The Colombian-born writer's sweeping narrative, evocative and sensory imagery, and spellbinding storytelling cannot be reduced to the requirements of a screenplay - translated to what viewers can see and hear within a couple of hours. Whereas the novel conveys what characters feel, think, remember and forget, the movie merely shows what they do.
Despite the talents of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist"), only the pale ghost of the Nobel Prize-winner's love story lingers on screen.
Even if you haven't read the book, several things about Brit Mike Newell's direction ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral") will strike you as wrong from the opening moments. The tone wavers unsteadily between drama and comedy, as wealthy Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) teeters on a ladder and falls to his death. His widow Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) sinks into a swamp of grief, and the romantic Florentino Ariza (Javiar Bardem) - who has loved her for 51 years, nine months and four days - declares his undying devotion once again.
The principal cast members look like actors pretending to play elderly characters instead of making us believe they are. The acting doesn't improve when the film flashes back a half century. As the father of the teenage Fermina, John Leguizamo chomps on a cigar while spewing anachronistic dialogue out the other side of his mouth. Sometimes he mumbles lines like Brando in "The Godfather." Big and broad also characterize the performances of Hector Elizondo, playing the successful uncle of the young Florentino (Unax Ugalde), and Fernanda Montenegra as his doting mother.
The film flits from era to era, as Fermina's father takes her far away from Florentino and his love letters. The young woman marries the good doctor, and they spend two honeymoon years in Paris.
The film has no dramatic conflict, only the trite reminders of unrequited love expressed in Florentino's occasional voiceover: "Life is like the sea - turbulent" or "She's a splinter I cannot pull out" or "My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse." Meanwhile, the lovesick man dulls his pain through a series of sexual conquests - 622, to be exact.
Despite the challenges of adaptation, one wonders if a director like Alfonso Arau ("Like Water for Chocolate") might have captured some of the novel's magical realism, or if the talented cast might have performed more convincingly if speaking Spanish. Instead a few humorous scenes offer comic relief on the big screen, while the masterpiece about love and life can only be found on the printed page.