WITH their distinctive Latin American character - the poetic and philosophical depths, rich plots and moments of magical realism - the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez are a difficult challenge for any filmmaker.
No one has yet cracked One Hundred Years Of Solitude but the British director Mike Newell dived boldly into Love In The Time Of Cholera, a passionate romance about a Colombian telegraph boy whose love for a teenage beauty spans more than 50 years.
"Was I mad to even try it?" says the filmmaker best known for Four Weddings And A Funeral and Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire with a hearty laugh. "If you wish to give me a hard time, you're absolutely allowed to."
Speaking by phone from Morocco, where he's preparing to shoot the comic-action-romance Prince Of Persia ("sort of the same mixture as Pirates Of The Caribbean except it's more romantic"), Newell seems a little stung by the film's critical reception overseas and disappointing takings at the US box office, but he has no regrets about tackling a classic by Nobel Prize-winner Marquez.
"I loved the book with a greater passion than I think almost anything I've ever read," he says. "It's sort of up there with War And Peace. I felt that it was the most stunningly humane piece of writing that told the truth about people the way they were.
"The thing that got me above everything else was that both of my parents had died within a short time of one another. My father died first and my mother simply didn't care to go on living. What I found really, really moving about the Marquez book was that he tells the stories of whole lives."
The movie is another star turn for Oscar winner Javier Bardem, who has a soulful quality as the adult Florentino, whose blind love for the beautiful Fermina - played by Italy's Giovanna Mezzogiorno - survives her marriage to a dashing doctor played by Benjamin Bratt. In true Marquez fashion, Florentino manages to remain pure of heart despite more than 600 sexual encounters with other women.
Having been impressed with Bardem in The Sea Inside, Newell found the Spaniard a much lighter spirit in person - surprisingly jokey and flirty - but with the charisma for such a demanding role.
"The character is supposed to be small and sort of ratty - as unlike a classic romantic hero as it's possible to be," Newell says. "What Javier did, which was magnificent, was turn himself into a great big kind of mooning cheese. That big flat face of his, with the rugby player's broken nose, was something he switched on like a great big man in the moon. He gained a kind of naivety from that."
Before filming, Newell had what he calls a cry for help from Bardem, who at the time was working on the then little-known No Country For Old Men.
"I had to fly out and see him because he'd had a crisis about whether he could do this part [of Florentino] or should do this part and I had to kind of nurse him back into it," he says. "Only at that point had it really registered to me that he was making [No Country For Old Men] and I had no idea about it at all. He just talked about the haircut. He said, 'I don't say very much and I've got the most terrible haircut."'
His one in Love In The Time of Cholera is not much better.
Some critics have lamented the movie being made by a Brit instead of a great Latin filmmaker such as Pedro Almodovar, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Newell admits he wondered the same thing. "I thought, 'Boys, it's been there for 25 years and you didn't do it."' he says. "This is the 26th year and I'm going to take a crack.
"I thought quite certainly there's a native sensibility which, as a dreary old northern European, I suppose I'm bound to miss. But I find the material is so life-giving that even if I only demonstrated the bit of life it gives to me, then, dammit, that's excuse enough."
Love In The Time Of Cholera opens on May 22.