The problem with transferring dazzlingly written, dense novels to the screen is that movies can often capture the rich visual aspects, but rarely the psychological and literary depth. Such is the case with Mike Newell’s Love in the Time of Cholera, a very professional film that is the cinematic equivalent of a Cliff’s Notes volume.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1985 novel spans more than half a century and is a lush, bawdy, unforgettable treatise on the undying nature of true love. Set in the crumbling but beautiful city of Cartagena, Colombia, the story begins in the late 1870s and tells how young clerk Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem) falls for Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), the daughter of an upwardly mobile, and unsavory, businessman (John Leguizamo). When the father objects to their relationship, he spirits the daughter away to a distant village. After she returns to the city, she rejects her former love and eventually marries distinguished Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt).

But Florentino never gives up on Fermina, and even though he becomes a serial womanizer—chalking up over 600 affairs—he yearns only for his first love. When, around 1930, Fermina’s husband dies, Florentino rushes to her house and pledges his undying passion on the day of the man’s funeral. Fermina angrily rejects him, but over the course of the next several months they begin to exchange a series of letters, and soon a passionate late-life affair blooms.

Filled with incident, exotic characters and a real sense of place, Garcia Marquez’s novel is told episodically, in a prose style filled with dreamlike passages, bawdy humor and that heightened sense of reality known as magical realism. British director Mike Newell would seem to be the last person in the world able to tackle this particularly Latin American tale, but he has done a decent enough job, particularly in a visual sense. Shooting in the colorful city of Cartagena certainly helped, and Affonso Beato’s rich visual palette makes Love in the Time of Cholera a joy to behold.

The basic problem lies in the screenplay, which should be no surprise. Condensing a densely packed 350-page novel into a two-hour film is never an easy task, but in this case, the estimable Ronald Harwood (The Dresser, The Pianist) has written what seems like a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the book. Characters come and go, incidents pop up and then are forgotten, time shuffles forward, then leaps ahead. At least one of the main players, Dr. Urbino, comes off as a total cipher (not helped by Bratt’s stiff performance), and several of Ariza’s lovers, some of whom have major roles in the book, are given nothing more than short, bare-breasted interludes.

It’s not a bad movie, and certainly ends on a sweet note of enduring love. But even though Bardem gives his usual fine performance, and Mezzogiorno is a charming presence, Love in the Time of Cholera leaves about as much impression as a one-night stand. It’s a decent shot at a complex work, but ultimately, the book is way more evocative than any film.