…each day of not writing, of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work.” Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Hollywood has mangled many a Hemingway manuscript, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro is no exception, yet in a way it is an exception because it was more than mangled it was transmogrified by a kind of visual short-hand known as the Hollywood Hemingway Effect.
When it comes to translating literature into film, there is much that has to be sacrificed. Reading a book and watching a movie are two distinctively different physical and intellectual experiences. To pursue this line of reasoning any further would be to delve too deeply, for the purposes of this blog, into the realm of inter-texuality, but suffice it to say that film is a medium of action, of moving images. We have to see or hear what’s going on inside a character, this makes it real tough to show a writer mired in the internal muck of an existential crisis. However, this is what Hollywood attempted by adapting Hemingway’s short story to the big screen.
Now, the short story,The Snows of Kilimanjaro, comes in at about twenty pages. Each page of a movie script represents one minute of screen time. The film adaptation of The Snows of Kilimanjaro is about two hours long, which means the script was about 120 pages, six times as long as its source material. I’m comparing apples and oranges here I know, but my point is time. Narrative has to fill up two hours and obviously it’s not going to be The Snows of Kilimanjaro as Hemingway wrote it. What transpires is a Twentieth Century Fox (read Daryl F. Zanuck) re-envisioning of The Snows of Kilimanjaro as Ernest Hemingway never would have written it, but as the American people would have wanted it according to Zanuck, and you know what –- it works.
Why it works is the genius that was Classic Hollywood and Daryl F. Zanuck. The recipe consists of using as much of Hemingway’s dialogue as possible (he was the Obi-Wan of dialogue so why mess with perfection); making the key plot points of the original story the set-pieces of the film; adding two more luscious babes to the tale to illustrate the main character’s constant battle between real love and true lust, between becoming a great writer and just coming; then throw in a sage, older man to represent wisdom and profundity (Leo G Carroll), add stuff from Hemingway’s real life (and his other novels) like bullfights and the Spanish Civil War; pepper the production with stars like Gregory Peck as writer Harry Street, Susan Hayward as Helen, his safari companion and ‘sponsor’ and Ava Gardner as Cynthia, who adds sizzle to the film, but whose character is non-existent in Hemingway’s story and you have high-melodrama and a blockbuster at the box-office. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve watched this and it’s still fascinating. It’s not really Hemingway, but it’s fascinating.
In the end Hollywood does what it is self-mandated to do—entertain us, and it will entertain us if it has to revise history, inculcate adherence to stereotypes and re-interpret the literary greats in such a way that people will think they’ve read the book by watching a movie.