risky business

Harwood's dual scripts are study in storytelling

As books go, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera," which takes a sweeping, decades-spanning look at a love that goes unrequited for years, and Jean-Dominique Bauby's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," a laboriously composed memoir written by a stroke victim, couldn't be more different. The first is expansively epic; the second is painfully intimate.

But according to screenwriter Ronald Harwood, whose adaptation of "The Pianist" earned him an Oscar in 2003, the central challenge in adapting both books to the screen "was identical: How do you tell the story?"

Describing his own process in choosing to take on the projects, Harwood explains: "First of all, I have to decide what the source material is about. Then I must decide if I can tell that in a film. Once I decide that I can, then I accept the project."

Producer Kathleen Kennedy brought "Diving Bell" to Harwood before director Julian Schnabel became involved. Similarly, "Cholera" producer Scott Steindorff first turned to Harwood to adapt the novel before enlisting Mike Newell as director. So it fell to Harwood to address some of the storytelling conundrums that each project posed.

In the case of "Cholera," which New Line is launching today, Harwood realized after reading the novel a second time that the suicide of a secondary character, which opens the novel and is used by Marquez to describe his story's setting in an unnamed Colombia town as well as to begin to sketch in its themes, is never referred to again in the book. So Harwood decided to begin the film with the death of Dr. Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), one point in the lifelong love triangle that also includes the romantic Florentino (Javier Bardem) and Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), the woman he loves. From there, Harwood chose to flash back to the beginning of the tale, which then proceeds in a fairly linear manner.

"At first, I tried to do the flashbacks from the point of view of the two characters, Florentino and Fermina, but it got slightly pretentious," he says. So he chose to tell the movie primarily through Florentino's eyes. Everything that Harwood chose to use from Marquez's novel "had to feed into the central love story."

As for "Diving Bell" — which Miramax introduces domestically Nov. 30 — after absorbing Bauby's memoir, Harwood hit upon the idea to tell the movie, quite literally, through the eyes of the stricken man. At first, the audience sees only what the paralyzed Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) sees as he gradually understands the severity of his condition. "The camera is Jean-Dominique Bauby," Harwood writes on the first page of his screenplay. "Once I had that idea," he says, "it was like a washing line that I could hang everything on. The idea was very liberating in every sense."

Harwood did a minimum of research on both projects. "I don't ever do much research," he says. "I think it can be inhibiting." In the case of "Diving Bell," though, he did meet with the mother of Bauby's children and one of his therapists. However, he steered clear of contacting Marquez while he was working on "Cholera." "Authors can become guardians of their own flame," he says. "I know, because I twice adapted my own plays, 'The Dresser' and 'Takings Sides.' " (Harwood does, however, report that after seeing the film, Marquez sent him "a nice letter.")

Instead, in approaching adaptations, Harwood says: "You try to absorb the book as much as you possibly can. You have to carry the subtext with you. If you do, then you can inject that subtext into all of the scenes and the dialogue."