Both writers are in the news this month. Both were (or are) obsessed with hunting and killing and eating. Both did brilliant work driven by these obsessions. Both worked in journalism. Both had beards, though to be fair the beards had different meanings: One expressed macho irascibility; the other disguises the fact that its owner's well-fed face has gotten kind of blobby. But back to similarities: Both stalked predators--one in Africa, one in America.
Both had (and have) fabulous careers as novelists and watched as an admiring professional film industry turned their stories into big-budget movies.
But most of the movies made from Ernest Hemingway's novels stank, while all the movies made from Thomas Harris's novels (three so far, with "Hannibal," the fourth, expensively aborning) have been excellent.
Why should this be? If there is an answer, other than dumb luck, then possibly that answer will shed some light on a curious aspect of film culture, which is why some novels from highly vaunted novelists (like Hemingway; you could name 10 others from A for Anderson, Sherwood, to U for Updike, John) always disappoint when they reach the screen. Meanwhile, others, from those much farther down the critics' food chain (such as thriller writer Harris or the late Mafia potboiler mechanic Mario Puzo) always seem to delight.
On the surface, no author seems more movieable than Hemingway. His plots were straightforward, nearly always punctuated with violence, set in exotic locales, complete to rising action, climax and denouement. He bought into and indeed mythologized the Western image of the hero, which was the staple of popular entertainment, though he gave his main men shadings of despair and melancholy, to say nothing of fear, which made them more interesting. All were animated by "the code," an unspoken set of assumptions that required that a man never complain, be true to duty, abhor big words and phonies, and, even if futilely, die quietly with grace rather than live loudly with shame. They spoke in almost movie-dialogue-pure chunks of communication; they were never yakkers or dissemblers.
But it can be no surprise that the best movie ever based on a Hemingway story pretty much abandons that story after the first seven minutes. This would be Robert Siodmak's superb "The Killers," based on the cryptic tale of young Nick Adams's first encounter with despair. Siodmak's 1946 film brilliantly captures the clarity and precision of Hemingway's story, as Nick, Hemingway's alter ego in his early stories, hanging out in a small-town diner, is braced one day by two professional killers, looking for Ole, a gas station attendant who also frequents the diner. Nick escapes to warn Ole, who, as it turns out, doesn't care a bit. That's where the story ends. In the movie, we get to see the death scene: Ole stares at the hitters, as the camera moves to his hand gripping the bedpost, the muzzle flashes illuminate the dark, and his hand relaxes. He has been in despair; his misery is now over.
The movie, however, is just beginning. Nick disappears from it so totally that it's all but impossible to find the name of the undistinguished actor who played the role (his name, finally discovered in an obscure British film noir tome, turns out to be Phil Brown), and it heads off in another direction, telling in convoluted fashion the back story--what got Ole (played by Burt Lancaster in his mesmerizing screen debut) to that state of nihilism. It's in a style that laconic, hard-boiled Hemingway in no way anticipated in his prose and might even be the antithesis of that prose--film noir, with its dizzying chiaroscuro stylings, its labyrinthine plot, its femme fatale (sultry Ava Gardner), its aura of sexual menace, its metaphorical overtones. Its hero is hardly Hemingwayesque; he's no haunted vet but an upbeat, intrepid insurance investigator (played by chipper journeyman Edmond O'Brien) who tracks everybody down and makes them all pay. Very cool movie. Nothing whatsoever to do with Hemingway, but very cool. (A 1964 remake, with Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager as hipster killers, John Cassavetes as the victim, and Ronald Reagan as the bad guy, was equally cool, but also had nothing to do with Hemingway.)
Far more typical of the Hemingway oeuvre brought to film is the lugubrious 1943 version of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," a high-end product from Paramount that essayed a shot at Hemingway's most successful but most overrated, overbaked novel. The book wasn't so much turned into a movie as embalmed in Technicolor, its veins injected with formaldehyde, its face waxily slathered with rouge and lipstick, as if every mote of meaning in Hemingway's story had to be preserved from rot. It was strictly DOA. Gary Cooper played Hemingway's Robert Jordan, a professor of Spanish literature who journeys to Revolutionary Spain to fight fascism, bed down with a peasant beauty (Ingrid Bergman; now what kind of peasant would she be? Oh, the Swedish beauty queen kind of peasant, that's right!) and blow bridges.
