Friday, October 31, 2008

Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

One of my favorite stories by Hemingway is The Old Man and the Sea. It is one of the leanest and sparest stories I know. Hemingway pared away everything except for Santiago and the sea. Santiago is a Cuban fisherman whose luck has turned bad. He hasn't caught a fish in 84 days. The young boy who had been helping him has been sent by his father to another fishing boat because he hasn't been able to bring anything home for almost three months. The story begins as Santiago goes out alone on Day 85, and it tells of his struggle with the sea and the great fish he hooks.

"Santiago" is a good name for the old man who is in his 70s now and has been a fisherman all his life. "Santiago" is Spanish for Saint James, who was one of the first Apostles chosen by Christ. When Christ called him, James was out fishing with his father and brother John, and Christ called James and his brother John to follow him and be "fishers of men" instead.

Santiago is not a 21st century sportsman who fishes to demonstrate his skill and who feels separate from the web of life. Santiago fishes for survival and understands that he is like the fish he preys on, for they too prey on other fish in order to survive. We see this as he talks to the great fish and to the sea and asks them for their help.

Two films have been made of this story. The first was made in 1958; it was directed by Jud Taylor and starred Spencer Tracy. The second was a "made for TV" film and appeared in 1990, directed by John Sturges. It starred Anthony Quinn.

Both have serious flaws. Ironically, a truly great version could have been made if Jud Taylor, the director of the 1958 version, had been able to cast Anthony Quinn in the role of Santiago. Taylor's version was the closest to the story as Hemingway wrote it. It gave us Santiago and his struggle with the sea just as Hemingway presented it to us. The weakest part, for me anyway, was the casting of Spencer Tracy. I have enjoyed watching Tracy in a number of films, but I just couldn't see him as a poor Cuban fisherman. Every few minutes some part of me would insist that he just wasn't Santiago, but someone playing a role.

The 1990 version, directed by John Sturges, was far more fortunate in the casting of Anthony Quinn as Santiago. I thought he was completely convincing as Santiago, a poor Cuban fisherman, getting old, and desperately trying to maintain his independence, in spite of his age.

Sturges, unfortunately, just had to "improve" this story, or perhaps he felt that the average American TV viewer just wouldn't be bothered watching the story as Hemingway wrote it. So, Sturges added a few things, one of which was a brief bio by the bartender at the local hotel, and which served no purpose whatsoever to the story.

A second "improvement" was the addition of Santiago's "daughter" who insisted that he was too old to be on his own anymore and wanted him to move in with her and her husband. He could just spend the rest of his life drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. She also feared what the neighbors would say if she left him out there on his own. They would blame her for not taking proper care of her father.

However, the most annoying insertion was that of an "author" and his wife who were staying at the hotel. The author probably was supposed to be Hemingway himself as the author became interested in the old man and his failure to catch fish. Could the author's suggested "writer's block" be analogous to Santiago's inability to catch fish?

The film switched back and forth from Santiago to the author and occasional flashbacks of interactions with his daughter. This seriously interrupted the intensity of the fight between Santiago and the great fish and the subsequent struggle to bring the fish back. We may have been with Santiago half of the time, but those scenes were so weakened by the interruptions that the intensity of Santiago's struggles was severely diminished.

Of course, there were no authors, with or without blocks, or daughters in Hemingway's version, nor was there a bartender who came to Cuba years ago.

I think directors such as John Sturges do a disservice to the author, to the story, and to the audience when they water down the original story as he has done. His additions have attenuated the intensity of the struggle between Santiago and the sea and probably leave many in the audience wondering what it was all about. They certainly didn't get the story as Hemingway envisioned it, and they are the losers.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Akutagawa's short story: In a Grove

One of Kurosawa's best known films is Rashomon, the story of a rape and death from three different points of view: the husband, the wife, and the bandit. Kurosawa adapted this film from two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, considered by some to be one of Japan's top writers in the 20th century.

The film was remade in 1964. The director is Martin Ritt, and the cast of characters includes Paul Newman as the bandit, Laurence Harvey as the husband, Claire Bloom, as the wife. In the frame, Edward G. Robinson plays the role of the con man/thief and William Shatner (Capt Kirk of Star Trek fame) is the preacher. Unfortunately, I've been unable so far to find a copy of this film on DVD. It would be fascinating to see what Hollywood did with this gem by Kurosawa.

