Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Tackle Ernest Hemingway

Daniel Hautzinger
Ernest Hemingway at his home Cuba, late 1940s. Photo: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston
Ernest Hemingway at his home Cuba, late 1940s. Photo: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Ken Burns has spent his career making exhaustive documentaries about subjects considered essentially American, and his latest is no exception. Hemingway, directed by Burns alongside his frequent collaborator Lynn Novick, premieres on WTTW and PBS on April 5-7. While Ernest Hemingway is admired for sparse language and terseness in his revered works, Burns is known for his in-depth films, and Hemingway is no exception: it consists of three two-hour parts.

Hemingway's influence through books such as The Sun Also RisesFor Whom the Bell TollsA Farewell to Arms, and The Old Man and the Sea, as well as short stories, is immeasurable, attested to in the film by interviews with a wide variety of authors—Edna O'Brien, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, and more. His work is taught in high schools and colleges across the country and garnered him both a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize, and the myth of the hyper-masculine Hemingway looms perhaps as large as his literary works—one recent book compiled his appearances in comic books, claiming that Abraham Lincoln is the only other historical figure to appear more often than Hemingway.

Hemingway is written by longtime Burns collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward, a fitting match for the novelist: Ward shares with his subject a fascination with tigers, although in terms of conservation instead of hunting; he grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park, while Hemingway was born in the similar Oak Park, although he longed to escape. Not only was Hemingway's writing gripping; so was his life, with firsthand experience in World War I as a soldier and as a journalist in the Spanish Civil War and World War II followed by a legendary life as an expatriate in Cuba. His personal life was complicated, with four wives—brought to life in Hemingway by the voices of Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson, while Hemingway himself is voiced by Jeff Daniels. He died by suicide in 1961, at the age of 61.