth, we'll probably see more lingering shots of trees, stones and grasses. Like a Terrence Malick film, maybe, or a pretentious amateur student film. As films they worked because Peter Jackson managed to bring in a high level of filmmaking into them, unforgettable scenes, shots and acting, the creation of atmosphere and mood, the control of pace.

I normally appreciate creative liberties taken by filmmakers when adapting from novels. Like Wong Kar Wai's ASHES OF TIME, is almost like a deconstruction of Louis Cha (Jing Yong) novels instead of an adaptation (but then, it really wasn't an adaptation but just WKW making a film using the backstories of four characters from THE LEGEND OF CONDOR HEROES). Or how Ang Lee normally chooses to adapt from short stories (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and LUST, CAUTION) just so he can expand from them, creating a larger scope that were suggested in the novels. I didn't read the original novels, but I know Stanley Kubrick wasn't entirely faithful to the 2001: SPACE ODYSSEY and THE SHINING novels (the latter was famously dissed by its original author, Stephen King) And it's almost universally agreed that the GODFATHER films are actually better than the novels by Mario Puzo.

And I'm always partial to the modernization of Shakespeare's plays like ROMEO + JULIET, or even 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU. Even Mark Tan did a modern (and Malaysianized) retelling of Othello with his Jarum Halus early this year, and I had less problems with what he did than how he did it. For me, the HOW is just as important as the WHAT, if not more. That's why I'm so disdainful towards a number of fantasy films that came out in the past year or so.

To me, the likes of STARDUST, ERAGON and GOLDEN COMPASS weren't mediocre for taking artistic licenses, but for the grievous mistakes made by the filmmakers. It's the actual filmmaking that irked me, their blatant attempts to dumb things down to appeal to a bigger crowd, their underestimation (or miscalculation) of audiences' intelligence. And in the case of STARDUST, my personal solution for its problems was that maybe the filmmaker should've been a bit more faithful to the book (it's a cop-out to make it some generic fantasy-adventure and sacrifice the love story that's really the core of the story) just so the film would've worked better.

Love in the Time of CholeraTo me, LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA was a massive failure because it fails to draw any emotion from me. There were numerous artistic and narrative choices that director Mike Newell made that left me a little befuddled. Why can't I feel Florentino Ariza's five decade-long love for Fermina Daza more? Because the director chose to use such unsubtle methods to convey his pain?

Shots of him vomiting, crying and staring sadly at Fermina Daza felt more like something from some made-for-tv melodrama, why not internalize it and make his pain more subtle? Why not make his yearning more poetic? How did Fermina Daza's husband, Juvenal Urbino, end up being so one-dimensional? It is as if the filmmaker is trying hard to make him less complex and likable so that audiences can root for Ariza and Daza to be together again. Is it because Mike Newell and I have such different sensibilities that our interpretations of the source material are so different? Hmmm.

I liked Mike Newell's work in HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE, and while my memories of 4 WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL is rather vague, I remember enjoying that as well. And there were some decent moments in MONA LISA SMILE (mostly from Maggie Gyllenhaal), so in my opinion, it's undeniable that Mike Newell tends to draws out some good performances from his actors. LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA is no exception.

I cannot say that Javier Bardem was bad here...

Just horribly miscast. (so was Benjamin Bratt, to a lesser extent)

Fernanda Montenegro, great in CENTRAL STATION, is also really good in the numerous scenes she was in as Florentino's mom, yet somehow, the cynical side of me felt that the expanded role of her character screamed Oscar bait.

Giovanna Mezzogiorni is decent as Fermina Daza, John Leguizamo's pretty over-the-top as Fermina's dad, but I liked his performance.

Yet this film is messy and seemingly directionless. The basic premise is there, a man in love with a woman for more than half a century and had (naively and single-mindedly) waited for her all these while that she was blissfully married to another. More than just a tale of enduring love, Florentino Ariza and Juvenal Urbino are supposed to be representations of conflicting idealogies. The former a poet who love the arts and literature and has a airy-fairy worldview, the latter is a man of science who is more grounded and realistic, they revolve around Fermina Daza.

To me, these are what made Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel so good: Ariza's noble and tragicomical wait for Fermina, the moral ambiguity of his love affairs, the complications of Juvenal and Fermina's married life that looked perfect to everyone outside the household, but also suffers internally, though the main obstacles had more to do with the boredom of predictability and repetition. Then there are the implications of love, some beautiful, some harmful. It's really more than just a love story.

I felt that the film made a costly mistake by undercutting the poignancy of the entire situation by hamming up Florentino Ariza's love affairs, which weren't really described in the novel with graphic detail. Each of them are like (very) short stories packed in one chapter that heightens the reading enjoyment, but in the film, without context, Ariza's 'comedic' sexual conquests seem to take the spotlight just as much as his supposed yearning for Daza. Why? I wonder. More sex and nudity would translate more to the box-office? (ended up not doing that well though) Or is it really more of an artistic license the filmmaker has to take because it plays to his strengths?

No matter what, despite the beauty of some shots, the nice art direction, there's still no technique, and I still feel that there is something appallingly superficial about the visual interpretation of the novel. (although, to be fair, it's really not the most filmable of novels) And frankly, as much as I want to separate the film from its source material, it was mostly the latter that made me sit through the entire film.

Marvel at the beauty of the novel (SKIP IT IF YOU DON'T WANT ME TO RUIN THE ENDING FOR YOU!!):

The Captain looked at Fermina Daza and saw on her eyelashes the first glimmer of wintry frost. Then he looked at Florentino Ariza, his invincible power, his intrepid love, and he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.

"And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?" he asked.

Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and night.

"Forever," he said.

Anyway, go read this wonderful article at PopMatters now. BEYOND LOVE: THE WISDOM OF LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA