Ernest Hemingway, the iconic literary figure considered one of the greatest American writers and among the first to live and work at the treacherous nexus of art and celebrity, is the subject of an upcoming three-part, six-hour documentary series directed by award-winning filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (The Vietnam War, Prohibition, The War) coming to PBS April 5-7, 2021 at 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.
The documentary paints an intimate picture of Hemingway the writer – who captured on paper the complexities of the human condition in spare and profound prose, and whose work remains deeply influential around the world – while also penetrating the myth of Hemingway the man’s man to reveal a deeply troubled and ultimately tragic figure. The film also explores Hemingway’s limitations and biases as an artist and a man of his time.
Hemingway – written by Geoffrey C. Ward and produced by Sarah Botstein, both longtime collaborators of Burns and Novick – interweaves a close study of the biographical events of the author’s life with excerpts from his fiction, non-fiction and short stories, informed by interviews with celebrated writers, scholars and Hemingway’s son, Patrick. The filmmakers explore the painstaking process through which Hemingway created some of the most important works of fiction in American letters, including novels The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea; short stories “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “Up in Michigan,” “Indian Camp” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro;” as well as the nonfiction works Death in the Afternoon and A Moveable Feast.
“Hemingway is both an intimate, turbulent family saga and an examination of some of the greatest works of American literature in the 20th century,” said director Ken Burns. “The documentary attempts to show how flawed our assumptions about Ernest Hemingway and his writing have been. At the same time, we are unsparing in our inquiry into less well-known aspects of his character and writing. Our intent is to offer viewers an honest portrayal of a complex and conflicted writer who left an indelible mark on literature.”
“In an era when Americans are re-evaluating so many icons, Hemingway is a particularly compelling figure to revisit,” said director Lynn Novick. “He was hugely complicated, deeply flawed, and he truly revolutionized the art of writing. One of the great revelations of this project was asking renowned writers from around the world – Mario Vargas Llosa, Edna O’Brien, Abraham Verghese, Leonardo Padura, Mary Karr – to share their insights into Hemingway’s work and why it’s still important today.”
Ernest Hemingway “loved being in love,” the writer Michael Katakis says in the film. He married four times over the course of his tumultuous life and had three sons. His relationships with women – his mother, sisters, wives and the World War I nurse who broke his heart – profoundly affected his work. Yet for all his bravado and hyper-masculine posturing, Hemingway wrote about relationships between men and women with sensitivity, nuance and clarity. As writer Edna O’Brien says on camera, he was able to put himself “inside the skin” of the other and give voice to women’s deepest emotions.
Narrated by long-time collaborator Peter Coyote, the series features an all-star cast of actors bringing Hemingway (voiced by Jeff Daniels), his friends and family vividly to life. Through letters to and from his four wives – voiced by Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson – the film reveals Hemingway at his most romantic and his most vulnerable, grappling at times with insecurity, anxiety and existential loneliness.
“I’ve always admired Hemingway’s writing,” said Daniels. “The power of his simplicity changed literature. Reading his published work along with his unpublished letters gave me new insight into his impact as an artist and the ultimate tragedy of his life.”
In three two-hour episodes, Hemingway tracks the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the author who, in his final years, suffered from chronic alcoholism, serious mental illness, traumatic brain injuries and depression. In 1961, at the age of 61, Hemingway died by suicide, leaving behind an unparalleled body of artistic work and a complicated emotional legacy for those closest to him.
The filmmakers were granted unusually open access to the treasure trove of Hemingway’s manuscripts, correspondence, scrapbooks and photographs housed at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. Interviews with renowned biographers and scholars, including Mary Dearborn and Mark Dudley, shed new light on the man and his work; and well-known writers around the world – including Edna O’Brien, Abraham Verghese, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mary Karr, Tim O’Brien, Akiko Manabe, Leonardo Padura and Tobias Wolff – deepen the film’s exploration of Hemingway’s oeuvre. It also includes moving commentary from Hemingway’s surviving son, Patrick, and from the late Senator John McCain, whose lifelong role model was not Hemingway, but Robert Jordan, the protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls.