Ernest Hemingway’s lean prose was always hit or miss when it came to cinematic adaptations. Contemporaries like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald capitalized on their novelist reputations by writing directly for the movies themselves; Hemingway never did. But he was not above selling the film rights to one of his books or stories, resulting in his name being splashed across the big screen in large type (“Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms!”).
In line with the writer’s depiction of uber-masculine heroes, the most celebrated actors of the day lined up to personify a Hemingway protagonist. Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Tyrone Power, and Spencer Tracy. Gary Cooper did it twice, becoming a real-life Hemingway confidant in the process. Hemingway’s short stories sometimes had an easier road to adaptation on the big screen than his novels: “The Killers” turned into a noir classic, and “The Snows Of Kilimanjaro” expanded into a technicolor epic. But a truly exemplary version of Hemingway’s greatest work, The Sun Also Rises, has yet to be filmed, as the poorly cast 1957 version was so execrable that the author himself walked out of the screening.
If Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new Hemingway docuseries (debuting April 5 on PBS) piques your interest about the legendary American author, naturally, we suggest starting with the written word. But if your curiosity expands into the checkered legacy of films based on Hemingway’s work, here’s a short list of the most successful of those adaptations. Some skew closer to the source material than others, but all are a worthwhile trip into the master’s mindset, offering rugged and tragic heroes who often love to hunt and fish against picturesque landscapes: men of few words but emotions that run deep on the big screen.
The Killers uses Hemingway’s short story as a kind of springboard. The author once explained his bare, muscular prose by saying that “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” If the writer is writing well enough, the reader will be able to discern what he is omitting. The Killers fills in that invisible seven-eighths, as two men come into a diner prepared to kill a man known as the Swede (Burt Lancaster). Frequent Hemingway protagonist Nick Adams runs off to warn him, but the former boxer is resigned to his fate. The movie starts out just like the short story, but then proceeds to tell the Swede’s backstory over the next 90-some minutes in gloriously stark black-and-white via an insurance investigation, headed by ideal gumshoe Edmond O’Brien. Naturally, there’s a dame involved: favored Hemingway heroine Ava Gardner, who also portrayed Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises and shows up one more time on this list. But in his movie debu, 33-year-old Lancaster steals the heart of this ultimately tragic tale. One of the few Hemingway movie adaptations that Papa was actually happy with.
Available: The Killers is available for rent or purchase on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Apple TV, Vudu, and Amazon Prime.
For Whom The Bell Tolls is the rare Hemingway adaptation that sticks pretty close to the (extremely successful) novel. Gary Cooper plays Robert, an explosives expert who falls for Maria (Ingrid Bergman, in her first color film) as they fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. (Hemingway reportedly had Cooper and Bergman in mind while he was writing it.) A long book gets turned into a similarly long cinematic epic, complete with intermission. Emphasizing the romance over the war managed to sour both movie versions of A Farewell To Arms. But here the love story of Robert and Maria offers a necessary hopeful glimpse for a dusty band of rebels as they plan to blow up a bridge in an attempt to hamper their fascist adversaries. Of all his writing and its adaptations, For Whom The Bell Tolls does the best job of displaying Hemingway’s belief in the necessity of fighting for the side you believe in, even if it’s ultimately a lost cause.
Available: For Whom The Bell Tolls is available for rent or purchase on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Apple TV, Vudu, and Amazon Prime.
Hemingway had a kindred spirit in fellow man’s man and director Howard Hawks. The two made a bet that Hawks couldn’t make a movie out of Hemingway’s worst book, To Have And Have Not. Hawks succeeded by throwing out the entire plot, including the class inequalities reflected in the book’s title, and starting from scratch. In both versions, protagonist Harry is a fishing-boat captain forced to turn to crime—but that’s where the similarities end. Even with William Faulkner on board to write the screenplay, a lot of the dialogue was improvised: Once the smoldering chemistry of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall erupted, the filmmakers wisely shifted the focus of To Have And Have Not to the rapidly developing romance between Harry and Marie (or “Steve” and “Slim,” as they refer to each other in the film). There are some dangerous boating voyages and a trumped-up romantic hurdles, but no matter: You’re just waiting for Bogie and Bacall to circle each other again (they fell in love on the set of the film, their first together, and married soon afterward).
Available: To Have And Have Not is available for rent or purchase on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Apple TV, Vudu, and Amazon Prime.
“The Snows Of Kilimanjaro” is one of Hemingway’s finest short stories: As a writer named Harry lies dying of gangrene on a hunting trip in Africa, he flashes back to all the mistakes he’s made in his life. In the movie version, produced by 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck, those regrets are expanded to craft a tale of a lost love: Cynthia, played by Ava Gardner. Gregory Peck plays the writer who’s primarily a Hemingway stand-in (his successful debut novel is called The Lost Generation, alluding to the Gertrude Stein quote that opens The Sun Also Rises), accompanied on his fateful trip by new wife, Susan Hayward, who helps secure a very un-Hemingway-like Hollywood ending. (Unhappy with this revision, the author reportedly refused to see the film, calling it The Snows Of Zanuck.) The main characters’ condescension toward the African natives who are basically keeping them alive takes some getting over, but as with the The Killers, Snows expands a great short story into a worthy cinematic adaptation—with its Oscar-nominated cinematography capturing breathtaking vistas in Kenya, Egypt, and the French Riviera.
Available: The Snows Of Kilimanjaro is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Sling, and Philo.
Hemingway finally won his Pulitzer (and Nobel) for this comeback novella: the saga of aging fisherman Santiago, striving to break a long streak of bad luck for one final successful run. Naturally, it would take an actor of double Oscar-winning caliber like Spencer Tracy to command the audience’s attention for a mostly solo 90-minute voyage. The gloriously scenic location footage only makes the backlot tank standing in for Cuban waters more obvious—but Tracy’s world-weary narration of Santiago’s story, pulling directly from the book, results in the most reverent screen adaptation of Hemingway’s words. The spareness of the story underlines the parable of Santiago’s plight, which Tracy faithfully portrays: You can come close to achieving your ultimate dream, become undone by your own ambitions or even just fateful twists of circumstance, but still live to fight another day. (And you can even spot Hemingway himself in a cafe in the film’s final scene.)
Available: The Old Man And The Sea is available for rent or purchase on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Apple TV, Vudu, and Amazon Prime.