Sunday, July 14, 2013

Bringing a Hemingway Novel to the Screen

"A man fights for what he believes in."

Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper)

I've always felt a bit torn by some of the works of Ernest Hemingway.

On the one hand, there are times when his writing is inspiring to someone like me. I have been writing all my life, but I am little more than a scribbler compared to Hemingway.

But, on the other hand, I find myself concluding that Hemingway had too much fondness for war. He saw it as a great adventure, not the waste of humanity that it really is — or, at least, as I see it.

There are times when it is necessary to fight, and there are foes who must be fought, but that is not a cause for rejoicing.

That doesn't change the fact that I admire Hemingway's writing ability, and I will recommend just about everything he ever wrote to anyone — with that caveat.

When it comes to film versions of his books, that's a different matter. Bringing books to the silver screen almost always seems to require a certain amount of adaptation by the director. Reading the book and seeing the movie are really two different experiences, and sometimes they vary wildly.

In the case of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which made its big–screen debut 70 years ago today, the book and the movie differed primarily because the film did not have much of the political content of the book — a point that reportedly bothered Hemingway a great deal. That isn't really surprising. The novel was Hemingway's opportunity to make his case on the issues that influenced the Spanish Civil War, and he was clearly disappointed when the movie was far more interested in the love story.

(Other than the absence of the political content, I felt the movie was mostly faithful to the original story, which was a romantic drama set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.)

Nevertheless, Hemingway had enormous influence on the production. He chose the movie's stars, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, and both were nominated for Academy Awards for their acting, but only supporting actress Katina Paxinou's acting was rewarded with an Oscar.

Cooper played an American mercenary, an explosives expert on a mission to blow up a bridge. He became involved with Bergman, playing a peasant girl who had been abused by the enemy. Sometimes it was a little hard to imagine that Bergman could be as inexperienced as her character was. "I do not know how to kiss, or I would kiss you," she told Cooper at one point. "Where do the noses go?"

In Hemingway's spirit, I suppose, the action sequences were quite good. They may not seem so polished when compared to more modern action movies, but when the action scenes are compared to movies from their own period, "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is better than any of its contemporaries.

The acting was great — which one would just about expect from a movie that co–starred Cooper and Bergman — even though only Paxinou was rewarded on Oscar night. Cooper and Bergman had some steamy love scenes for a 1943 production, and I have often wondered if they were a little too much for the Oscar voters of that time.

I suppose Hemingway should have been tipped off about the emphasis of the movie when almost no one in the cast was close to being Spanish. A more Spanish cast might have suggested more dedication to the war and less to the love story.

It was the supporting cast that probably did most of the heavy lifting, but Cooper and Bergman certainly had their moments — like when Cooper asked Bergman if she was afraid.
Maria (Ingrid Bergman): Not now. I love you, Roberto. Always remember. I love you as I loved my father and mother, as I love our unborn children, as I love what I love most in the world, and I love you more. Always remember.

Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper): I'll remember.

Maria: Nothing can ever part us now, can it?

Robert Jordan: Nothing, Maria.

In real life, there was a 14–year difference in their ages, but Cooper and Bergman were plausible screen lovers. At times, Bergman's character seemed to idolize Cooper in a way that usually is seen in the reverence of little girls toward their fathers.

American movie audiences had been watching the 27–year–old Bergman for a few years, going back to her 1939 appearance in the American remake of "Intermezzo" with Leslie Howard.

But this was the first time moviegoers anywhere could see her in color.

She was appealing in black and white. I mean, who could forget her in "Casablanca?" Or "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?"

She made some black–and–white movies after "For Whom the Bell Tolls," too. And she was beautiful in all of them.

But she was stunning in color. In my mind, only a handful of actresses could compare to her, even in her later years.

Maybe it was that Swedish accent. Nah, that was only part of the package. It had a seductive sound to it, but that only went so far if the rest of her didn't live up to expectations.

Ingrid Bergman not only lived up to expectations, she exceeded them — which is why I've always felt she was denied an Oscar she deserved.

The Academy gave her the Oscar the next year for "Gaslight," but, for several reasons, I've long thought that was virtually an apology for not rewarding her the year before. Bergman gave many Oscar–worthy performances in her life, but the one she gave in "For Whom the Bell Tolls" may have been her most deserving.