March 13, 2009

Bless Me Ultima: Set for Box Office Failure?

Carl Franklin to write and direct adaptation of classic novel by Rudolfo Anaya

By Bel Hernandez

Here we go again! The next Latino novel to be turned into a film and die a quick death at the box office will be Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima.

Why do I say this? Let me give you a couple of reasons: Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits and more recently Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Both great novels in the hands of the wrong filmmakers.

On March 3, 2009, Variety announced that Walmart heiress, Christy Walton, who is a big fan of Anaya’s award winning novel, has set up Tenaja Productions for the single purpose of financing this one film.

Sarah DiLeo met Walton in 2004 when they discovered a shared passion for Anaya’s novel about Antonio, a young boy growing up in New Mexico during World War II and his friendship with Ultima, an elderly medicine woman. Ultima helps the young boy navigate between the good and evil that rages in his village.

They decided then to option the novel. DiLeo whose only film-making credits are producing two short films was somehow able to convince Walton that she was the right person to get this film produced, more so than others who are of the culture and have more experience in the industry.

But Anaya was not interested. Anaya had already been down this Hollywood road before. During the 1980s and subsequently, he had been approached on separate occasions by Latino producers who had optioned his novel. Each time the producers were unable to raise the money. Too bad they didn’t meet up with Walton then. So Anaya was not looking to go down that road again. But now DiLeo had a willing investor with deep pockets and her tenacity finally paid off. She tracked Anaya down while he was vacationing in La Paz (and most likely offered a good chunk of money) until he relented.

DiLeo whose only credits on IMDB are for the production of two short films, now finds herself producing with some of Hollywood’s top tier players. She will be producing Bless Me Ultima with Mark Johnson (The Chronicles of Narnia) and his Gran Via Productions, as well as with Jesse B. Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress, Out of Time), who’ll produce through Monarch Pictures.

Don’t get me wrong, I am happy that this novel is on track to the big screen. What I fear is, that it’s already heading down the same road as the aforementioned failed films.

Carl Franklin, who directed the Denzel Washington feature Out of Time and most recently directed Rome for TV, has been tapped to both write and direct. “It talks about magic, miracles, acceptance and reconciliation,” Walton is quoted in Variety. “It’s a difficult book to adapt, and Carl is the person to do it.”

We’re talking magic realism here, and Franklin is the “person to do it”?

I can think of many other directors that would bring a lot more insight to this film. Alfonso Cuaron’s Little Princess has that magical realism, and he can write, too. Can we say Guillermo del Toro? Heck, bring in Alfonso Arau (Like Water For Chocolate) from out of the cold and give him a shot. He can do a hell of a job on this one.

These filmmakers bring a perspective and a sensitivity that this film needs, and like these there are other Latino filmmakers that can do a terrific job. Gregory Nava? Even Kenny Ortega would do a great job. But this film needs a Latino director.

I wonder how it would go over with the Black community if a Latino was deemed to be “the person to do it” and adapt and direct Malcolm X? Or what if there were no Black producers on The Color Purple? How would that have turned out?

Is it too much to ask that these filmmakers to at least avail themselves to a Latino producer as they move forward with this picture?

If you really want to do justice to this novel, Ms. Walton, these are important considerations that — if not your producers — then you need to tackle. For you, it’s probably not about the money, but rather bringing this great story to the screen. But you will not succeed if you do not have Latinos involved.

I again call your attention to the most recent disaster of a great novel gone bad on the screen: Love In the Time of Cholera. Here, too, the author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was reluctant for years to turn over his novel to filmmakers. When he finally gave in, he handed it to Ronald Harwood, a Brit to adapt.

We all know how that went. Not only was it panned, it also went on to lose $44 million dollars at the box office.

But the real tragedy was this film ruined a classic novel for the young generations who might not want to read it based on the film.

Don’t let this happen to Bless me Ultima.

Bel Hernandez is the publisher of Latin Heat, an entertainment trade publication focused on covering Latino Hollywood. For more info: Reprinted from LatinoLA.

Return to the Frontpage