HC 421H: Hemingway and Film

Winter Term, 2016-2017

Professor: Suzanne Clark

4 credits

  • CRN 22816: Monday & Wednesday, 16:00 - 17:50 @ GSH 132

Ernest Hemingway and the cinema were born together; he grew up attending the newsreels and films at the Nickelodean with his family, and he saw W. D. Griffith's epic, pathbreaking, and deeply problematic pro-Klan movie, "Birth of a Nation," with his grandfather as a teenager--perhaps 17 times. The Civil War battles in that film may have taught him more about representing war than the real WWI in Italy, where he was wounded--at least he accused Willa Cather of basing her own war scenes on the film battles.

He led something of a double life as a serious writer and as a celebrity, later attracting as much attention from photographers and journalists as the stars in the many blockbuster films made from his novels and stories--films he mostly disliked. Looking at Hemingway's insertion into celebrity culture, especially through films, may help to think about how the very individualistic art of writing is changed by its contact with film, photography, magazines, newsreels, reporters--the media. This course will examine written and cinematic aesthetics in relationship to a cultural context that was already, perhaps unconsciously, beginning to evolve away from the domination of the written word.

Hemingway's written style changed American prose forever, so radically and so pervasively that it now seems familiar.  He does not tell us he was influenced by the films he saw.  But it may be--we will investigate this carefully--that not only the new art and artists that Hemingway was discovering in Paris (from Cézanne to Miro), but also the new experiments of cinema in the first decades of the twentieth century themselves had an influence on Hemingway's innovative style. 

This course will in particular read/view the following:

  • The Sun Also Rises
  • A Farewell to Arms
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • A Moveable Feast

In addition, we will study The Spanish Earth, the film Hemingway himself made in 1937 in the middle of the Battle of Madrid with famous Dutch documentary director Joris Ivens, to help persuade the United States to enter the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republic. Hemingway dodged bullets--he and Ivens together practiced an "aesthetic of risk" to convey the story.  But in a different way, as the film became labeled "propaganda," Hemingway's possible complexities were again collapsed into mass culture simplifications.  From Griffith's "continuity editing" to the political message of The Spanish Earth, the film story often represses cinematic ambiguity, changeability, the often contradictory juxtapositions of montage, and the intensity of concrete images.  Ironically, Hemingway's prose makes use of these powerful elements of cinema to create a more experimental, disruptive representation of experience.