by Cindy Ramirez, El Paso Matters
September 6, 2023
Benjamin Alire Sáenz has a straightforward opinion about his acclaimed book having been adapted into a movie.
“I get to be the winner,” Sáenz said with an unapologetic chuckle. “People go to the movies and they say, ‘I really loved the movie, but I liked the book better.’”
The El Paso author and poet talks proudly about “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” the movie based on his young adult novel by the same title that hits theaters on Friday with some select screenings on Thursday.
“I’d give it a 9.5 out of 10,” the 69-year-old said, sitting at his writing desk in his East Central home as he talked with El Paso Matters last week. “It’s a wonderful movie, but I had to take myself out of it when watching it. I had to watch it without focusing on my book. A movie is never a literal translation of the book; it’s not supposed to be.”
“But she did stick to the meaning of my book completely – to the spirit of the book,” he said.
Sáenz referred to writer and director Aitch Alberto, who adapted the novel into the PG-13 movie that is part drama, part comedy and part fantasy. It has a 100% rating on the Tomatometer – a score based on opinions of film critics on the Rotten Tomatoes movie rating website. The “Aristotle and Dante” rating comprises close to 20 reviews so far, including one by the entertainment magazine Variety.
“It’s easy to reduce ‘Aristotle and Dante’ to a queer coming-of-age story, but as told, it’s also one of the most well-rounded teen movies around,” the review reads. The book was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Young Adult Novels of All Time.
Set in El Paso in the 1980s, the story centers on two Mexican-American teenagers – lonely introvert Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza and creative free-spirit Dante Quintana – who become friends and fall in love.
“The movie, like the book, is a love story,” Sáenz said. “But it’s not just Ari discovering he loves Dante. It’s Ari discovering that he loves his parents – and that he loves himself, too.”
Sáenz said he believes the movie will resonate with diverse audiences.
“It’s really a difficult time in life when you’re 15. Most 15-year-olds are miserable in one way or another because they’re just getting to know themselves,” he said. “More than the gay thing, we relate to (that time) of our lives on a universal level because of how those years shaped us, no matter who we turned out to be.”
Sáenz, who is openly gay, said he sees a little bit of himself in both characters as they ask themselves questions most teens ponder: “Am I who I tell myself I am ? Or am I who they tell me I am?”
Alberto, the movie’s director, makes no qualms about the novel’s impact on her. “This book changed the course of my life,” she recently posted on Instagram.
Telling “The Queer Review” that she first read the book in 2014 “in one sitting,” Alberto, a transgender woman, said, “It unlocked something in me that I can’t ever put into words. It set me on a journey that has quite literally changed my life, not only creatively, but personally, too.”
The film is produced by actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also narrates the Ari & Date audio books and received a Grammy nomination for his work. It stars newcomers Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales playing Aristotle and Dante, respectively, as well as Eva Longoria. Eugenio Derbez and Kyra Sedgwick, who served as producers, also star in the movie.
“It fills me with so much joy to know that soon this movie will be out in the world and will be able to touch, heal and soothe hearts and souls,” Pelayo posted on Instagram in June. “I am indescribably blessed to have been a part of creating this film.”
“Aristotle and Dante” premiered at the International Toronto Film Festival in September 2022, and had its U.S. premiere at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January.
Though actual footage of El Paso is only shown during the credits, Sáenz said the movie makes many references to the city and the border that audiences familiar with the region will recognize. He added that the movie is “more Mexican than my book,” depicting the culture of the city he loves.
Born in Old Picacho near Las Cruces, Sáenz calls El Paso home and says his travels led him back here to find himself.
“Here in the city is where I fight all my battles. This is where I have made friends with remarkable, beautiful, sophisticated, hard working people who are making the world a better place,” Sáenz said in his TEDx ElPaso talk in April.
In his talk, “I Lost Myself and Found Myself in the City in Which I Love,” Sáenz spoke about his “love stories” – his love of El Paso, love for writing and love for life – and compared his “misunderstood” life to the city he says is not often understood itself.
A graduate of Las Cruces High School, Sáenz entered the St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and later the University of Louvain in Belgium. He became an ordained Catholic priest, but left the priesthood three years later.
He earned a master's in creative writing from the University of Texas at El Paso then spent a year at the University of Iowa as a doctoral student in American literature. He moved back to El Paso and taught in UTEP’s bilingual master of fine arts program, also serving as department chair.
“Calendar of Dust,” his first poetry collection, won an American Book Award in 1992. His collection of short stories, “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club,” about the renowned Juárez bar, earned him the 2013 PEN/ Faulkner Award for Fiction – the first Latino and only the second gay writer to be honored with the prestigious award. In 2020, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement award from the Texas Institute of Letters.
The sequel to the Ari and Dante book, “Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World,” reached No. 1 on the New York Times Best Sellers young adult novels list.
So will there be an Ari and Dante movie sequel, too?
“If I had my way,” Sáenz said confidently, “I would make the second book a TV series – and cut none of it out, and not change a thing.”
Ari and Dante
“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” will be released in movie theaters across the country on Friday, with some select screenings on Thursday.
For El Paso-area movie listings, visit Fandango.
Author Benjamin Alire Sáenz, whose novel is the basis of the movie, will sign copies of his book ahead of Saturday’s movie screening at Alamo Drafthouse Montecillo, 250 Montecillo Blvd. on the West Side. He’ll also participate in a live Q&A inside the theater following the movie, which is set to start at 7 p.m.
You can find Sáenz’s books and other merchandise at Benjamin Ink.