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Hemingway and Film by David A. Rennie

Hemingway and Film

Hemingway’s relationship with Hollywood was complicated. Frequently, he disliked cinematic interpretations of his work. On the other hand, Hemingway benefitted financially from the sale of film rights and befriended actors such as Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, and Ava Gardner. For better or for worse, film has been hugely influential in building (and sustaining) the popular conception of Hemingway as a tough, hard-drinking, hunter-come-writer. Through movie adaptations, Hemingway’s celebrity reached global proportions. Although he craved and enjoyed this success, increased fame brought about by adaptations of works such as A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls brought unwanted media attention and distraction into his life, and fed the fires of an ego that sometimes threatened to overwhelm even Hemingway’s colossal talents.

Despite the high number of Hemingway film adaptations, it is probable that Hemingway only visited Hollywood once in 1937 as part of his campaign to raise funds for the Republican cause in the ongoing Spanish Civil War. While in town, Hemingway spoke at a screening of The Spanish Earth, a pro-Republican film he had helped to make, at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium. Hemingway also added a voice-over for the film at Paramount Studios, replacing a commentary provided by Orson Welles which he had found too theatrical. It was in Hollywood that Hemingway saw his former friend and fellow writer F. Scott Fitzgerald for the last time. This was at the home of actor Frederic March, who won an Academy Award for his performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), where The Spanish Earth was also screened. Fitzgerald and Hemingway had been friends since their meeting in Paris in 1925, and Fitzgerald had helped negotiate the younger writer’s much-desired move to Scribner’s publishing house, who issued Fitzgerald’s works. By 1937 the tables had turned. Hemingway was a respected and financially successful writer. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, had failed to support his family as an author and was reduced to screenwriting work, which stymied his literary career. The party continued at Dorothy Parker’s house with Hemingway and Fitzgerald present, but Fitzgerald was reluctant to speak to his former protégé.

Despite his minimal personal involvement in Hollywood, Hemingway’s compelling life has been the subject of several films. The critically-panned Richard Attenborough-directed In Love and War (2001) reimagined Hemingway’s experiences on the Italian Front as an ambulance driver during World War I, in which Sandra Bullock was cast as Hemingway’s real-life World War I love interest, Agnes von Kurowsky. More notably, Hemingway featured briefly as a character in Woody Allen’s Academy Award-winning Midnight in Paris (2011), in which a modern-day screenwriter travels back in time to 1920s Paris, where he encounters Hemingway and other luminaries from the era such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Picasso. Meanwhile, Hemingway’s extra-marital affair with journalist Martha Gellhorn and experience as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War was made into a film starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman in 2012. More recently, Papa: Hemingway in Cuba (2015) reimagines Hemingway’s life in Cuba at the time of the Castro revolution. And Hemingway also features as a character in 2016’s Genius, a film about the relationship between writer Thomas Woolf (Jude Law) and Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth).

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

The first big screen adaptation of Hemingway’s work was a treatment of his 1929 World War I novel, A Farewell to Arms, in which Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver serving on the Italian front, meets and falls in love with a British nurse named Catherine Barkley. Henry was played by Gary Cooper, with whom Hemingway would later form a strong friendship after their meeting in Idaho during 1940. Hemingway’s relationship with Cooper was one of the most positive and long-lived of all those he formed with any Hollywood figure. Following their meeting Hemingway was fulsome in his praise of the actor, noting his straightforward demeanour and fine shooting skills. Cooper would also star in a 1943 screen adaptation of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Having bonded over their shared love of the outdoors, Hemingway and Cooper remained friends until they died just a few weeks apart in 1961.

Hemingway was greatly displeased by the news that the director, Frank Borzage, had created a version of A Farewell to Arms with a happy ending, in which Catherine lives (she dies in childbirth in the novel). Ultimately, Borzage did conclude the film with the death of Catherine, but Hemingway was unimpressed and declined to attend an advance screening in favour of going duck hunting. A Farewell to Arms was also made into a movie in 1957, starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. This version also failed to win Hemingway’s approval. Director David O Selznick’s decision to cast his wife (who was nearly forty) as the twenty-something Catherine Barkley greatly displeased Hemingway. His lack of enthusiasm was vindicated by the film’s poor critical reception, which marked the end of Selznick’s directorial career.

