Gabriel García Márquez and the cinema

The Ransom Center’s current exhibition is the first culled from García Márquez’s massive archive. “There was a time when the cinema interested me much more than the novel," the Nobel laureate author once said.


Many know Gabriel García Márquez for his masterpiece “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” for popularizing magical realism with a world-wide readership, and for his Nobel Prize for Literature. Ardent readers know his other spellbinding novels: “Love in the Time of Cholera,” “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” or “The General in His Labyrinth.” A few know that he started his career as a journalist.

But few know of García Márquez’s life-long involvement with cinema, first as a film critic, then as a screenwriter, and finally as a director of a film school.

In the exhibition, “Gabriel García Márquez: The Making of a Global Writer,” the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, curator Álvaro Santana-Acuña includes several examples of the novelist’s deep engagement with film. The exhibition is the first culled from García Márquez’s massive archive which the University of Texas research library acquired in 2014.

García Márquez’s love of movies bloomed during his childhood in Aracataca, in the Caribbean region of northern Colombia. After his birth in 1927 he spent the next nine years with his grandparents. His parents, and an annually increasing number of siblings, lived elsewhere.

His grandfather Col. Nicolás Márquez took Gabito everywhere in the small town, often to the Olympia movie theater. The colonel had the boy retell the plots of movies they had seen – Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula,” for instance. Besides instilling a strong sense of harsh realism through tales of his experiences in Colombia’s turn-of-the-century civil war, the colonel helped forge an understanding of narrative structure. As counterpoint, Gabito’s grandmother unleashed his magical imagination by sharing her fanciful dreams and folklore.

After high school in Barranquilla and Bogotá, García Márquez reluctantly started to study law. However, the assassination of Jorge Gaitán, the immensely popular leftist presidential candidate, unleashed another bloody Colombian war between Liberals and Conservatives. And the university García Márquez was attending shut down.

Relocated to the relatively safer Caribbean port city of Cartagena, García Márquez began a career in journalism in 1948. For the next seven years he wrote articles for El Universal, Barranquilla’s El Heraldo, and Bogota’s El Espectador. Besides whimsical contemplations of such subjects as comic strips, Greta Garbo’s feet, the boxer Joe Louis, Charlie Chaplin, Edgar Allan Poe, and Rita Hayworth, García Márquez frequently wrote about movies.

In his literary articles Gabo — as his friends called him — revealed a deep admiration for the fiction of William Faulkner, set in the imaginary Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha (a forerunner of García Márquez’s Macondo).

Through his journalism, García Márquez developed an understanding of how the film narrative worked, not just through the plot, acting, and dialogue, but in how the camera was used in revealing the story. He deemed the Italian neo-realist “Bicycle Thieves” “the most humane film ever made.” And De Sica’s “Miracle in Milan” (1951) had an even greater impact on the young author. With its mixture of neo-realism and fantasy, that lovely film paved the way for García Márquez’s own ground-breaking style of magical realism.

Before leaving his group of creative friends in Barranquilla, García Márquez helped write a screenplay for “Langosta Azul,” a short avant-garde film they self-produced.

In 1955, after infuriating the Colombian president with an article revealing a government cover-up, García Márquez was reassigned to Europe as foreign correspondent for El Espectador. While in Rome he was impressed by La Scuola Sperimentale di Cinematografia, where future Latin American directors were studying and learning filmmaking techniques.

Gabo returned to Barranquilla in 1958 to marry Mercedes Barcha, who would provide love and emotional support for 56 years. Three years later, a 34-year-old García Márquez, along with wife and two-year-old son Rodrigo, moved to Mexico City with the singular goal of becoming a screenwriter “to reach the multitudes.”

García Márquez quickly befriended a group of young filmmakers eager to make their mark on Mexican cinema, whose Golden Age of the 1940s and 50s was decidedly over. Gabo’s first job was editing two magazines for film producer Gustavo Alatriste. At the same time García Márquez published two more novels — “No One Writes to the Colonel” (1961) and “In the Evil Hour” (1962). The García Márquez family reached its maximum number with the birth of Gonzalo.

Gabo’s first film assignment was to help Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes — already world-famous for his 1958 novel “Where the Air Is Clear” — with a screenplay for “El gallo de oro.” Directed by veteran filmmaker Roberto Gavaldón, the final version of the film proved a great disappointment for Gabo.

A more enjoyable project arose in 1965 when his own short story “En este pueblo no hay ladrones” was turned into a film by Alberto Isaac with a cast including surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel as a priest (you should be laughing now), writer Juan Rulfo and cultural critic Carlos Monsiváis as domino players, and British-born surrealist painter Leonora Carrington as a villager.

Gabo next wrote the screenplay for the debut film of director Arturo Ripstein, “Tiempo de morir.” Once more Fuentes assisted with dialogue. But with Ripstein on board, the screenplay was turned into a very compelling Western. The Ransom Center exhibition displays several pages of the “Tiempo de morir” script.

