The Story: A Farewell to Arms centers on Lieutenant Frederic Henry, a World War I American ambulance driver in the Italian army, who falls in love with English nurse Catherine Barkley.
The Book: When I first read A Farewell to Arms, I devoured it. It was the first time I’d read an Ernest Hemingway novel, and though I’d read a couple of his short stories, none of them gripped me as much as this book did. Much has been said about Hemingway’s terse style, and I don’t know what else to add than to say that no one but Hemingway can speak so profoundly and beautifully and at the same time be rather blunt about it. The book’s descriptions of war and love are spellbinding.
The 1932 Film: The better of the two adaptations, this film was directed by Frank Borzage and stars Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. The most interesting thing about this film is how the minimalist writing style of Hemingway translates into a minimalist style in filmmaking. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. It contains the bare bones of the plot – and even changes some bits and removes others – and moves as though it’s simply trying to get through the story. The positives are the cinematography and the performances of Cooper and Hayes, who are both well cast.
The 1957 Film: The best thing that can be said about this film is that it looks gorgeous. The CinemaScope cinematography is superb, highlighting the picturesque scenery of Italy. Otherwise, though, it’s a bit of a mess. Produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Charles Vidor, it’s as heavy-handed as the 1932 version is minimalist. Given the misdirection, star Rock Hudson does the best that he can and is a decent Frederic Henry. Jennifer Jones, Selznick’s wife, however, is completely miscast as Catherine Barkley and struggles to make up for the fact. This overwrought flop was, in fact, the last film Selznick ever made.
The Bottom Line: Read A Farewell to Arms, but skip the films unless you’re a fan of the directors or actors.