Written by Shira Gotshalk
Ronald Harwood had become the go-to scribe when one needs a novel (The Pianist, Oliver Twist, Cry, the Beloved Country) or play (The Dresser, The Browning Version) adapted. Harwood has written steadily and successfully for 40 years, thanks to a daily routine he loves to describe as boring, even though he splits his time between Paris, London, and a home in the English countryside. With his latest script, an adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, Harwood works with his most canonical source material to date.
Harwood doesn't choose his subjects, they select him. “I don't find subjects, they find me. And if they fit into my sphere of operations, my sphere of interest, I say yes. And if they don't, I say no,” Harwood explains. And, of course, he adds, “Love in the Time of Cholera is irresistible.”
Harwood recently spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his method of adaptation, finding the perfect opening scene, the physicality of lovesickness, and the advice he got from Graham Greene. Yes, that Graham Greene.
How did you approach such a canonical book?
Do you want the boring version? I'll tell you what I do: I read it again. I read it when it first came out 20 years ago and I remembered the great sweep of it but you don't remember detail, at least I don't. So I read it again and thought, God how do we do this? I thought I'd better learn it -- I do this with all the books -- I made a non-fiction index. Every page, I put Maria is born, page 2, and I go through the whole book. It's agony. It's painstaking and boring. I can do about 10 pages a day and then I get exhausted. But it's a way of learning what happens.
When that's done -- my index to Love in the Time of Cholera runs to about 45 pages, very detailed -- then I think about it. There's a curious thing in Love in the Time of Cholera; the first 40 pages are about a suicide. It has this wonderful opening sentence about the scent of bitter almonds always reminds him of unrequited love and you think, God this is going to be important, and of course, it isn't. That incident is never referred to again. It's very odd. I realized that was the first cut, so then, Where to start?
Photo: © 2007 New Line Cinema
Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Benjamin Bratt in Love In The Time Of Cholera.
I wanted to start with him getting the parrot off the tree and falling and dying. Everything actually starts with that death of the old doctor, Juvenal. Because as a result of his death is the funeral and as a result of the funeral, Florentino comes and says, “I've waited for this moment for 50 years,” and then you get the back story. I thought that was the ideal place to start.
The beginning is so vital to anything -- an article, an interview, a book, a play -- where do you begin?
How does your scripting process continue?
I simply go to the computer and write. Although I'm not a writer, I'm a rewriter. I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until I've got a script.
What's it like for you adapting your own novel for the screen?
I've adapted two plays (The Dresser, Taking Sides) of my own. I've reworked a book of mine, which was never made. Richard Burton bought the rights and then forgot all about it. Course, that's a different thing entirely, because you have to abandon the play; you have to stop saying to yourself -- God, I wrote that beautifully! Isn't that a lovely scene? -- because it might not belong to the movie at all.
There's a phrase, which is used a lot, which is opening out. 'Opening out' means that as you and I are talking now, they say, “You can't go on talking in the hotel. Put it in a park! So we suddenly cut from us talking in a hotel to walking in a park.” It's rubbish, though. So I call it opening in, because every play has action that happens off stage. You have to simply say, what is the story the play is telling? Is it best expressed in the play's terms or do you have to reinvent it?
How difficult or easy or intimidating was it for you to work on a masterpiece with a living writer?
Well, I didn't have anything to do with him; that's a rule I've always made. I don't go near the original author because they'll be possessive in some way. I was just thinking today about a film I did about Mandela (Mandela) and Mrs. Mandela was the guardian of their flame. He was in prison. You have to be ruthless about it because you're writing a film; you're not doing real life. She complained about a scene involving them in bedtalking intimately. But as they'd had two or three children, I didn't see that that was a great intrusion on her privacy.
How did you approach an omniscient third character narrator?
Who is the third person? God or Marquez? Most novels tell you from God's point of view, an omniscient being, but I think great novelists tell it from various points of view, in the third person. In Cholera, what I tried to do is tell the flashback in the beginning from two points of view, his and hers, sometimes overlapping.
What was most important for you to explore in the novel?
Love. That's what it's about. What's interesting is Western audiences, especially American audiences, may have difficulty with this because Florentino is faithful to Fermina for 50 years, in love with her for 50 years, obsessed by her. But he has physical affairs with 463 women, I can't remember the exact number. And he says it's his way of easing the pain. Well, we could all say that. It would be a good way of assuaging the pain. But, in a sense, it is a way of trying to forget her and not succeeding. He just can't get over the obsession -- it's an oath he made to himself when he was 16. The love and the physical love, that's what fascinated me. It's very foreign to our morality.
Do you think there's nobility in suffering for love?
No. I don't believe in nobility at all, unless somebody does something noble. I don't think it's a passive thing, nobility. I love it in Dr. Zhivago that love goes on. There's nothing noble in it, they just talk about history. Circumstances drive them apart, social pressures -- she marries up the scale -- drive them apart. I don't think it's nobility.
What is the time of cholera?
Cholera is a metaphor for love. I say it glibly now, but it took me a long time to discover it. It's very apparent in a scene when a character comes back ill having declared his love and his mother asks if he has cholera. That's the first thing the mother asks. And this image is spaced throughout.
Can lovesickness be literal?
Oh, yes. I've seen it. I was very fortunate as I have been married to my wife for 50 years and that's that. We're very boring. But I've seen it in my children and in myself with the first woman I dated. Absolutely.
You've said movies come to you and you choose to accept or reject work. What is your criteria?
I don't buy that for a second!
You don't? I'm actually quoting another writer. When Evelyn Waugh, the famous English writer, was asked why he was appearing on television, he said, “Poverty.” No, because I have nothing else to do. I can't do anything else.
But why do you choose one project over another?
I am interested in the holocaust, in injustice, in performers -- I write a lot about people who perform: singers and actors and dancers. I'm very given to the triumph of humanity over terrible circumstances. My whole family background as well as my wife's is such that -- we are people who have been buffeted by the tidal waves of history and emerge and survive and have family. It's absolutely riveting to me.
What is it about performers that you find so compelling?
Because it's such a precarious life. It's fine if you become Johnny Depp, it's terrific. But the whole theatrical profession depends on those who don't become the great stars. And they're the ones that really interest me -- the keeping faith with oneself, believing in one's own gifts. It's a terrible profession. I'm a writer and if nothing comes my way, I can write something. But an actor can't do that. He has to wait to be asked. And those things fascinate me. Sometimes these people go through a lifetime without any encouragement and yet they keep faith with it. That moves me.
I brought up three children as a writer, not unsuccessful, and it was tough. And these guys bring up families and these women go on working and how do they survive?
When you're working on a script, do you write every day?
Yes, I always have. I write every day, whether I'm working or not. I wrote this morning. I can't help it, I've done it for the last 40 years. I get up at the same time -- I told you, we're very boring. I get up at seven, I make coffee, my wife joins me in my study, we smoke cigarettes and drink three cups of coffee and talk about the day. I make breakfast, shower (I have to shower. I can't go to work without first showering, shaving and being clean), and then I start about nine o' clock and finish about a quarter to one. I have lunch, and then always take a nap in the afternoon. I then go back to work about 4:30 and work till six. And you'd be surprised how much gets written. I don't do any fresh writing in the afternoon; I read what I've done in the morning.
When I was younger, Graham Greene gave me the most wonderful piece of advice. He said, “Always stop when it's going well.” If you stop when you're stuck, you don't sleep that night because it's churning. But if you stop when you know where you're going to start the next day, it's very exciting. It's quite a tough discipline because you think, I'd better go on because I'll lose it, but you don't. It was the best piece of advice.