How the movies mangle Hemingway.

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April 13 2007 12:56 PM

Hollywood Hemingway

How the movies mangled great fiction.

The Ernest Hemingway Collection DVD

In a story in The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury imagines a future in which books are banned and the only movies allowed are adaptations of Ernest Hemingway. "My God," one character screams, "how many times have I seen For Whom the Bell Tolls done! Thirty different versions. All realistic. Oh, realism! Oh, here, oh, now, oh hell!"

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Those wishing to understand that anguish now have a field guide: The Ernest Hemingway Collection, just out from 20th Century Fox. It doesn't include the film that seems to have inspired Bradbury's prophecy—1943's For Whom the Bell Tolls, a three-hour slog of bad makeup and snowy-mountain shootouts that was nominated for nine academy awards (winning one). But four of the five films in the collection follow the template it set: The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man. (Also included is Under My Skin, an uneven, black-and-white melodrama from 1950 based on the short story "My Old Man.") These are prime examples of a peculiar subgenre one might call Hollywood Hemingway: widescreen, Technicolor adaptations featuring foreign settings and doomed love, and always at least half an hour too long. Mostly products of the 1950s, they were made when Hemingway was a living legend and motion picture executives—thanks to the collapse of the studio system and the new ubiquity of television—were deeply insecure.

And so, with an eye toward glamour and prestige, they turned to the legend of Papa: traveler, soldier, hunter, lover. The first rule of Hollywood Hemingway is that the star must play an obvious stand-in for Hemingway himself. Adventures of a Young Man takes this the furthest, splashing its title across an oil-painted version of the famous Hemingway portrait by Yousuf Karsh; the protagonist's name may be "Nick Adams," but we're meant to recognize that he's really Ernest Hemingway. In that movie, Richard Beymer, fresh from playing Tony in West Side Story, does a competent Nick/Ernest, taking us from the character's Midwestern adolescence to his heroic performance as an ambulance driver in Italy.

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Those charged with playing the adult Hemingway have a tougher time. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, the preternaturally reticent Gregory Peck struggles to express the passionate egotism of Hemingway stand-in Harry Street; he looks especially silly—and surprisingly boyish—tracking big game. (Orson Welles might have done wonders with the role: Snows is basically Citizen Kaneon Safari.) Those hunting scenes aren't incidental, either: The genre requires at least one exotic locale and many dramatic landscape shots. In the days before the Discovery Channel, the footage wowed critics as well as audiences. Reviewing Snows in the Times, the famously conventional Bosley Crowther crowed that "the close-up of a swimming herd of hippopotamuses is the best one of game we've ever seen."

Hemingway told Ava Gardner, who plays—wonderfully—Harry Street's doomed lover, that the only things he liked in the movie were her and the hyena. Which may be the shrewdest thing he ever said about the movies—and not just because they are, in fact, the two best things in the film (Bernard Hermann's typically excellent score deserves a mention, too). 

As a critic, Hemingway adhered to a strangely superficial notion of "realism"—he was delighted, for example, when an actual Swedish boxer was cast in a TV version of his story "The Killers," in the role of the Swedish boxer. And he hoped that the great neorealist Vittorio De Sica would adapt The Old Man and the Sea in the style of Bicycle Thieves, using nonprofessional actors. According to his son Patrick, "pictures on the silver screen were nothing but pure illusion to Hemingway and not to be taken seriously." (Movie stars were, apparently, another matter.)

But the best Hemingway adaptations—sadly, not included in The Ernest Hemingway Collection—are those that embrace the artifice of filmmaking, rather than wishing it away. The most famous example is To Have and Have Not (1944), which the great director Howard Hawks thought he and Hemingway might make together. When Hemingway predictably declined, Hawks supposedly said, "I'll get Faulkner to do it; he can write better than you can anyway." William Faulkner did do it, and he and his co-writer, Jules Furthman, drew almost entirely from the first chapter of Hemingway's novel (and borrowed liberally from Casablanca as well). With their sharp, stylish dialogue, and the dark interiors and foggy nautical scenes captured by Hawks, the movie at least approaches the existential spirit of Hemingway's fiction—unlike the more superficially faithful adaptations from the 1950s.

The only Hollywood film to really capture that spirit, though, is Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946). The first 10 minutes adapt Hemingway's story of the same name with remarkable fidelity, right down to the clipped, tough-guy dialogue:

"What's it all about?"
"Hey, Al, bright boy wants to know what it's all about."
"Why don't you tell him?"
"What do you think it's all about?"
"I don't know."
"What do you think?"
"I wouldn't say."

Hemingway's dialogue is less naturalistic than it is poetic, and when it shows up verbatim (very occasionally) in The Ernest Hemingway Collection, it usually sounds preposterous. For The Killers, however, Siodmak crafted a chiaroscuro world suited to such aggressive, monosyllabic exchanges. His movie is not Hollywood Hemingway at all, but a classic example of a more famous genre: film noir. (To Have and Have Not has shades of film noir as well, and Hawks followed it with a noir classic, The Big Sleep.)

"The Killers" is a Nick Adams story, but Nick, the classic Hemingway stand-in, runs off early in the film, and the lead is taken over by a hard-boiled insurance investigator played by Edmond O'Brien, doing his best Humphrey Bogart. It's as though one is watching the transition from Hemingway's sensibility—tortured, macho, Romantic—to the ethos of cool that was just then taking hold in America. And it's mostly a relief: Those Hemingway men, all self-dramatization and inner melodrama, were a bit much to take. But something is lost as well: the anguished idealism, the (comparatively) frank emotional engagement. Watching the affectless O'Brien return to his insurance office at the end of the movie, I almost began to miss the awkward enthusiasm of Gregory Peck, boyishly chasing hippopotami.

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