"Islands in the Stream," now at area theaters, is like an outdoor continuation of "The Last Tycoon." The same lethargy and hollowness that afflicted the recent film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished last novel reassert their stultifying influence over this film version of Ernest Hemingway's opus, published posthumously in 1970.
Both pictures were produced by Paramount, which may now point to them in tear and trembling the next time a producer with literary preten ions suggests ennobling the screen with adaptations of "prestige" novels that happen to be handicapped by unresolved, unsatisfying or enfeebled narratives.
"Tycoon" is a book its author never lived to complete. "Islands" is a scrapbook of self-pitying ruminations and lame anecdotes its author never whipped into dramatic shape and might have been wiser to destroy.
While both adaptations seem to have been approved with undue optimism and filmed with lethal solemnity, "Islands" is marginally more astute and tolerable. The screenplay by the fancily yclept Denne Bart Petitclerc, a former reporter and Hemingway crony who helped create such TV programs as "High Chaparral" and "Then Came Bronson," reflects some awareness of the original's problems and some effort to compensate for them. (In "Tycoon" it appeared that Harold Pinter had been hired to insert dead air instead of resolve the story.)
Petitclerc has compressed the time frame of Hemingway's rambling narrative, which began in Bimini in the mid-'30s and ran aground somewhere in the Keys during World War II. He has also tried to stitch together the human interest and adventure elements that occur in the first and last sections of the book, wisely overlooking the gin-soaked excesses of the middle section, called "Cuba." If director Franklin J. Schaffner had been roused from his panoramic beauty sleep, "Islands" might have had a little get-up-and-go. Instead, it's content to be static.
"Tycoon" had Robert De Niro struggling to bring some vitality and conviction to a lifeless production. George C. Scott has a similar thankless role to fulfill in "Islands," although he doesn't so much struggle with character traits as strike a grave, dignified, thoughtful pose of sadder-but-wiser masculinity. Cast as the Hemingway alter-ego, a regretful middle-aged artist named Thomas Hudson changed by the filmmakers from a painter of marine life and seascapes into a sculptor of massive welded abstracts), Scott has considerable physical authority and has added a beard and haircut that resemble Hemingway's.
Like the signs of streamlining in the screenplay, Scott's brooding dignity represents an improvement on the original. Scott is more exciting to watch when he isn't repressing himself, but this strong silent Hudson is preferable to the self-image that emerges in the book, where Hemingway exposes his artistic impotence the more he lets his hair down and feels sorry for himself.
Schaffner's logy direction restores the weaknesses a trim script and a discreetly powerful star presence might have obscured. The sentimentality of Hemingway's prose is evident in much of the dialogue, but it's Schaffner's ponderous supervision that exaggerates and embalms those awful notes of manly self-pity and nobler-than-thou reticence and forebearance.
The material is permeated by such a defeatist, anticlimactic tone that one never quite registers a feeling of the present tense. Schaffner is rather too adept at making one feel the hero's life has ended before the film has begun. Yes, the three sons from his two failed marriages turn up to vacation with him, but there's something about the arrival that has farewell written all over it. The present tense is blown in another way during the big rites-of-passage sequence in which the middle son, David, struggles to land a marlin. For some reason this fairly expensive production (shot in Hawaii rather than the Caribbean, incidentally) couldn't afford real and make-believe fishing scenes that matched when spliced together.
The boy loses his big fish, and the book is in the nature of a portentous Beeg Feesh that Hemingway never reeled in either. All he revealed was his inability to land another big one. What inspired these filmmakers to believe that such an uninspired memoir might yield an interesting movie? The film version of "Islands in the Stream" merely enshrouds a literary futile gesture inside a cinematic futile gesture.