From Book to Film: A Farewell to Arms

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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.

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6 thoughts on “From Book to Film: A Farewell to Arms

  1. I used to think that I was only charmed by Ernest Hemingway’s lifestyle – living in exciting locations, experiencing war and bull fights, writing in cafes in Paris, hanging out in Key West – but not so much the super macho tone of his work. Then I read “A Moveable Feast” and I fell in love with his purity and somewhat with him. Many of the quotes from that book have remained with me and inspire me to say what I mean always. Now he’s a favorite of mine as well.

  2. A Farewell to Arms is one of my favorite books. I am a Hemingway fan in general, but this is by far my favorite work of his. Never seen the film adaptations, though I did see that horrible “In Love & War” that was supposed to be based on the real story behind A Farewell to Arms. I thought they took a few too many liberties with that film myself.

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