While making all these forays into Mexico’s film industry, García Márquez was also busily working on his magnum opus, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” When it was finally published in Buenos Aires in May 1967, the book sent ripples throughout Latin America and Europe. After a March 1970 New York Times review of the English translation, García Márquez became world-famous. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” would go on to sell over 30 million copies.

“There was a time when the cinema interested me much more than the novel. I believed it was a means of expression that made it possible to go much further than with literature,” García Márquez once mused. “I can guarantee that practically all the stories contained in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ have passed over the desks of film producers, who rejected them saying they were unrealistic and wouldn’t appeal to people. At the time I was bitterly disappointed. I felt so out of place in the film world that I began writing ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ which as I’ve always said is written against the cinema, in the sense that it sets out to show that literature has a much vaster scope, much greater possibilities for reaching people than the cinema.”

Nevertheless, Gabo couldn’t abandon cinema forever. As his fame grew, so did appeals for permission to turn stories and novels into films. “The Autumn of the Patriarch” was published in Spain in 1975. The Ransom Center exhibition features a 1997 fax to García Márquez from Marlon Brando indicating his wish to film “The Autumn of the Patriarch” This is one of many “What might’ve beens” in the film world.

After an eight-year writing sojourn in Barcelona, García Márquez and his family returned to Mexico City, where he graciously offered his services as a screenwriter. Two well-established directors eagerly accepted his offer. Felipe Cazals was already exploring the darker regions of Mexican history through documentaries and narrative features. García Márquez collaborated with him on a screenplay for “El año de la peste” (1978), which revealed a governmental coverup of an epidemic in a Mexican town.

Jaime Humberto Hermosillo had already proven his big-screen ability to uncover the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie. He and Gabo held long, intense conversations about plot lines and characters. The director then wrote a screenplay, which the novelist revised until both were satisfied. The resulting film, “María de mi corazón” (1979), offered the tragic story of a woman trapped in a mental hospital. The writer/director collaboration was so enjoyable that Hermosillo and Gabo would work on two more scripts, one of which would be produced, the other (“La Gloria Secreta”) not.

After the momentous reception of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, García Márquez considered what he could do next. Because of a deep friendship with Fidel Castro, Gabo was invited to direct Cuba’s new international film and television school in 1986. Its purpose: “To train professional directors in Latin America, Asia and Africa.”

Undated photography of Gabriel García Márquez with Fidel Castro
Undated photography of Gabriel García Márquez with Fidel Castro. Gabriel García Márquez Collection, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin

Even while busy running a school and teaching classes, Gabo managed to write other notable novels. The year 1989 brought the publication of “The General in His Labyrinth,” a portrait of Simón Bolívar at the end of his life, his dreams of a united South America as broken as his body. The Ransom exhibition features an enticing letter from director Francis Ford Coppola, who wanted to turn the novel into an epic film in 2008. The two men exchanged written hugs, but nothing followed.

Still in Cuba, Gabo received financing from Spain’s PBS-equivalent to create a series of films made by five established Latin American directors and one from Spain. The theme of the series: love’s difficulties. For one of the six films, the novelist worked again with Jaime Humberto Hermosillo. The only difficulty surfacing during the production of “The Summer of Miss Forbes” was the demanding star Hanna Schygulla. Interesting to note is that Gabo’s oldest son, Rodrigo, handled the cinematography, his first step into a successful career in filmmaking.

Arturo Ripstein’s excellent film version of Gabo’s second novel “No One Writes to the Colonel” was released in 1999, apparently without input from the novelist.

The 21st century saw García Márquez grappling with lymphatic cancer, but treatment in a Los Angeles hospital seemed to be successful. In 2003 he issued the first and only volume in his proposed trilogy of memoirs. His final book, “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” was published in 2004.

Gabo died at the age of 87 on April 17, 2014 in Mexico City. Besides creating some of the finest novels ever written, he made his mark on the film world. He summed that up: “I cannot live with cinema or without cinema and judging from the quantity of offers I receive from producers, cinema feels the same way about me.”

Fortunately, the one work that he always held back from the eager hands of producers and directors was “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” García Márquez knew that it covered too much time, had too many characters, and told of too many events to be easily turned into a film, even a four-hour epic.

However now García Márquez’s two sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo, have a contract with Netflix to executive produce a series based on “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” projected for release in 2021-2022. I hope there will be 100 episodes of joy and excitement.

“Gabriel García Márquez: The Making of a Global Writer” is on view through July 19 at the Harry Ransom Center,

Sources and further reading

Chale Nafus
Chale Nafus
Born in Dallas during World War II, Chale Nafus attended public schools, spent summers on his sister’s ranch in the 1950s, learned Spanish from school friends, and dreamed of getting out of Dallas. After studying at SMU, the University of Texas at Arlington (B.A., English), La Universidad Autónoma de México, and UT Austin (M.A. English/RTF), Chale began a long college teaching career at Texas Southmost College (Brownsville), La Universidad de Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Kingsborough Community College (Brooklyn), and finally Austin Community College (1973-1998). At the latter he founded the department of Radio-TV-Film. For 13 years (2002 –2015) Chale was the director of programming at the Austin Film Society.

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