The Sun Almost Rises: Hemingway Adaptations

Despite their status as treasured works of literature, adaptations of Ernest Hemingway's work never quite make great cinema.

I love many aspects of the film, The Sun Also Rises (1957). The bullfights in Pamplona. Ava Gardner. The inspired casting of Errol Flynn as perpetual drunk Mike Campbell. Robert Evans playing the bullfighter, Romero. Ava Gardner. And the overall attempt to capture gamely the spirit of Hemingway’s novel.

Ominously, I have failed to mention Tyrone Power, one of my favorite actors, who here seems a bit long in the tooth, acting-wise, and a bit out of shape, to be a Hemingway hero.

I am an aficionado of the novel, especially of the character Robert Cohn, who is played by Mel Ferrer. In a Hemingway-Faulkner graduate course, I wrote a paper on 40 years of scholarly criticism of this character.

At the time, the trend in criticism was a growing belief that Cohn was a more important character than was Jake Barnes. I disagreed, but came away convinced that Cohn was more important than I had originally thought; hence, I have become dissatisfied with the film’s portrayal of him as the tagalong, pain-in-the-butt friend who beds Lady Brett but is not given much gravitas.

One minor character portrayed well is Bill Gorton (Eddie Albert), Jake’s friend, with whom he fishes in the Pyrenees before heading to Pamplona. In both novel and film, Gorton represents what has been called “the Hemingway code.”

Calling it macho doesn’t do it justice. It’s closer to the Stoic philosophy, whence one never complains about one’s own pain. A man does not talk about the code, because talking about it causes you to breach it.

Nor does a man opt for the easy way out. Bullfighting and boxing represents realms whereby one proves oneself by coming as close as possible to the horns of a bull, literally putting one’s manhood on the line. Pedro Romero fulfills this part of the code, but then violates it outside the ring when he runs off with Lady Brett.

When Romero tires of Lady Brett and leaves her penniless in Madrid, Jake Barnes comes to her rescue. This is the one and only romantic role Hemingway’s hero can fulfill, having received a severe groin injury during the First World War. Indeed, it’s this final scene, where the hopelessness of Jake and Brett’s relationship becomes compounded, that I turn completely away from the film.

In the novel, the two string each other along with the illusion of a satisfying-if-unconsummated relationship. Finally, as they ride away in a cab, Brett says, “Oh, Jake, we could have had such a good time together.”

As Brett involuntarily presses against him, Jake replies, “Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

End of novel. The illusion will not hold.

In the film, Tyrone Power tosses off this line in the hotel room. “Isn’t pretty to think so?” gets swallowed up by the additional dialogue plus the cutaway to the scene in the cab. The melancholy of the two becomes thinner, almost bearable.

Not what the writer had wanted, but such is the case: most Hemingway movies leave Hemingway behind.

I have tracked down 12 movies adaptations of Hemingway stories and novels. The results are mixed, with few films emerging as good, and none unequivocally great, although I could champion a few of them, starting with both versions of The Killers (1946 & 1964).

The 1946 version with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner (did I say I liked her in The Sun Also Rises?) is a great movie, but only the first ten minutes of material is drawn from Hemingway’s short story—and it’s a great part of a great movie.

Two thugs come to town, in the persons of William Conrad and Charles McGraw. They’re looking for the Swede (Lancaster). They treat the proprietor of a diner, George, with supreme contempt.

Al: You got anything to drink?

George: I can give you soda, beer, ginger ale...

Al: I said, 'You got anything to drink?'

George: [intimidated] No.

Al: This is a hot town. Whatta ya call it?

George: Brentwood.

Al: Did you ever hear of Brentwood?

Max: [Max shakes his head, no]

Al: Whatta ya do here nights?

Max: [sarcastically] They eat the dinner. They all come here and eat the big dinner.

George: [showing fear] That's right.

Al: [condescendingly] You're a pretty bright boy, aren't you?

George: [intimidated] Sure.

Max: [contemptiously] Well you're NOT! Is he, Al?

Al: He's dumb!

They kill the Swede, and the rest of the film is the darkest of noirs.