Certain annoying complexities of the Spanish Civil War are conveniently forgotten--such as the usurpation of the cause by the Soviet NKVD, which used the war cynically as a way of purging impure thought and impressing party discipline on unruly fellow revolutionaries, while at the same time looting Spain of its national treasure. This byzantine conflict, so fraught with purge and counter-purge and internecine battles more fiercely fought than those on the battlefield (which were fierce enough), was reduced to the moral simplicity of a wartime anti-fascist fable with the estimable Coop as the soul of taciturn Yank nobility.
Cooper is so magnificent he almost brings this off. But he--and the whole production--are undone by an ersatz seriousness of purpose that translates on-screen to an enervating piety. He is, almost certainly, the closest Hollywood representative of what might be called the Hemingway hero, with his rigid repression, his emotional bandwidth running from A to A.a, his skill in the woods and with guns, and his sense of imperturbable virtue. But the film's stylistic undoing comes from its slavish adherence to one of Hemingway's more absurd linguistic adventures: To express the difference in Spanish between formal and intimate styles of address, he chose to express the second person intimate--not a feature of English--as ersatz Shakespearean, so the voice of the picture became an absurd garden of thees, thys and thous. It seemeth absurdeth. And it was oh so longeth.
In fact, generally it was Hemingway's short stories that made the best movies, because of their compactness and their sturdy melodramatic structure. Still, the bag was mixed. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," with Gregory Peck as the Hemingway objective correlative, a dying writer, was formless and empty. But "The Macomber Affair," based on Hemingway's "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is pretty good, with Robert Preston as a baby-man terrorized by his stronger wife on an African safari. She is having an affair with the professional hunter (Peck again). But Francis finds his courage one day facing a buffalo. The next day she kills him in an "accidental" shooting, because she realizes his new manliness has effectively ended her dominance of him. Now what are the chances of this one being remade, with its Hemingwayesque insistence on the manliness of the hunt and the necessity of courage when slaying dangerous animals? A Disney version, perhaps?
But, particularly in the '50s when his fame knew no bounds and his work had declined to pablum, he watched the films bottom out so badly. In fact, no other Hemingway movie is worth the film it's printed on, from the dismal version of "The Sun Also Rises" with Tyrone Power as Jake Barnes, to the creaky version of "A Farewell to Arms" with Rock Hudson (Rock Hudson!) and onward to an ill-conceived "Hemingway's Adventures as a Young Man," with Richard Beymer, hot from "West Side Story," as Nick Adams, going through lame charades similar to some famous Hemingway stories. In other words, the bigger and more important the movie, the worse it is.
This is a pattern that's been noted before. One familiar interpretation of it holds that filmmakers do a better job turning novels into films when they have nothing but contempt for the work at hand. In Hemingway's case, that seems to be accurate. As his fame increased, as he won the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes and ended up on more magazine covers than Grace Kelly, his value as a movie property increased, but somehow directors and screenwriters became intimidated by his success. In attempting to adapt his books, they mummified them. With lesser novels, they felt freer to burn and slash and crank the story into its truest movie form, without regard to preserving and recording what was on the page.
Thus an early-'50s film like "Kiss Me Deadly," from a crappy Mickey Spillane novel, is so energized and heated up by a genius like Robert Aldrich that it becomes a classic film noir, beloved unto this day, while the great Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," with all its pretensions of "serious lit" and its endorsements from the Book-of-the-Month Club and Life magazine, disappears into the ether as one of the prime bowwows of the decade.
Well, yes. But also, no. In fact, almost exactly the opposite happened with Thomas Harris. Here's a "low" writer, a genre guy who'll never be interviewed by Partisan Review or end up on the front page of the New York Times Book Review--oh, wait, check that last--and never enter the canon, to be force-fed to sleepy undergraduates in the millions.
Yet not only have the movies that have been made from Harris's first three books--"Black Sunday," "Manhunter" (from the novel "Red Dragon") and of course "The Silence of the Lambs"--been terrific, but each of them has been something that no Hemingway adaptation ever managed to be: honest to the spirit and nuance of the book while becoming at the same time cracking good movie entertainment.
What does Harris know that Hemingway didn't? Or what did Hollywood know about Harris that it didn't about Hemingway? Or how has Hollywood changed to the benefit of the Harrises of this world and the disparagement of the Hemingways?
