Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hemingway and his movies

When they took his stories to Hollywood, even Ernest Hemingway didn’t have the clout to get everything he wanted – but he got most of it. For example, they shot Old Man and the Sea in Peru, not Cuba, I think because Hemingway wanted a 1,000-pound Pacific marlin as Spencer Tracy’s co-star.
Consider this: Of the seven big budget Hemingway stories-cum-movies, not one was set in the U.S. although all were about Americans. Hemingway appears to find Americans more interesting in Pamplona than in Kansas City and we probably are, the expatriate experience being what it is.
So here are the seven major movies from Hemingway books with some carping by me. Generally I think Hemingway worked well on the screen because he didn’t like to write physical description and movies didn’t require it:

For Whom the Bell Tolls – Nobody understood the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) then or now but they trundled the cameras up to northern California in 1943 and got stoicism from Gary Cooper (Hemingway’s personal friend and ideal movie star) and legitimacy from Ingrid Bergman who had just finished Casablanca.

To Have and Have Not (1944) – This is remembered as the Bogart/Bacall picture and actually it’s a pretty good story about chasing Vichyite Nazis in Martinique. Some called it Casablanca in the Caribbean and there’s truth in that.

Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) – The original was a short story, not a novel. I find it tough to summon rooting interest in a protagonist who is a) unpleasantly self-indulgent and b) terminally ill. Gregory Peck tries but is miscast as a cynic.

The Sun Also Rises (1957) – Written in 1925, it is (my opinion) Hemingway’s best. Couple it with Green Hills of Africa and A Moveable Feast and you’ve got Hemingway in précis. Ty Power and Ava Gardner are fine, but Errol Flynn, as a roué, swipes the picture while enhancing it. I think TSAR stands with Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night as the best American novel. And both made splendid movies.

A Farewell to Arms – It was filmed twice, in 1932 with Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper and in 1957 with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. That was back when they gave actors lapidary names like Rock and accepted performances in kind. As a New York Times book reviewer declared in 1929, “The part which will sit least comfortably with the reader is Lt. Henry’s desertion.” This is a much-admired story, although not by me. Desertion in wartime (yes, even from the Italian Army in World War I) is not justified by a lyrical romance.

The Old Man and the Sea (1958) – Hemingway admitted, in the 1930s, that marlin were being “depopulated” in the Cuba/Key West/Bimini fishing grounds. And Hemingway worked to preserve the game fish even as he caught far more than his share and more than anyone could ever eat. For sharks, the bogiemen of the sea, to attack an injured game fish was just a day’s work. Hemingway used to shoot sharks with a tommy gun, so his character, the old man, could hardly have been surprised by a shark attack.

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