The neighborhood

“Love in the Time of Cholera” was shot in Cartagena, Colombia, García Márquez’s early writing base. (Daniel Daza / Stone Village Pictures)

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia — THE suitor was determined, impassioned, even obsessed. But however fervently he pressed his case, he couldn't win over the object of his desire. Time and again he was told: I will not yield to you, not now, not ever.

Of course, Hollywood producers are in the habit of whispering sweet nothings to writers, even non-Nobel laureates, in hopes of making them surrender.

So for two solid years, Scott Steindorff wooed Gabriel García Márquez to license the film rights to "Love in the Time of Cholera," the Colombian author's bestselling ode to spiritual fidelity and septuagenarian sex. It wasn't a tussle for the faint of heart. But then, Steindorff didn't make the leap from building Midwestern shopping malls to filming prized literary works ("The Human Stain," "Empire Falls") by being a wuss.

"I'm very driven," he says, confessionally. "Doesn't always work in your personal life." Whether through his charm and sincerity, his checkbook, or some combination thereof, the producer finally prevailed.

Now, here is Steindorff, a middle-age movie executive in a damp white T-shirt, sweating under the Caribbean sun on a fall morning and apparently having the time of his life. That's a good thing too, considering the somewhat quixotic nature of his mission: to take a beloved Spanish-language literary novel and spin it into a mainstream Hollywood romantic fable about a couple older than 30 whose last names aren't Pitt and Jolie. And to film it in a country that, 40 years into a brutal civil war, still rates as one of the hemisphere's most hazardous.

"They think I'm out of my mind," the producer says of his pals back in Hollywood. "Everybody thinks I'm crazy."

Undeterred, Steindorff has set up camp in this languorous, colonial-era jewel of a city, miles removed from Colombia's tattered war zones, trailed by an accomplished, multinational crew: British director Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral"), Brazilian director of photography Alfonso Beato ("The Queen"), and South African playwright and screenwriter Ronald Harwood ("The Dresser"). His polyglot cast includes Spaniard Javier Bardem, Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Colombian John Leguizamo, Americans Benjamin Bratt and Liev Schreiber, and Mexican American Laura Harring ("Mulholland Drive").

The cast is so stocked with big names that it can afford to fill a secondary role with the leading lady of the Brazilian stage, Fernanda Montenegro. Among the other, almost overqualified performers are some of Colombia and Mexico's top up-and-coming film and television talent, including Catalina Sandino Moreno ("María Full of Grace"), Ana Claudia Talancón ("Fast Food Nation") and Angie Cepeda ("Love for Rent"). Not to mention the nearly 6,000 extras.

Then, of course, there's the source material, one of those rare books that scores with critics as well as a broad international public. Originally published in 1985, "Love in the Time of Cholera" tells the swooningly elegant tale of Florentino Ariza (Bardem), a lovesick gallant who spends 50 years pining after Fermina Daza (Mezzogiorno). A beautiful, ethereal, emotionally buttoned-up young woman, Fermina spurns Florentino's feverish entreaties, giving herself over instead to a ho-hum bourgeois marriage with the sensible, fastidious Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Bratt).

From a polite but fixated distance, Florentino stalks his beloved through the decades like some tropical Dante. Over the years he succumbs to the temptations of the flesh — several hundred times, all told — but his soul never wavers in its deathless commitment to Fermina. The New Line production is scheduled for a November release.

"It's like 'Romeo and Juliet' with a third act," says executive producer Dylan Russell, who pushed his Stone Village Pictures colleague Steindorff to reread García Márquez's novel a few years ago.

Hollywood stories about love and sex among the varicose-veined seem to come into vogue maybe once every 20 years, and then chiefly if the characters' lust is played for yuks or the old folks somehow can be transformed into adorable, hyper-hormonal adolescents (e.g. "Cocoon"). Far rarer, says Russell, are films such as "The Bridges of Madison County" that successfully depict the complex emotional chemistry of an autumnal affair.

Steindorff, though skeptical at first, seems to have come around to the idea that the film could succeed with a younger demographic. "My marketing guy wants to market the movie for younger audiences, which also was kind of shocking to me," he says. "But you know, it's a very popular book in universities in America. So I think it can resonate to a younger audience."

The movie's assets also include the brand-name appeal of García Márquez, 79, journalist, novelist, the alpha male of Latin America's literary lions, a writer who even in the twilight of his career is still treated like a rock star from Tijuana to Patagonia.

Yet García Márquez's books have had a hit-and-miss history of screen adaptations, possibly because they are so fully realized as literary works. Some adaptations, such as Ruy Guerra's "Eréndira" (1983) and Arturo Ripstein's "No One Writes to the Colonel" (1999), took risks that paid off in finding a visual equivalent to the author's fanciful imagery and ironic ruminations. But the writer's signature magic realism, the metaphorical richness that's so mesmerizing in the pure realm of a reader's imagination, can seem constricted or, conversely, over-the-top when rendered in cinema's shot-by-shot syntax.

Pulling a film together

HARWOOD, who won an adapted-screenplay Oscar for Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" (2002), acknowledges that when he first read the novel many years ago, "I was totally overwhelmed by it, but I never thought of it as a movie, I have to say. I thought it was too complex."

García Márquez has no actual control over the final screenplay, but Steindorff says that he consulted with the author, who passed along notes and reviewed the shooting script.

"I remember the first draft of the script, he said, 'The problem is that you and the writer have done too true of an adaptation. You need to depart from the book,' " Steindorff recalls. "And he has a great sense of humor, so we laughed and laughed."