Well, one thing is the structure of the business. In the '50s, the film industry was truly an industry. It was a producer's medium, and the projects were assigned to directors based on many factors other than the directors' affinity for the project. Hemingway's fame also meant that his projects were always helmed by directors high in the studio hierarchy. That was almost a bias against success, because those directors tended to be men who'd learned to accommodate the hyper-egotistical moguls and producers, men who never took chances or risks, men who never gained reputations as mavericks or loners. They were the equivalent of corporate vice presidents, whose true mission wasn't to make great movies but to continue with their great careers.
Look at the high-end schlubs poor Hemingway drew: Director Sam Wood was a journeyman with a reputation for turning the marginal into "acceptable entertainment," meaning he lacked true brilliance. His best picture had more to do with the stars than with anything he did--the Marx Brothers in "A Night at the Opera." About all Wood did was call "Action." At his best--"Command Decision," "Goodbye Mr. Chips"--he was merely good.
Hemingway also drew old Henry King twice--for "The Sun Also Rises" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Those films are typical of King's work: solid, dependable, craftsmanlike, but undistinguished by any particular energy or power. And what would you expect from the director of "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band"?
He got the wrong Vidor--Charles, not King--for that horrible 1958 version of "A Farewell to Arms." King, no relation, made the great World War I film "The Big Parade." Charles, a routine hack, put together a masterpiece-free filmography, the best listing on which is probably "Gilda," from 1946. And "The Old Man and the Sea" was filmed by journeyman John Sturges, who later hit his stride as an action mechanic ("The Magnificent Seven," "The Great Escape") but couldn't bring the one-character/ one-fake-fish drama together on-screen, even with Spencer Tracy trolling for the Big One.
Harris, on the other hand, has fared much better in his directors. But more important, he was lucky in that his work became popular when directors were becoming more powerful than producers, and star directors gained the authority to shape films toward their own desires, rather than laboring under the mandate to create a blander, more amorphous product.
"Black Sunday," Harris's first novel, received a bang-up job at the hands of salty old pro John Frankenheimer, who'd already made "The Manchurian Candidate," "Seconds" and "The Train," brilliant films all. While "Black Sunday" is not at that rarefied level, it's superb thriller filmmaking. Incidentally, one irony: Frankenheimer, when he was a TV director on the old "Playhouse 90," did a live-action, two-part "For Whom the Bell Tolls" with Jason Robards that was far superior to Sam Wood's dim version.
Michael Mann, the stylistic freak behind "Miami Vice" (and, later, "The Last of the Mohicans" and "Heat") became obsessed with "Red Dragon," which was released as "Manhunter." He intelligently jettisoned the book's weak third act, showing his ruthless willingness to change, but at the same time he got something that is really the core of Harris's appeal as a novelist: some sense of the mind-set of these squalid but fascinating monsters we call sociopaths. Of course, after Harris, he romanticizes his psychos until they're a kind of anti-Sherlock Holmes, men of such superior intelligence that they and only they can decode one another's arcane semiotics. His Hannibal Lecter was played by the excellent British actor Brian Cox, who somehow suggested a damper, more simpering and squalid version than the next chap to play the role.
That, of course, was Anthony Hopkins, in "The Silence of the Lambs." Hopkins's Hannibal was mesmerizing, powerful, a kind of fallen angel who once sat at the right hand of God but was exiled for pride. He could be Lucifer in the flesh with his knowledge and erudition, but as commanding a cinema figure as he is, it still took the brilliant director Jonathan Demme to bring him out.
Demme is much more humanistically oriented than Mann, who loves flash and dazzle and visual pyrotechnics. But Demme rooted "Silence" in a natural universe, so compellingly real that our disbelief was immediately destroyed. When Hannibal instructs Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, if you're just released from cryogenic storage), you feel the queasy clammy push-me pull-you of the double attraction: He wants to teach, she wants to learn. There is so much between them: his tendency to murder people, for one, and an inch-thick glass wall for another. Yet Demme makes their compulsive attraction instantaneously believable, because we feel them relating as humans, not archetypes.
Now "Hannibal" has been acquired by Hollywood for a record-breaking sum: $8 million. Possibly the Demme-Foster-Hopkins triumvirate can be reassembled to put it together, with Ted Talley, the original screenwriter, back in service as well. But here's a vote against that team.
