Brow Beat

Will HBO Get Hemingway Right?

Clive Owen as Ernest Hemingway in the trailer for Hemingway & Gellhorn.

When movie moguls got scared by TV in the 1950s, they turned to Hemingway—among other sources and subjects, of course—to demonstrate that the very bigness of the big screen still made it better than its little competitor. The resulting movies—The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), The Sun Also Rises (1957), A Farewell to Arms (1957), Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man (1962), and their spiritual predecessor, 1943’s For Whom the Bell Tolls—are big, bloated productions over-reliant on exotic locales and macho posturing. Though these were all adaptations of Hemingway’s fiction, they drew heavily on the myth of the man himself, deploying his larger-than-life persona both for cinematic thrills and award-worthy prestige (the dreadful For Whom the Bell Tolls got nine Oscar nods).

Now that TV—and especially premium cable—is flexing its own macho muscles, it was perhaps just a matter of time before the siren song of Papa caught HBO’s ears. (Faulkner is on his way, too.) But the network has introduced a very welcome twist: Their upcoming movie Hemingway & Gellhorn is, as the title suggests, not only about the author of The Old Man and the Sea (adapted in 1958) and so on, but also Martha Gellhorn, a writer equally worthy (perhaps more so) of the biopic treatment. And if the nearly five-minute trailer that just surfaced online is any indication, Gellhorn, played by Nicole Kidman, is even more front-and-center in this movie than her one-time husband (played by Clive Owen):

To be sure, the film still has many hallmarks of “Hollywood Hemingway”: exotic locales, war scenes, drunken, melodramatic romance. (“An epic motion picture event,” a title card blares.) And this trailer has not quite won me over to either of these performances. But that supporting cast! In addition to Owen and Kidman, we get David Strathairn, Robert Duvall, Parker Posey, Connie Nielsen, Tony Shalhoub (and also, for some reason, the drummer for Metallica).

Ultimately, I worry this movie will not only suffer from its indulgence of the Hemingway myth, but from the problems endemic to the biopic. (Is that Gellhorn voiceover done by someone other than Kidman? Sounded like it.) That said, I have fond memories of Henry & June, the similarly named and somewhat similarly themed—two writers in love, one of them married—movie by the same writer/director, Philip Kaufmann. And I hear his adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is good, too. (He also adapted The Right Stuff.) So maybe Hemingway & Gellhorn will surprise. I look forward to finding out.

Previously: Which Faulkner Novels Should HBO Adapt?