The core of the film's story is based on Akutagawa's short story, "The Grove" (aka "The Cedar Grove," "The Willow Grove," "In a Grove," or "The Bamboo Grove").  The film's title comes from another short story by Akutagawa, "Rashomon," which provides the setting for the film's frame of the three men telling the story in an abandoned town gate. The gate does exist, according to all accounts that I've read.

In a collection of Akutagawa's short stories, Rashomon and 17 Other Stories, Jay Rubin, who translated the stories and provided notes for them, says that Akutagawa's inspiration for "The Grove" and for "Rashomon" came from tales from the 12th century. I'm presently searching for those now.

Rubin, however, goes on to say that another source for "The Grove" might be a short story by Ambrose Bierce, of whom Akutagawa was an enthusiastic supporter. This story, "The Moonlit Road," I was able to find on the internet.

Bierce's story is told in the form of separate statements by each of the three--the Son, the Father, and the Mother, whose tale had to be told through a medium since she had been murdered.

The commonalities between Bierce's tale and Akutagawa's are twofold. First, the format is the same as both tell the story in the form of separate statements by various individuals involved in the incident. There is no interplay among those making the statements.  Secondly, the last statement in both stories has to be told through a medium or shaman (in the Japanese version) because the individual is dead at the time of the telling of the story. It is this person's death that is the mystery that is to be resolved by the various statements.

I don't know, just now, the importance of Bierce's tale, "The Moonlit Road," for Akutagawa's story, but I'm curious enough to attempt to find the 12th century source for "The Grove." Perhaps that might provide some clues. Besides, it's always interesting to read the source for a particular work and see just what the later author did with the original material.

Rashomon is a great film, and I recommend it highly. The short stories are also quite good, both Akutagawa's and Bierce's.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Greater Good

Democracies work, more or less, on the utilitarian principle that the good of the majority outweighs that of the minority--the greater good. In other words, some suffering is acceptable if the good outweighs the evil that might result from a particular action or law or process. For example, some people may lose their homes or jobs if it is determined that such losses will result in a greater good for the majority.

The question that bothers me is to what extent this may be carried out. At least three works that I'm aware of have either mentioned this point or based the story completely on this issue.

One of the first works that I can find that has brought up this issue is Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, the skeptical brother, in a discussion with Alyosha, his younger brother who is a novice monk, brings up the issue in a discussion about justice--how could a just God have created a world so filled with evil in which good people suffer and evil people flourish?

At one point he poses the following hypothetical situation to Alyosha, "Tell me straight out, I call on you--answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at least, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears--would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth."

Peace and happiness for the human race--but at the cost of one child's suffering. Is that going too far with the philosophy of the greater good?

A second work one might read is a short story by Ursula Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." In this story, Le Guin posits such a perfect society and goes into considerable detail describing it. While some might not like this society, many would consider it an ideal world. However, there is a catch--as the old cliche goes, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." In the story, Le Guin describes the life of one small child that resembles horror stories that emerge in the news media about a dreadful example of child abuse--a child being locked in a dark room for years, with no sanitary facilities, physical and mental abuse alternating with complete isolation.

She continues: "They all come to know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvests and the kindly weathers of the skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery."

If that child were released, then "in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one..."

The title, of course, points out that there are some who cannot accept this situation and leave. But, most stay. Are they monsters?

A third version of this hypothetical situation is found in Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X. This tale differs in that it isn't one child who suffers for the good of the whole, but each member unknowingly, as an infant, undergoes a procedure that produces an idyllic society. In one sense they are now less than they could be, but their lives appear to be happier and more satisfying and creative than any contemporary society today. In fact, it is quite similar to Omelas. In this case, the issue is that the members of this society do not have the chance to make a decision, for it is made for them as infants and most do not know the true situation. The question is therefore whether the authorities in this society are justified in their decision to not allow each member to decide whether to undergo the procedure. Could they fear that most might not agree?

These are all hypothetical or fictional situations, but the principles behind them are not. I wonder what I might say if I were really in an actual situation similar to ones posited in the three stories--to exchange the complete happiness and joy of thousands or more people for the suffering of one person. I wonder which is the greater good.