After 52 years of quietude, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the epoch-defining 1967 novel by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia, is coming to screens everywhere — on Netflix.
The question is: How are they going to do it?
Last week, Netflix announced it had acquired the rights to create a 10-part series of the novel, which has sold an estimated 50 million copies in 46 languages. García Márquez died in 2014; his family had never allowed Solitude to be made into a film or TV show. (His other best-known work, Love in the Time of Cholera, was made into a 2007 film. The short novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold has been made into a film and a Broadway play.)
And yet … in the words of Steve Vásquez Dolph, assistant teaching professor in the department of global studies and modern languages at Temple University, “How are they going to do this sprawling, magical, multilayered masterpiece?” A lot of people are asking. “I like the idea of a series,” Dolph says. “A two-hour movie is never going to be able to do justice to what the novel does.”
Like what? Sheer sweep, for one thing: This epic follows the Buendía family through six generations, in which they establish a town in the midst of the jungle and endure a century of growth and change. More, this was the novel that introduced millions of readers to what’s called “magic realism,” storytelling in which magical or uncanny events intertwine with “real” ones, entangling characters’ subjective viewpoints with the facts.
A mechanic named Mauricio Babilonia is always being followed around by yellow butterflies. What do they mean? We never find out, exactly, but we know Mauricio is loved obsessively by a young woman named Meme; could this cloud of butterflies somehow relate to the way she sees this blunt, solemn man? There’s also Melquíades, a kind of magic man who, as it turns out, correctly predicts everything that happens — “we don’t get to see this until the end of the book, true,” Dolph says, “but it happens and we have to accept it.” There are also plagues of things like insomnia and forgetting. Magic realism keeps us asking: What’s true? What’s imagined?
“I really wonder how they’re going to handle that,” Dolph says.
“The novel definitely portrays political and historical reality in Colombia,” says Dustin Kidd, associate professor of sociology and director of intellectual heritage at Temple University. The coming of the railroad changes everything; there’s a massacre of workers by national troops on behalf of a U.S.-owned fruit company, based on a real 1928 massacre. “But the magical realism makes it free-floating,” Kidd says. “Naturally, people want explanations for the magic, but the text doesn’t give them the answers.”
“Plus time in the novel is fluid and cyclical,” Dolph says, “as memory keeps bringing back the past into the present. The past saturates the present, which is foretold, by Melquíades, for example, in the past.”
Good luck getting that on screen.
While the novel was written about Colombia by perhaps the most famous Colombian in history, the novel’s popularity and significance cross many borders. In Mexico and in Central and South America especially, it is seen as the Latin American novel, speaking for the many histories of the region’s many countries. People feel it is their novel – so much so that following the Nobel award, García Márquez said he felt the award committee “have taken into account the literature of the subcontinent and have awarded me as a way of awarding all of this literature.”
Kidd saw this in action when he spent spring break at Playa Zipolite in Oaxaca, Mexico. “I was there when the news came out,” he says. “It’s a beloved novel across a lot of cultures, so the Mexican people I heard discussing it were very excited. There are some worries. Most folks can think of something on Netflix that was either poorly made or got dropped. There’s a little bit of fear that they could mess it up. I love Netflix, too, and have the same reservations.”
It’s complicated. The Spanish-language series Narcos got a few boos in Nicaragua because the Nicaraguan accents were evidently not so good. And, as both Dolph and Kidd point out, Colombians have a complex, interracial heritage, lovingly played out in the novel: The Netflix Hundred Years will be closely watched to see how it portrays that diversity.
More important, in Kidd’s view, is who’s in the production suite, “who’s in the writing rooms making decisions about how to do it. If all you have is white North Americans in the room, you’ll fail. But if you have a diversity of Colombians in the room, it has a much better chance.” He says that for years in the United States, “Latinx identities have been conflated into one identity called ‘Hispanic.’ If you do that in this show, it won’t work.”
Dolph says he’s encouraged by some Netflix adaptations, such as the strikingly faithful Italian series My Brilliant Friend, based on the Elena Ferrante novel. “If it’s that true to the original,” Dolph says, “I’ll be very happy.”