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Novel into Film
on January 10, 2004
Frank Borsage's 1931 film version of Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" can never have the power of the novel's prose, and its not-quite-so-simple romantic idyll. I first saw the film as a twelve-year old in 1931, when it was released; but I've reread the novel many times, and have seen the film twice in recent years. I am a veteran of World War II and a retired professor of literature. So I can now see AFTA through the eyes and sensibilities of a hopefully more seasoned, if not cynical, old man. In '31, I was too young to "get" the implications of war's tragedy (even though my boyhood was saturated with stories and films about "the Great War"--"All Quiet on the Western Front--the novel & the film--What Price Glory--the play & the film--the 1927 Seventh Heaven with Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor co-starring, too young--in that earlier age of innocence--to know how babies were made). Now I am touched by Frederick Henry's (not-so)"innocent" affair with Nurse Cathrine Barkley, touched by its initial idyllic quality. But in 1931, I had not read AFTA. Hardly! Or if read would I have understood it. But decades later, I can now see the lacunae, the holes & telescopings and elidings of vital scenes in the novel, one being the couple's "alpine idyll" above Montreux, Switzerland, the row across the lake to Switzerland (which Catherine shares, but not in the film), and which may have contributed to the complications of her baby's still-birth and her own death by loss of blood. Finally, that silly Hollywood ending, with Cooper (an otherwise good performance considering the pre-Method time)picking up Catherine from her (death) bed, murmuringm "Peace! Peace!" to the skies beyond the open window,as bells toll the war's end. Too much, what follows and ends the film--those doves fluttering across that sky. I can now see why Hem was so disgusted at the film. Had it ended in the way the novel ends, we would have had a more powerful and dramatic fadeout, with Frerick Henry walking out of the hospital and back to his hotel through the rain, the rain a dominant motif that runs through the film and the novel, his mourning, his loneliness far into the rest of his life (as Hemingway himself was haunted by the real-life "Catherine," Red Cross nurse Agnes Von Kurowsky). For those many non-readers "in our time," the 1931 film, or its successors, would be salutary--if it motivates them to go to the novel...which no film can ever match.