"They Have Rewritten It All": Film Adaptations of A Farewell to Arms

By Barlowe, Jamie | The Hemingway Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

"They Have Rewritten It All": Film Adaptations of A Farewell to Arms


Barlowe, Jamie, The Hemingway Review


This essay examines the 1932 and 1957 film adaptations of A Farewell to Arms, not to argue for a particular interpretation, but for a way of analyzing them that can move knowledgeable readers of Hemingway's texts and experienced viewers of the films away from a critical tradition that has dichotomized film and literature. The essay resituates the adaptations in the cultural contexts that shaped their production and reception, including national discourse about censorship, as well as some of the documents of film history--regulatory codes, production notes, reviews, memos, and letters.

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Adaptations of Ernest Hemingway's novels and short stories have been a staple of the film industry since 1932 when Paramount released A Farewell to Arms under the direction of Frank Borzage. More than fifty cinematic and telematic adaptations of his work have been released since, including film and television productions in fourteen languages, several shorts, and even an animated film (of The Old Man and the Sea). This essay focuses on the 1932 and 1957 adaptations of A Farewell to Arms, not to argue for a particular interpretation, but to find a way of analyzing them that can move knowledgeable readers of Hemingway's texts and experienced viewers of the films away from a critical tradition that has dichotomized film and literature. Instead, the essay resituates the adaptations in the cultural contexts that shaped their production and reception. (1) Thus, rather than repeatedly articulating how the adaptations and literary texts differ, we can determine why they are different, allowing us to draw some conclusions about the relationships between visual and print narratives.

From the early days of the film industry, the relationship between film and literature has been antagonistic. Robert Stam describes the rivalry as "the writer and the filmmaker ... traveling in the same boat ... [each with] a secret desire to throw the other overboard" Film and literary critics have often harbored the same desire as they have disagreed for more than a century about cinematic adaptations of literary texts. In this struggle, as Stam puts it, 'Adaptation becomes a zero-sum game where film is perceived as the upstart enemy storming the ramparts of literature" (Literature 4). Literary critics focus on the aesthetic and textual differences between visual reproductions and print narratives, decrying the loss of "literariness" and "originary authority", but film critics disagree. As Jeffrey Sconce argues, debates about "literary adaptation ... [have] privileged the imagined sovereignty of the literary work over the characteristic demands of cinematic practice" (142). Stam more emphatically states that the "language of criticism dealing with film adaptation of novels has often been profoundly moralistic, awash in terms such as infidelity, betrayal, deformation, violation, vulgarization, and desecration ..." (Beyond 54). Dudley Andrew impatiently calls discussions about fidelity to the literary text "the most frequent and tiresome" because they assume that adaptation involves the "reproduction of something essential about the original text ... as though adaptation were the rendering of an interpretation of a legal precedent ... The [filmmaker] presumably must intuit and reproduce ... the original. It has been argued variously that this is frankly impossible" (29, 31-32).

Ernest Hemingway also "identified modern film as the enemy of literature," as Patrick Hemingway explained at a Kennedy Library Forum, and "made a point, whenever he went to a movie, to fall asleep" (42). According to Frank Laurence, Hemingway believed that "[a]ny movie version should try to approach the character of a documentary film of the book--with no addition to or alteration of the original material, and no deletions except those that were absolutely necessary, as for time or for censorship reasons" (Sun 96). Hemingway's concept of film adaptation as a way of respecting the author and the text echoes the legal precedent model. …

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