When it comes to film adaptations, Ernest Hemingway’s spare style was never a sure thing. Contemporaries like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald made the most of their fame as novelists by penning screenplays; Ernest Hemingway, on the other hand, avoided this practice entirely. His name would be plastered across a movie screen in enormous font (“Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms!”) because he sold the film rights to one of his works.
The most famous actors of the day stepped up to portray a Hemingway protagonist, in keeping with the writer’s portrayal of uber-masculine heroes. Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, Tyrone Power, and Humphrey Bogart all starred in the classic film The Graduate. A real-life Ernest Hemingway confidant, Gary Cooper did it twice. As with “The Killers” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway’s short stories were more easily adapted for the big screen than his novels: both were made into great noir films. There is yet to be a truly outstanding film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s most famous work, The Sun Also Rises, as the shoddy cast 1957 version was so bad that the author himself left the viewing.
It’s only natural that you begin your study of Ernest Hemingway with the written word if the new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick docuseries (airing on PBS on April 5) piques your curiosity. Hemingway film adaptations have a mixed track record, but here’s a small selection of the most successful of those adaptations. All of them offer a glimpse into the master’s thinking, with their rugged and tragic characters who often enjoy hunting and fishing in scenic settings: men of few words but powerful emotions on the big screen. They’re all worth a watch.
1. The Killers (1946)
The short story by Ernest Hemingway serves as a jumping-off point for The Killers. As the author once noted, “The dignity of movement of an iceberg comes from the fact that just one-eighth of it is submerged.” The reader will be able to tell if the writer is omitting important information if the writing is strong enough. Two men enter a diner with the intention of killing a man known only as “the Swede” in The Killers (Burt Lancaster). While Nick Adams, a recurring Hemingway character, tries to save him, he is resigned to his fate. A 90-minute insurance inquiry, led by Edmond O’Brien, the movie’s perfect gumshoe, tells the Swede’s backstory in gorgeously harsh black-and-and-white over the course of the film. Ava Gardner, who played Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises and appears yet again on our list, is a favorite Hemingway heroine. However, the 33-year-old Lancaster steals the show in this ultimately heartbreaking narrative in his feature film debut. Papa was pleased with this film rendition of a Hemingway novel. Available: The Killers can be rented or purchased on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Apple TV, Vudu, and Amazon Prime, among other services.
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2. For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943)
It’s a rare adaptation of a Hemingway novel that’s quite faithful to the source material. During the spanish civil war, Gary Cooper portrays Robert, an explosives specialist who falls in love with Maria (Ingrid Bergman, in her debut color film). (When Hemingway wrote it, he supposedly had Cooper and Bergman in mind.) There is an interval in this extended film adaptation of a novel. In both film adaptations of A Farewell To Arms, focusing on the romance rather than the battle resulted in a sour taste. For a dusty gang of rebels, the love tale of Robert and Maria provides an essential sight of the future as they plan to blow up a bridge. When it comes to Hemingway’s works and adaptations, For Whom The Bell Tolls is perhaps the clearest example of the author’s notion that fighting for what you believe in, no matter how futile, is essential. Whom the Bell Tolls may be rented on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play and Apple TV as well as Amazon Prime and Vudu, and can also be purchased.
3. To Have And Have Not (1944)
Howard Hawks, a fellow man’s man and filmmaker, was a kindred spirit for Ernest Hemingway. Hawks couldn’t produce a movie of Hemingway’s worst work, To Have and Have Not. That was the bet the two had made. Hawks was able to achieve success by completely rewriting the plot, including the class disparities reflected in the book’s title. There are some similarities between the two stories, but they aren’t nearly as many as you might think. Some dialogue was improvised, notwithstanding William Faulkner’s involvement as script writer. Once Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s chemistry blossomed, To Have And Have Not’s directors correctly moved the film’s attention to Harry and Marie’s (or “Steve’s” and “Slim’s”) swiftly blooming romance. As long as you’re patiently waiting for the return of Bogie and Bacall, you won’t mind a few perilous adventures and an exaggerated romance (they fell in love on the set of the film, their first together, and married soon afterward). For rent or buy, To Have and Have Not can be found on the following platforms: Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Apple TV, and Vudu.
4. The Snows Of Kilimanjaro (1952)
This is one of Ernest Hemingway’s best stories, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” An African hunting trip for the purpose of writing kills Harry of gangrene, and Harry begins to reflect on all the mistakes he’s made thus far in his life. Cynthia, played by Ava Gardner in the film version produced by 20th Century Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck, is a character who expresses her regrets about a lost love. After meeting his new wife Susan Hayward on their disastrous journey, Gregory Peck plays the writer who is mostly a Hemingway stand-in (his successful debut novel was called The Lost Generation, alluding to the Gertrude Stein phrase that starts The Sun Also Rises). (The author apparently refused to watch the film, dubbing it The Snows of Zanuck.) As with The Killers, it takes some getting used to the main characters’ contempt for the African natives who are essentially keeping them alive. However, like The Killers, Snows expands an excellent short story into a worthy film adaptation, with its Oscar-nominated cinematography capturing breathtaking vistas in Kenya, Egypt, and the French Riviera. Available on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Sling, and Philo, The Snows of Kilimanjaro can be streamed or purchased as a rental or buy.
5. The Old Man And The Sea (1958)
Hemingway ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize (and the Nobel Prize) for this comeback novella about an elderly fisherman named Santiago who is trying to end a lengthy run of bad luck with one last successful run. To hold the audience’s interest for a 90-minute journey, an actor of Spencer Tracy’s caliber would naturally be required. Only Tracy’s weary narration of Santiago’s story, drawn from Hemingway’s book and shot on location in stunningly beautiful locations, serves to highlight the backlot tank’s role as a stand-in for Cuban waters. Santiago’s predicament is portrayed by Tracy as a parable: you can be on the verge of realizing your greatest aspirations, only to be derailed by your own arrogance or even just a series of unfortunate events, but you can still go on to fight another day. (And in the film’s last scene, Hemingway himself can be seen in a cafe.) The Old Man and the Sea is available on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Apple TV, Vudu, and Amazon Prime for rent or buy.