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Norman Mailer once observed, "There is a particular type of BAD novel that makes a good movie." Conversely, there is a particular type of GOOD novel that cannot possibly be made into a good movie, and this caveat applies to any of the works of Ernest Hemingway.
The problem is two-fold. First, the inimitable style of the writing is de facto completely lost. Hemingway paints his own portraits with words, and in a movie, we don't need the words because we have the pictures. Second is the Hemingway dialogue. No author speaks more intimately to us, whispering his dialogue quietly in our ear. Recite the dialogue aloud and the magic is lost.
However, here are two novels and several short stories, adapted to the screen, and I'll review their virtues as FILMS, rather than their sins of ommission of the Hemingway canon.
1) "The Sun Also Rises" - Hemingway's first novel about the Lost Generation in Paris after the First World War. This film has taken quite a bit of criticism and unwarrented abuse over the years. It's not their fault, nor a crime, that our favorite movie stars grow old, and yes, Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner and certainly Errol Flynn are way too old to be playing young people in their mid- and late twenties. Aside from that, they do a perfectly good job of acting their parts, especially Errol Flynn in the role of the drunken, dissipated Mike Campbell. The Running of the Bulls in Pamploma Spain, which Hemingway turned into a world-renowned spectacle, is especially exciting to watch. The sense of wandering, of existential pointlessness, of post-war stress and post adolescent angst, as in the novel, are clearly defined.
2) "A Farewell to Arms" - In 1918 Hemingway, an ambulance driver for the Italian Army, was wounded and fell in love with his nurse, 10 years his senior. The woman had the common sense to realise there was no future with a boy and broke off the relationship. Hemingway, romantic young swain that he was, turned this into one of the great romantic tragedies in literature. Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones are adquate in the leads, but the film is way too long and drags. Seasoned film buffs will compare this version to the 1931 version with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, which is ruined by its pasted on happy ending. Producer David O. Selznick should be given credit for having the courage to stick to the novel's original, tragic ending.
3) "Snows of Kilimanjaro" - After first viewing this film, one of the 10 highest grossing films of 1952, Hemingway fired off a cable to Producer Darryl F. Zanuck, "Dammit! I sold you the rights to ONE of my stories, not my whole life!" Indeed, this film takes the original short story and tacks on plot lines and characters from "The Sun Also Rises," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Across the River and into the Trees," and various and sundry Hemingway stories and sketches. The Hemingway personnae fits hero Gregory Peck like a glove and he looks as rugged and sexy in his hunting khakis as do love interests Ava Gardner and Susan Hayward. A rousing, boisterous adventure film that takes us from Upper Michigan to Paris to Spain to Africa to the Riviera, finally restored to all its glory. Leo G. Carroll as Peck's wise and kindly uncle is especially good.
4) "Under My Skin," taken from the short story "My Old Man," is perhaps one of the most faithful adaptions of any Hemingway story on film, the story of a crooked jockey (John Garfield) who betrays his friends, his lovers and his business associates, but maintains both his peculiar sense of honor and our empathy because of the deep love he has for his son. Classic Hemingway and classic Garfield come together for the second time, the first being a little-known film, "The Breaking Point," a remake of "To Have and Have Not," which, unlike the Bogart classic, remains true to the original novel. It's unfortunate that the same care of restoration was not lavished on this black & white film as were the four other, Technicolor, productions.
5) "Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man," released not long after Papa's death must have surely sent the Old Man spinning in his grave. The story bounces from one Hemingway story to the next, with a few chapters of "A Farewell to Arms" thrown in. Outstanding is Paul Newman's performance as "The Battler," a washed-out, punched-out prizefighter. Some critics have called this film an embarrassment. I wouldn't go that far, but for all its length and all-star cast, it definitely lacks something. Perhaps what it really lacks is Hemingway.