You’ve read “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” a dozen times because you love Ernest Hemingway’s writing. You can’t stand Hemingway because he’s a faux adventurer who used women. You don’t know much about Hemingway except there’s something about a big fish and he killed himself.
Wherever you come down on this continuum about one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, PBS will challenge or confirm your beliefs with “Hemingway,” a three-part, six-hour Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary series airing April 5-7. (Locally on Twin Cities Public Television.) The all-star cast of voice actors includes musician and playwright Jeff Daniels as Hemingway and Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson as his wives.
Burns and Novick are the acclaimed team behind such PBS documentaries as “The Vietnam War” and “Prohibition.” Why did they want to make a film about Hemingway, who’s been analyzed, praised, decried, scorned, and parodied since his suicide at age 61 in 1961?
Burns, Novick and Daniels talked about the film and Hemingway-the-man during a virtual discussion with Sylvia Bugg, Chief Programming Executive and General Manager of General Audience Programming for PBS. The event was part of the Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour earlier this month.
“I think we were drawn to trying to get at a real Hemingway,” Burns said. “And I think the persona of the wild man, the drunk, the bar guy, the big-game hunter, the big-sea fisherman, is sort of what we inherit, the baggage we carry. But almost immediately we began to see how thin and frail that was, not just for him, but in fact.”
With unprecedented access to Hemingway’s original manuscripts, correspondence. scrapbooks and rarely-seen photos, as well as interviews with his 90-year-old son, Patrick, the team got a fuller picture of Hemingway.
“(You get) how much he was struggling every day to maintain discipline,” Burns said, “to touch those moments common to us all that are universal, but also wrestling with a whole set of demons, a whole set of problems that begin to betray the mask of the he-man that he built for himself.”
Lynn Novick: “I think the public persona … became such a burden for him. It becomes kind of exhausting, someone said in the film, to be Hemingway after awhile. So it was especially wonderful to discover him young, before he became that stereotype of iconic figure, when he was at the beginning of his life and his career, his kind of energy, and how difficult it became as he got older, trying to live up to the image he created for himself. It really was tragic, and that’s where the trajectory of his life takes us.”
Jeff Daniels agreed: “There was a darkness within him. And we all know how he ended up. But about the demons that he was battling, (it was a) struggle past all that to write well. He was a fighter, and he was fighting stuff through his fingers with that typewriter and he was fighting stuff inside.”
Novick admitted when they started the six-year project she “felt pretty clear that I didn’t like Hemingway the man and that I wasn’t sure how I am going to feel spending six hours with him as a viewer. He was really unkind and hurtful to people, and self-centered. He had a lot of qualities that were difficult … and he had a talent for becoming alienated from people who cared about him. Yet I think, having spent this time (with him), we have tried to get under his skin. I felt a lot more compassion for him and his struggles and his demons. His masculine persona gets in the way sometimes of seeing the work itself (and how) he puts himself inside the heads of women, but he also shows how hard it is for men and women to get together and really connect and how things fall apart. That shows a great compassion or empathy for women and for what goes wrong, especially in ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’ ”
Burns, adding to the thought: ” ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ is a short story you can read in 10 minutes. It is a stunning work of art. I am not going to tell you anything other than it is a conversation between a man and a woman.”
Daniels talked about how Hemingway’s writing style influenced his voice performance: “There’s such a brevity and a simplicity that it just boils down to him telling you the truth. And there’s no adornment. Since doing the reading for Ken and Lynn, I have ceased using adjectives and adverbs because I felt so guilty. Hemingway inhabits the skin of his opposite, and that’s what actors do. That’s what great artists do. It’s nice to know that those of us who are acting and do that didn’t invent it. People like Hemingway did.”
For more information, go to the official “Hemingway” website: www.pbs.org/kenburns/hemingway.
(The above quotes are taken from a transcript provided by PBS and used with permission. Some punctuation and parenthetical words have been added for clarity.)
Conversations with Hemingway
To add richness to our understanding of the “Hemingway” film, the public is invited to “Conversations with Hemingway,” a nine-part series of virtual events with comments from leading writers and scholars that will precede the film’s premiere in April.
Each of the hour-long conversations, which will take place via Zoom on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, will explore an aspect of Hemingway’s life and work and allow people across the country to participate. The conversations begin Feb. 23 with a look at Hemingway’s childhood, including guest writers Verna Kale and Tim O’Brien. It concludes March 24 with Hemingway and Women, featuring commentators Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose and Edward Mendelson. Given the controversy — and interest in — Hemingway’s sexuality, the March 11 conversation, titled Hemingway, Gender and Identity, should be especially interesting, with guest writers Mary Karr and Marc Dudley and journalist Lisa Kennedy. You can register for one or more of the events at pbs.org/hemingwayevents.
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