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.


  1. Hemingway's column for ESQUIRE in the 1930s gave the whole plot of OLD MAN as a factual account. He went back and wrote it as fiction a decade later. Influences are many...

  2. Gregory,

    Thanks for the information. I hadn't known that. It appears as though Sturges incorporated that account into the film. I still wish he hadn't done that. I thought it took the mythic element out of the story.

    Hemingway was smart enough to write the story without inserting himself. Sturges should have listened to him.