movie: Hemingway (2021)

Obviously I was interested in the new documentary from PBS titled simply Hemingway, and appearing in three episodes totaling just shy of six hours. I’ve read a dozen or so Hemingway biographies and almost all of his fiction and nonfiction, much of it repeatedly. Let’s say I’m a fairly serious Hem scholar for an amateur. But it’s also been a few years. This counted therefore as a good check-in and test of my continuing interest.

I think Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and their team did a good job with the nuance and contradictions, the good and the bad, of this intriguing man, his life and his work. This doc isn’t just about his writing or about the man, but both at once, back and forth, because they’re inextricable. Hem was a truly extraordinary talent, a genius; he was also a bully and a jerk in many ways; he could also, apparently, be a lovely person some of the time. He had an unfortunate tendency to be cruelest to those who most helped him. He profoundly and undeniably changed writing in the English language. He was a very ill man late in his life, in terms of his mental health. And that life was full to brimming of wildly improbable stories (two plane crashes in a row?). He was larger than life, by several measures, and so it’s a hard life to write about. And it’s easy to say (because it’s true) that he was the genius, or the asshole; but it’s harder to say that he was many contradictory things at once. This production handles it very well, in my opinion.

Hemingway constructed his myth, to a large degree, and he made the mistake that all mythmakers do: he thought that he could control it. And there comes a time that you can’t anymore. It’s taken on a life of its own. It became very exhausting to be Hemingway, the Hemingway that the public thought, and let’s face it, when he was in the public he was always in the public eye. And people expected Hemingway to be Hemingway.

–Michael Katakis

The film is packed with still images of Hemingway and the characters surrounding him; his original works; and (more limited) archival footage. It relies heavily on his own work. And it includes interviews with other writers (Tim O’Brien, Abraham Verghese, Mary Karr, Edna O’Brien, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tobias Wolff); Hem’s middle son, Patrick; John McCain (a surprise, but he made some meaningful contributions); and biographers and scholars including Mary Dearborn, Paul Hendrickson, and Michael Katakis, manager of Hemingway’s literary estate.

Even in six hours of close study, I was left feeling like this was an abridgement – and of course it is, when so many (different) biographies have been written, which would take much longer than six hours to take in. That’s the Hemingway nerd talking. It’s impressive what they do accomplish in this time (which of course would be plenty for most viewers). It gives a very thorough introduction to a complicated life. I think the only new-to-me information I noticed was the extent to which the Kansas City Star‘s style sheet prescribed what we think of as the Hemingway style: short, declarative sentences, few adjectives. I loved spending time again with the four women who married this man. They’re so different from each other, fascinating, and strong characters themselves.

He weighs about 200 pounds, and he is even better than those photographs. The effect upon women is such that they want to go right out and get him, and bring him home, stuffed.

–Dorothy Parker

In the end I found this a nicely balanced representation, which shares my view that Hem was both superlatively talented and also deeply, awfully flawed. His work and his life fascinate me no less than ever, and that’s really saying something. I do recommend this documentary, which you can stream online for free here.


Rating: 8 strings above the toilet.

4 Responses

  1. Happy Birthday!

  2. I watched part of it, but it didn’t grab me. It seemed a bit like Hemingway 101, for newbies, and there was a lot of information that I already knew (I’ve read several biographies, though I’m way behind you on that 🙂 ).

    It make me think about Hemingway again, though, which is always good, and I’ve started to read Across the River and Into the Trees — the only Hemingway novel I hadn’t read (not counting the posthumous ones). So, that’s a treat.

    It did lead me to this, which I think it worth watching, with Orson Welles talking about Hemingway: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NyTi9v9QPxE. The stories are, I’m sure, embellished (this is Welles, after all), but they are wonderful, and I really like how firm he is about how to think of Hemingway’s suicide.

    By the way, one time, years ago, I was reading a Hemingway biography (I forget which one) and a Welles biography at the same time, and I decided to see if I could find things in common in the indexes (indices?). The main points of correlation I found were Marlene Dietrich (they were both good friends of hers, although at different times and in different countries) and Isak Dinesen (who they both admired a lot).

    • Cool, thanks for the link, Anthony. I hear you; it was a lot of Hem 101 there. But I don’t know, I guess I found it comforting to sink back in. It had been a while since I’d thought much about him. There is so MUCH in the world. I know very little about Welles, so that’s a new direction! Nice to hear from you.

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