Even If Netflix’s One Hundred Years of Solitude Inspires Wonder, Will It Be Enough?
Gabrielle Bellot on the Complexities of Adapting a Masterpiece
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice,” reads the famous first sentence of Gabriel García Márquez’s masterwork, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel has just begun, yet it is already extraordinary. We begin in the present’s future: not simply in the future, but “many years” after a certain point in time, and, once in that future, we are brought all the way back into the “distant” past. And the past we enter afterwards is distant indeed, if not primordial. García Márquez introduces Macondo, the marvelous village Aureliano Buendia is remembering:
At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet.
If the first sentence’s vertiginous whirl of timelines was not enough, it now seems that Macondo may exist in a kind of prehistory: a time in which things had not yet been named, a new Eden, with twenty houses of new Adams and Eves. The language is clear yet dense, almost biblical in its cadence. The ludic reference to “prehistoric eggs” suggests a world as old as the dinosaurs. Yet without missing a beat, we then enter time: there are now years and months, and it becomes clearer that Macondo lives in some kind of concrete time: the era when the magnet was still a novel discovery. Time is fluid and flexible here, a sea that rushes or stands still or swirls into a maelstrom. And reality, too, is protean; its rules can bend, such that the world can at once be recent and fixed in time, and the daughters of this clockless earth can float into the sky and men can be followed by swarms of butterflies and bullets can reach targets no normal gun could hit and the dead are as alive as the living.
It is a marvelous world, like the Caribbean one I grew up in—in interviews, García Márquez often declared himself a Caribbean writer—and to contain this outsized sense of reality, one needs a prose that is similarly larger-than-life, similarly hard yet dream-soft, similarly amorphous at its edges. “The problem,” he famously declared with a grin in a 1981 interview with The Paris Review, “is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”
It was an assertion that made sense to me, as I’ve written before of García Márquez’s particular Caribbeanness. If my island was small, its dreams were not, and we lived with grand farcicalities that we simply came to accept as inextricable patterns of our home’s fabric. The shape-shifting jablesses lived in the trees at night, where you might see their eyes glow like fireflies or the sea’s phosphorescence, and there were things you might not want to throw sticks or stones at in the day, lest they come back, in more terrifyingly humanoid form, in the night. Obeah men and women existed in the shadows, and you could go to them for charms and protections and spiritual attacks, sometimes via pin-stuck dolls, on personages you did not care for. God was real, really real.García Márquez received offers to adapt the novel, but always turned them down because they weren’t quite right.
Yet the unquestionably existent things were just as quietly miraculous. The brown or faintly orange beings we called donkey spiders, large as your hands, leapt incredible distances at you when enraged and moved with a preternatural speed up walls. (They were actually huntsman spiders; name notwithstanding, and despite their relative harmlessness, they made me check my bed each night to make sure none were under my pillow.) The fat geckoes we called mabouyas cackled in the night like delirious witches. Before the great flooding rains, little mothlike insects we called rain flies descended en masse upon our homes, and the world would soon be filled with the calls of mating frogs and the clicks of river crabs as they crossed the slick potholed roads. My father once swept, with a broom, an errant boa constrictor out of our laundry room.
The prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit lived, as he still does, as if he were more the emperor of the island than a mere elected official, in the way that small-island leaders can more easily believe that they truly rule an entire country due to its size, and the ridiculous things he did were just what we came to expect: flying in Dominicans on chartered flights to vote for him on election week, renaming “demonic” mountains to spiritually “cleanse” the island, erecting an obscene lavish government building only describable as a palace near to the abject poverty of zinc-roofed shacks in our capital city, entering restaurants with guards and telling its patrons they had to clear out, yes, I Roosevelt Skerrit am here and this is now my meeting room, all you have to go. If a woman knocked on your door on a rainy night wearing a long dress, you had to check to make sure one of her feet isn’t a goat’s, or you would have let in La Diablesse, a distaff demonic being. My cousins told me they saw her once in the forest, chests huffing from running, both amused and unnerved.
It was an attitude, not of gullibility, but just of ontological pliability. If you believed God could raise the dead and flood the planet at well, you could believe, as was once announced on the radio, that the presence of a “satanic” dancehall artist who was scheduled to perform in Dominica was the cause for missing goats and a car accident, or that two women who infamously passed each other and froze one afternoon were soucouyants, blood-sucking witches unable to continue walking unless one of them ceded power and allowed the other to go. (This latter incident drew a massive crowd and even appeared on the local news.) I retained this flexible attitude, at least while back home, even when I became an atheist—and many so-called magical realists or fabulists, like García Márquez, were similarly nonbelievers, from Salman Rushdie to Italo Calvino to Angela Carter.
As a child, though, I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear our stories. I just assumed my world was lesser than that of the Americans and Europeans I read books by. I didn’t yet know the language, the voice, of my home, even as I spoke it each day.
I discovered One Hundred Years of Solitude in a literature class. When I began it, I was astonished. Here was a book that captured, for the first time in my life, precisely the limber, luminous, ludic sense of reality I had felt growing up. It wasn’t a serious novel attempting to show a world overrun by plagues and dangerous magic; at the same time, it was precisely that, in the particular Caribbean way that we can chuckle at the Brobdingnagian absurdities we grow accustomed to expect as part and parcel of everyday life.
Life, García Márquez taught me, can be described in literature—but we each have to find the way of writing that fits the world we inhabit. There is no one-size-fits-all in writing; instead, some worlds can only be captured in certain ways. I have never forgotten this, and this is why García Márquez will always remain one of the brightest stars in my night sky.