The reason is that "Hannibal" is entirely different in tone from either "Silence" or "Manhunter." Where they were gritty, journalistically researched pieces that turned on, and demanded, reality in their making, "Hannibal" is more like an extremely grim fairy tale combined with a cookbook. It's mordantly witty in a grotesque way ("Now try and keep an open mind," Dr. Lecter says as he removes the top of a man's skull, so that he may slice, cook and eat his brains.) It has a magic quality to it, evident from the familiar tone of the prose, the casualness of the plot (a long central section set in Florence really has little to do with the rest of the book, other than to express its author's love of that city). More interestingly, Hannibal has mutated in some weird fashion. He's no longer the villain--he's the romantic lead, but not in sexual terms so much as in family terms. The relationship between him and Clarice has a kind of Hansel-and-Gretel quality to it: She lost her way in the forest and now, all these years later, haunted by her fate, he yearns to rescue her. It's kind of, er, sweet, exactly as it's horrible beyond words.
That's Harris: a weird, deft, utterly compelling blend of horror and love, a kind of blasphemous music of the soul that, no matter how reprehensible, is mesmerizing because under its monstrosity we recognize human yearnings. It will take a very special director to bring all that out, or else the project has no point. No Sam Woods, Henry Kings or John Sturgeses need apply. I don't even think a Mann or a Demme could bring it off. Is there a genius in the house?
But there is another difference between the movie fates of Hemingway and Harris that plays out over their careers. It's determined by chronology but it's not about chronology, but something else, which might be called deep story structure. That is, Hemingway wrote before the feature film had become the reigning narrative form on the planet and Harris wrote afterward. This difference in environment subtly influenced the two men's works, at least in this way: Hemingway influenced the movies, but the movies influenced Harris.
Hemingway's ideas of story were solidly cause-effect; he established motive, then followed its play in action. Underneath it all was a sense that narration equaled rationality. A story, somehow, made sense; it followed a logical blueprint and was based in reality, like an engineering project. What was going on in characters' minds--Robert Jordan's nobility, for example--determined what was going on in the plot of "For Whom the Bell Tolls"--Robert Jordan's willingness to throw himself away in a futile assault on a bridge in support of an attack he knew was doomed. The mind computed the action, took the appropriate course and followed it to a bitter, noble end. Thus Hemingway's books, particularly when moved to film by conservative directors without their own sense of style, tend to die in their turgid literalism. In the words of--let's see, was it Lionel Trilling or Desi Arnaz? (I always get those two mixed up)--his stories had too much 'splainin' to do.
Harris learned as much from the movies as he did from other novels. He learned a sort of visual shorthand that is the movie's principal (if least noticed) stylization and also that secret commitment to rationalism wasn't necessary to the narrative trance. He learned that the tension generated by crosscutting between stories was sufficient to sustain an illusion of believability, whether or not the story bears up under a scrutiny of logic. Think, for example, of the beautiful crosscutting in "Silence of the Lambs" between the FBI closing in on the wrong man in Chicago, while Clarice Starling, unknowing, closes in on the right man in Ohio; it's not the facts that excite but the rhythms between them, as we learn one narrative leads to a dead end, and the other to a confrontation with mythic evil. So in some sense, Harris's novels, though beautifully written, are already cinematically imagined; they go from high point to high point that makes a kind of temporary sense and carries us onward.
Another example of power of the visual over the logical is the key image in "Silence": Lecter, in that mask, behind that glass wall, pinioned already. The mask is an image of the man's insanity and it makes visual sense; but it doesn't make literal sense, because, given his status behind the wall, it's unnecessary already. It doesn't matter; we don't think of that, we're so gulled by the visual majesty of the image. (A similar silliness in "Manhunter": Why does Francis Dolarhyde wear a mask? He kills all witnesses. The answer is the power of the image, not the power of the logic behind the image.)
If you take a last look at the Hemingway-Harris paradigm, one conclusion is inescapable: It may be better to tell stories the old-fashioned way, like Hemingway, but it's smarter to tell them the way they do in the movies.
CAPTION: Anthony Hopkins, left, as Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs," and Gary Cooper in the 1943 version of "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
CAPTION: Gregory Peck, left, and Robert Preston in "The Macomber Affair," a reasonably good adaptation of Hemingway's "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber." Right, Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster in "The Killers," which captured the clarity and precision of Hemingway's story.
CAPTION: William Petersen, left, in "Manhunter," and Robert Shaw in "Black Sunday," two well-realized film adaptations of works by Thomas Harris.
CAPTION: Hemingway in 1960 and Harris earlier this summer: The former influenced the movies, but the movies influenced the latter.