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

In this adaptation of Hemingway’s bestselling 1940 Spanish Civil War novel, an International Brigades volunteer, Robert Jordan, falls in love with Maria, a young Republican guerrilla fighter, as he assists a band of rebels in blowing a strategically important bridge. Hemingway personally selected his friend Gary Cooper for the role of Jordan and insisted that Ingrid Bergman play Maria. Hemingway had seen Bergman in Intermezzo (1939) and thought she would be perfect for the part. In 1941 Bergman drove to San Francisco to meet Hemingway where, over lunch, he took greatly to the young actress. He even went so far as to check the shape of her ears, which he deemed just right for the role. Although the studio stripped away much of the novel’s political content, this was one of the more successful Hemingway adaptations, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1943. Both Cooper and Bergman received Oscar nominations, while Hemingway reportedly earned $110,000 for the film rights.

To Have and Have Not (1944)

This adaptation, starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Brennan, and Lauren Bacall differed substantially from Hemingway’s 1937 novel of smuggling on the Florida Keys. In the film, the action is set during World War II, where Harry Morgan, who makes a living leading fishing parties on his boat, becomes embroiled in the activities of the French Free Resistance on the German-controlled island of Martinique. The script for To Have and Have Not also involved the work of another literary heavyweight, Hemingway's rival, William Faulkner, who was supplementing his literary income by working in Hollywood. During the filming Bogart, though already married, fell in love with his much younger co-star Lauren Bacall, whom he would leave his wife for. The couple remained together until Bogart’s death in 1957.

The Killers (1946)

Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner star in this adaptation of Hemingway’s 1927 eponymous short story, in which a life insurance investigator attempts to locate the beneficiary Ole Anderson, a former boxer who becomes embroiled in organised crime. Hemingway earned $36,750 for the rights to the film (which only slightly follows the outline of his story). Hemingway was often disappointed by screen adaptations of his work. Unusually, however, he liked this film. ‘The Killers’ was adapted for the silver screen on two more occasions. In 1956, by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, and again in 1964 by Universal Studios in a version that starred future US president Ronald Regan in his last screen role.

The Sun Also Rises (1957)

Ava Gardner and Errol Flynn starred in this adaptation of Hemingway’s breakthrough 1926 novel. In Hemingway’s original, a group of American expatriates living in Paris attend the San Fermin bullfighting festival in Pamplona. At the centre of the story is the glamorous socialite Lady Brett Ashley, who is romantically involved with a number of suitors, including the injured war-veteran Jake Barnes and the dashing bullfighting prodigy Pedro Romero. Hemingway and Gardner became friends after meeting in Spain in 1957, and Hemingway introduced her to the bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin, the son of Domingo Dominguin, a real bullfighter who formed the basis of Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises. Life imitated art to an extent when Gardner began dating Luis, whose father inspired her on-screen lover in the movie. Gardner starred in three Hemingway adaptations, including The Killers (1946) and The Snows of Kilimanjaro(1952). Hemingway disliked The Sun Also Rises film, apparently walking out just 20-minutes into a screening of it, and complained that the decision to shoot the movie in Mexico undermined its credibility. Gardner had more positive feelings about the film, however, commenting: ‘I am convinced Lady Brett Ashley is the most interesting character I have ever played’.

The Old Man and the Sea (1958)

Spencer Tracy starred in the 1958 adaptation of Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novella about an elderly Cuban fisherman, Santiago. When the film opens it has been eighty-four days since Santiago has caught a fish. He remains undaunted and in an epic battle lands the largest fish of his career, which is mauled by sharks as he returns to shore. This is the only Hemingway adaptation in which the author contributed to the production. A passionate deep-sea fisherman, Hemingway was keen that the film look convincing. He showed Tracey around the village of Cojimar where the novella is partly based and personally assisted with the filming of the fishing scenes on location in Cuba. However, the marlin caught by Hemingway’s fishing party were too small (400-500 pounds) to replicate the 12,000-pound monster that Santiago struggles with in the book. Accordingly, shooting moved to the Peruvian coast for a month. The fish here were larger, but still not quite enormous enough, and the film was spliced with stock footage and studio shots of a rubber shark. During the production of The Old Man and the Sea Hemingway wrote to Gary Cooper vowing that he would never become involved with another film again! Producer Leland Heywood commented that, while Hemingway felt Tracey looked too well-fed to play a struggling fisherman, the writer was broadly complementary of the film.

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