I start with these sentences from the Colombian’s magisterial novel because they work so well precisely as that: sentences, in a book. Translating them to other languages is already trying, beautiful as the English version is; translating them to the screen is another story, one we will see played out when Netflix attempts to do just that in its recently announced adaptation of One Hundred Years of Solitude. This was long in the making. For years, García Márquez received offers to adapt the novel, but always turned them down because they weren’t quite right. (Fortunately, it seems the adaptation will be in Spanish, as García Márquez had hoped when he pondered adapting it, and Netflix has had some praiseworthy success in foreign-language productions for a global market, including Roma and Elite.) His sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo García, will be executive producer.
I can’t help but wonder about the Borgesian labyrinths that lead from books to films; it is never easy to fully capture the sort of magic a book can create on the screen, and vice versa, due largely to the difficulty of conveying the same tone on the screen as on a page.
To be sure, films and television shows can capture the marvelous and the fantastic in ways that recall García Márquez’s oeuvre. Amongst the earliest films ever produced were fantastical journeys, perhaps most notably Georges Méliès’ whimsical A Trip to the Moon (1902), in which men rocket up to a smiling moon and encounter lunar inhabitants called Selenites. The cartoons of the early twentieth century revealed a flexible reality where bodies could morph as easily as the rules of space and time. Even the very idea of projecting moving images onto a screen, in its earliest days, seemed magical. In his youth, my father saw one of his first movies in Dominica, an image projected onto a bedsheet hung across a wall; when a bull charged at the screen, my father got up and ran, thinking the bull would come clear through. Movies themselves are magic, even as too many of us have forgotten this, having grown so accustomed to their presence.I discovered One Hundred Years of Solitude in a literature class. When I began it, I was astonished.
Some of my happiest memories of watching films are the ones that blur ontological lines. Hayao Miyazaki’s movies often do just that, blending the firmly real and the fantastical in striking ways, as in Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, and Princess Mononoke. Federico Fellini’s charmingly peculiar Juliet of the Spirits (1965) moves seamlessly between a woman’s dreamlike imagination and the reality of dealing with a philandering spouse. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) imagines a reality in which the tropes of video games seamlessly exist in this world: bursting into coins, health bars, one-ups.
I’m no fan of horror—I’m the one who covers my face and curls up in my chair before a jump-scare—but I’ve always been impressed by how The Blair Witch Project (1999) attempted to make a seemingly supernatural attack seem real by its choice of filmography: found footage. Netflix’s own recent series, Russian Doll, portrays two characters who keep coming back from their deaths, slightly but disquietingly altering their realities over time, until they seem to irrevocably create separate timelines—a magical, science-fiction-esque idea that occurs squarely in a contemporary version of New York City. In other words, I have little doubt that magic akin to García Márquez’s can work on the screen. And García Márquez himself loved the cinema.
But what makes One Hundred Years of Solitude, like many of his other works, magical, is more than just the levitations, dizzying Faulknerian family tree, and porous timelines. It is his extraordinary style and love of language, which cannot be translated directly to any screen, even if some of the novel’s sentences are read aloud. How does one convey the whimsical disorientation of that opening sentence onscreen? One can try, certainly, and I have little doubt that the adaptation may do wondrous things that make me smile. But the fact is that García Márquez’s masterpiece is untranslatable, at least to other mediums; it can be attempted, but something striking will be lost. At best, something unique to the medium of film or television will try to replace that, but it will be different. And all adaptations are distinct, of course, but this one is special, for it requires attempting to translate an entire language, the baroque maximalist idiolect of García Márquez, rather than mere words arranged on a page. The atmosphere of the novel comes in part from its breathless sentences and colossal paragraphs punctuated by quick snippets of simple but operatic dialogue.
You can put the scenes onto a screen; I just don’t know that you can put the intangible atmospherics there, too, in quite the same way. I wonder how one might adapt a significantly shorter but perhaps even more challenging work by García Márquez, the short story “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship,” which is all one long remarkable sentence that jumps across time and space and life and death from comma to comma; like One Hundred Years of Solitude, it relies, in part, on its maximalist prose to convey something that can’t quite translate to any other medium. Some things come close, to be sure; I think of the exaggerated proportions in the paintings of Henri Rousseau or Fernando Botero, the dreamscapes of Leonora Carrington, or the erotic surrealism of Leonor Fini. But there is nonetheless something special—not better, just different—in García Márquez’s prose that can’t fully be done in any other form.
To be sure, I look forward to the adaptation, even as I’m wary of it. And perhaps my unease is simply because I love the book so much that I can only imagine an adaptation will lessen it, cheapen it, burnish it (and not in the way that burnished objects can hold their own special splendor, as Tanizaki Junichiro knew). I almost feel possessive. It was a book, after all, that taught me how to do my own kind of translation: capturing the baroque marvelousness of Caribbean life on the page. It validated my experience.
Still, it’s spectacular that García Márquez’s novel still has enough power to command an adaptation on such a visible platform. It will be a worthwhile test for Netflix to see if they attempt to be faithful to the novel—whatever that can mean, given the multilayered complexity of the book—or if they will simplify plot points for a global audience. It will be a directorial and visual test, too, of cinematic atmospherics, to see if Netflix can do the seemingly impossible: do on screen what this book does on the page. I have deep doubts, but I’m intrigued. And if this leads new readers to the novel and to his Collected Stories, Collected Novellas, Love in the Time of Cholera, Of Love and Other Demons, The General in His Labyrinth, and/or Strange Pilgrims, that alone will be enough. García Márquez’s world is simply too beautiful and memorable—even in its most funereal, devastating moments—not to share.