I'm not rich," insists Hart Bochner, as Ernest Hemingway's impotent hero Jake Barnes, in the new rendition of "The Sun Also Rises" from NBC. "You look rich," says the ubiquitous Stephane Audran as a Parisian prostitute. The dialogue sounds as if it were written to finesse miscasting; Bochner does look rich. He looks like the captain of the yachting team.
Maybe Jake Barnes had to be well-off to be able to spend so much time just bumming around Paris and Pamplona, as he does in the novel and the film. But Bochner looks wrong rich, especially for someone who is supposed to be a journalist; he looks well-bred, pampered, unmussed. Only once in the entire four-hour, two-part movie do we see Jake do a lick of work at a typewriter. That's another thing we can't believe: that this primpy preppy could write. He's just too-too GQ.
It could be argued Jake was but a pivotal blank in the book, too, but by dropping Hemingway's first-person narration, the filmmakers compound their central character's impotence. He gets "lost" in the wrong ways. "The Sun Also Rises," airing tonight and Monday at 9 on Channel 4, is fairly engrossing and probably worth seeing, and definitely of a higher tone than most such TV films, but it's not especially involving or satisfying. If this is the definitive film version of the book, that's only by default; only one other version has been made, and that wasn't very good, and who's going to want to tangle with such an uneventful novel again for the next 10 to 30 years?
Perhaps the book will remain the definitive version of the book. It has been known to happen.
"Sun" departs from TV's usual long-form rut (NBC calls it a "mini-series", but it's really just a long movie) in that it isn't just about sex and money and it isn't constantly trying to be torrid. Although it opens with Jake in the sack with a hooker, and this even before the film editors' credit, Jakey-boy is quickly tossed into World War I, where a stray grenade ends his love life in a manner whose details have always been spared us. Jake is fated to sulk around France and Spain looking for meaning, which can only get you into trouble.
Bochner doesn't set off sparks over the course of this meandering but there are two performances so madly watchable and forceful that they sustain one's interest when the film falters: the fascinating Jane Seymour, coldly voracious as Lady Brett Ashley, and Zeljko Ivanek, mercurial and incendiary and wild of eye to a (James) Deanian degree, as Jake's friend Bill Gorton, playboy of the doomed.
Hemingway's 1926 novel about the American expatriates who came to be known as the Lost Generation for their postwar malaise was made into a movie in 1957 by 20th Century-Fox, which also produced this new TV version (Veteran Lionel Newman, who conducted the music for the first version, is still around and supervised the score for the new one). Hollywood studios are constantly ransacking their archives for properties they own that can be turned into TV time-killers. Tyrone Power played Jake on the big screen, and at least he looked haunted. Bochner looks peeved. He looks as though he just found a fingerprint on his Lamborghini.
The one advantage this production has is that its young characters are played by young actors. Power, Mel Ferrer, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn and Eddie Albert certainly gave a sense of glamorous dissipation to the Fox original, but they were all a bit long in the beret. They didn't look like they'd been hanging around Paris for a few years. They looked like they'd been hanging around Paris for a few decades. And here's a cute footnote: the matador in Fox's CinemaScoper was played by Robert Evans, not very Spanish and later production chief at Paramount Pictures.
Seymour and Ivanek reach such captivating heights that they tend to supply justification for the whole film's existence. We have to be as tantalized, if not as tormented, as Jake is by the rapacious Lady Brett, and Seymour sees to it that we are. Brett is Jake's one true love, a young woman with a bed as wide as all outdoors. Among those it accommodates in the course of the story are Robert Carradine, ineffectual as Jake's pal Robert Cohn (less forgivable here than in the book, and much more of a boor); Ian Charleson, poignantly pitiful as a cuckolded fiance'; and Andrea Occhipinti as a boyishly smoldering matador whom Brett, in part two, chooses for her next conquest as if picking out a new mink from a furrier's window. Leonard Nimoy, very Jose Ferrerish as a seedy Russian count, lurks ominously hoping for admission but never obtaining it.
Brett never gets around to the most impressive actor on the premises, the megavolted Ivanek, a Yugoslavian-born up-and-comer. Ivanek is not your average Zeljko. This grippingly intense young fellow, whose most conspicuous previous appearance was in the semi-stylish horror film "The Sender," has a passion and presence the other men in the film lack. He's taking it all so seriously that one is encouraged to do the same. In part one, Ivanek has a splendid soliloquy about the war, and the death of a young pilot, watched by him from a perch in pink clouds, that is a mesmerizing pip, and director James Goldstone keeps the camera on Ivanek as he works his spell, not cutting away the usual TV quotient of dishwater-dull reaction shots.
The scene not only energizes the film, it gives a viewer that rare sense of discovery, like seeing the young Meryl Streep in the mini-series "Holocaust" -- aha, a find! Ivanek will soon be seen in the movie "Mass Appeal" with Jack Lemmon. He was interviewed on the "Today" show last week and his appearance in "Sun" wasn't even mentioned -- but probably only because the NBC movie was being plugged to bits in other segments of the program.
During Ivanek's soliloquy we are not supposed to be thinking of World War I but of Vietnam. One of the producers has said as much. The psychologically wounded characters in the film have been retooled to remind viewers of that war. If producer John Furia, writer Robert L. Joseph and director Goldstone wanted to do a film about Vietnam, one may feel, they should have done a film about Vietnam, not hidden behind Hemingway.
In fact, though, this version of "The Sun Also Rises" isn't the kind of thing anyone will be able to get very hot about, either to thrill at the very sight of it or to muster umbrage over Papa wronged. An ostensible justification for remaking movies made as recently as the '50s is that modern permissiveness allows more fidelity to the books they were based on. But the standards for prime-time TV in the '80s really aren't much more "adult" than were those of late-'50s films; such is the television lag.
"We were running nowhere, and you got lost chasing us," Jake says to Cohn in one of the film's more succinct summations. The movie may be flabbed-out and scrubbed-up Hemingway, but those who stick with it for all four hours probably will come away with some feeling for life in the shellshocked '20s, however relevant that sensation may be in the nuclear '80s. The French and Spanish locations are exotically photogenic, even if the TV-movie budget dictates that there be very little traffic on the streets of Paris. In one scene, three old cars are required to represent a major traffic jam.
Every now and then, there's actually a bit of imagery, some pungently visualized Hemingway, that sticks to the surface of the mind: Jake desperately hugging a strange child who's just gotten off a bus in Pamplona, or Bill Gorton standing alone, at night, in an empty bullring and whispering "ole'" as if he were hearing it from a throng. It's another of Ivanek's strong moments. His character is supposed to be subordinate, but it eclipses Jake.
Probably because of the Hemingway imprimatur, the producers get away with more violence than is usually tolerated by network censors. But curiously enough, not only are the bullfight sequences a thousand times tidier than Hemingway described them, but the killing of the bull at the end of a bullfight is completely avoided by the camera. On the other hand, the camera is right there and all apeep when during a scene Hemingway never wrote, a man is skewered by the bullfighter as the climax to a lurid bedroom brawl. It's right there in graphic detail and so is a brutal beating, earlier, that reduces the bullfighter's face to Smucker's. If you even pretend to kill a bull in a movie, you'll get a screech from the animal nuts, but human beings have no such pressure group to screech on their behalf. You can rub them out in droves.