The 1964 remake features killers Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager searching for the man who has hired them to kill John Cassavetes. More significantly, that man who hired the killers, the man behind the robbery, is Jack Browning—played by Ronald Reagan in his final film role, one of the only roles in which he plays a villain.

A Farewell to Arms (1932 & 1957) was the first Hemingway novel that was filmed. It received four Academy Award nominations and won two. The 1957 version with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones earned Hemingway’s disapproval by casting the 38-year-old Jones in the role of the 21-year old nurse Catherine.

The first film is only an hour-and-a-half; the second, nearly two-and-a-half hours. Your choice: end the Hemingway adaption quickly or be cruel and watch the David O. Selznick production to the bitter end.

Two films from the 1940s, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and To Have and Have Not (1944) have a quotient of dramatic and romantic entanglements. Gary Cooper stars with Ingrid Bergman in the former (Cooper was a friend of Hemingway, and his death was a great blow to the writer) and Humphrey Bogart meets a teenaged Lauren Bacall in the latter.

Both films have always seemed turgid and predictable, with To Have and Have Not escaping with the better reputation (Howard Hawks directed and William Faulkner was a script writer).

Ava Gardner returns in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) as the love of Gregory Peck’s life. He plays a dying writer looking back on his life after his leg has become seriously infected while on safari in Africa.

Indeed, much is crammed into the movie, which distends the original story, again evoking displeasure from Hemingway. Nor was Papa pleased with Spencer Tracy playing the Cuban fisherman in Old Man and the Sea (1958).

Perhaps the one film to slip between the cracks is The Macomber Affair (1947), based on the story “The Short Happy Life of Franics Macomber.” The movie starred Gregory Peck, Robert Preston, and Joan Bennett.

Leonard Maltin has dubbed this film the best of all Hemingway adaptations, and I must agree. The story involves a triangle (safari guide Peck, husband Pretson, and wife Bennett) and hews close to the Hemingway code.

Dominated by his wife, Macomber eventually proves himself according to the Hemingway code, standing firm against a charging rhino. However, at the moment of his greatest triumph, Bennett, who has desired the Peck from the start, shoots him.

One of my teachers at Columbia University, Richard Elman, who himself had written the novelized version of Taxi Driver (1976), said to me that all Hemingway adaptations should have Hemingway’s photo at the bottom of the screen to remind the people what they’re watching.

Essentially, he meant that no cinematic equivalent existed for Hemingway. I tend to agree.

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Ned Bulmash October 03, 2012 at 12:45 PM
I saw "The Killers" is 1964. It was a shocker for me because the only time I saw Ronald Reagan was when he was the amiable host of the TV show "Death Valley Days." His "Killers" character was slapping the beautiful Angie Dickinson in the face. I never heard of "The Macomber Affair." I am going to look it up. I read and heard many times that Hemingway was disdainful of Hollywood's treatment of his stories/books..
John Reynolds October 04, 2012 at 03:26 PM
Excellent review of one of my favorite authors. To borrow a word from "The Sun Also Rises," I'm still an aficionado of his short stories, which I re-read from time to time. I only watched "For Whom The Bells Toll", "The Old Man and The Sea" and "To Have and Have Not," which I liked best. I didn't care much for the others. As Hemingway would say, they never truly captured his work in film. By the time they were made, his overblown reputation overshadowed his work. Regardless of his personal failings, like being a bully and a mythomaniac, he sure could write some good stories. While dying in "Kilimanjaro," he reflects that he still has some good stories to tell, but instead of writing them, he squandered his talent drinking and living the easy life of the idle rich, which was about as honest a self-assessment he could make. As for Robert Cohen in "The Sun Also Rises," Hemingway was criticized for his anti-Semitic treatment of him. Cohen was a champion collegiate boxer and a romantic rival of his for Lady Brett, and that may explain why he verbally abused of him instead of picking a fight and getting his ass kicked, which was not part of the Hemingway code. Also, the book was written in the 1920s, and derogatory comments about "Jews", "Dagos", "Micks," and "Pollocks" were not politically incorrect back then. Someday, when I quit working and have more time, I'd like to carouse in cafes around the world like Papa.


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