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MOVIES : The Mystical Isabel Allende : The Chilean-born writer's five novels have intrigued Hollywood, but she never felt they were destined to be movies. Then she took a chance on director Bille August's vision for 'The House of the Spirits'--and made peace with it

March 27, 1994|BLAISE SIMPSON | Blaise Simpson is a free - lance writer based in San Francisco. and

SAUSALITO, Calif. — Isabel Allende is in an enviable position. At 51, the Chilean-born novelist is internationally admired, with five bestsellers already published in 27 languages and a sixth book on the way. And soon her audience will be even wider, thanks to the imminent release of two films based on her novels: "The House of the Spirits" (starring Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons and Winona Ryder, opening Friday) and "Of Love and Shadows" (which will open later this year).

But although Allende is poised for newfound cinematic fame, don't imagine that it is because she has courted Hollywood's attention. On the contrary, when the U.S. publication, in 1985, of "The House of the Spirits" created interest among agents and producers, Allende put the kibosh on the bidding.

"I was not very impressed, to tell you the truth," she explains in an interview in her work studio here. "I had the feeling that most of the offers were from producers or directors who just wanted to get the option so that nobody else could make the movie, not because they had a vision of it or any interest in the story. It's a very complicated story, and I didn't think it was possible to make it into a comprehensible film."

And several years later, when Bille August, the Danish director of the Academy Award-winning "Pelle the Conqueror," approached Allende about making the film, she flatly turned him down.

"He didn't pay any attention," Allende says with a laugh. "He just came to San Francisco, rented a theater and showed me 'Pelle.' I was very impressed. Afterward we had a cup of coffee, and within 20 minutes I realized that he was totally in love with the story of 'The House of the Spirits.' He knew the book by heart, all the characters, everything. And he had a very clear vision of how that could be turned into a two-hour movie."

August's vision did not include much of the surrealist imagery that Allende's work is known for.

"He was very clear about what could be done and what could not be done," she says. "He said that all the magic elements of the book would have to be eliminated."

The director defends his decision as a way of making the film believable.

"It was a question of balance all the time because supernatural effects in a movie can look ridiculous, and it becomes a sort of special-effects story," August explains. "Since the story deals with such powerful realism as well, we decided to do it this way."

But this is nearly heretical, considering just how important magical realism--the dreamlike Latin American literary style pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez--is to Allende's book and, in fact, to her own life. Her work space, in a former coach house just across a cobblestone alley from the law offices of her second husband, William Gordon, reflects the fantasy of her imagination. Antique embroidery, folk carvings and clay artifacts that look as if they were unearthed by Indiana Jones are mounted above doorways and the fireplace mantle.

Rows of first editions of her books straddle long shelves on a wall behind her desk. Allende herself is petite and lovely, dressed like one of her heroines in a long green velvet gown with a wispy black vest thrown over it. Verdigris pendants in the shape of tiny tree frogs, moons and stars dangle from her earrings. Her warmth and good humor are infectious, but she is also intensely focused, a New Age earth mother with the mental acuity of a Harvard MBA.

"The House of the Spirits" spans three generations of a mythic South American family, the Truebas, that closely resembles Allende's own.

It begins shortly after the turn of the century with a romance between the autocratic patriarch, Esteban Trueba, and Clara, his clairvoyant wife, then moves on through decades and innumerable plot twists into a disturbing present in which Esteban's leftist-leaning granddaughter is arrested and tortured by a right-wing dictatorship that threatens to destroy both the family and their country. The similarity between the story and its characters and Allende--the niece of the former Marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende Gossens, who was assassinated 21 years ago during a coup--and her family is undeniable even if some of the details are quite different.

"It is loosely based on my family," she acknowledges. "It started as a sort of a chronicle of the family, but in the very first paragraph I realized that fiction had taken over."

So Allende's great-aunt did not have green hair, as does Clara's sister, Rosa the Beautiful, in the book, and her grandfather was not a rapist and murderer like Esteban. Nor could her grandmother play the piano with the lid over the keys, as Clara does in the novel.

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