Writers in movies: Hemingway & Gellhorn

Another in an occasional series.

Like An Invisible WomanHemingway & Gellhorn is about a famous novelist’s relationship with a woman — in this case, the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn.  This was an HBO original movie and got a ton of Emmy nominations.  Unlike An Invisible Woman, this movie has an A-list actress, Nicole Kidman, playing the woman.  She’s pretty good!  Clive Owen as Hemingway, however, never convinced me the way Ralph Fiennes as Dickens convinced me.  Surely the director (Philip Kaufman) could have found an American who’d have done a better job. (At least an American could have gotten the accent right.)

The other major problem with the  movie is the script.  It never settles down and becomes about anything.  It just dramatizes a series of real-life incidents, usually with clever camera work and editing, and that becomes the film.

We do, of course, see Hemingway writing, and I assume they got that right.  He types standing up, his typewriter on a dresser, floating discarded sheets of paper in the direction of a wastebasket at his feet. He types as bombs fall in the street outside, and he types after a long night of drinking, while Gellhorn is too hung over to get out of bed.  And the script is full of what I assume are accurate Hemingway quotes, such as: “Writing’s like Mass.  God gets mad if you don’t show up.”  All good stuff.  But they didn’t make me like the movie.

The Hemingway app judges Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and me

Here’s a web site called Hemingway that judges prose according to these standards:

  • Short sentences
  • No passive voice
  • No adverbs (it tells you to aim for “0 or fewer”, which suggests that it wants you to be better than perfect–damn computers!)
  • Short words (for example, use “use” instead of “utilize”)

Paste in your prose, and it highlights your mistakes and gives you a grade level for readability.

Fair enough.  So what does it think of, say, the ending of The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

It likes this excerpt.  Fitzgerald gets a Grade 8 for readability, which Hemingway deems Good, and the only thing it complains about is the adverb ceaselessly.  I’m troubled, though, that it didn’t flag the word orgastic.  What kind of weird word is that?  (Borne also looks to me like it’s passive, but that’s probably a tough one to notice.)

How about Faulkner, from The Sound and the Fury:

When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o’ clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

This gets a Grade 11 in readability, which Hemingway thinks is just OK.  One adverb (excruciatingly), no passive voice, but Hemingway marks those two interior sentences for shortening.

So with some trepidation I handed Hemingway the first paragraph of the novel I’ve been working on:

I got off my bike and stared at the guy in the brown robe.  The guy in the brown robe stared back at me.  He was sitting at the front of a cart piled high with apples, pumpkins, squash, and other fall produce; half a dozen dead turkeys hung  from hooks at the back of the cart.  I figured he was about seven feet tall, although that was probably an exaggeration.  But definitely big, and definitely scary, with small black eyes, long stringy hair, and a scraggly beard that was interrupted by a deep scar on his left cheek.

Hemingway gives this a Grade 9 in readability, which merits a Good.  Yay! However, it considers two of my sentences to be too long.  Plus, it flags two adverbs–probably and scraggly.  But hey, scraggly is an adjective–I demand a recount!  (Although maybe I shouldn’t–a recount might notice the two uses of definitely, which are definitely adverbs.) Finally, I get dinged for the passive voice in the phrase “was interrupted by”.

Will I change anything in that paragraph, in response to Hemingway’s criticisms?  Nah.  And if I were Fitzgerald or Faulkner, I wouldn’t change anything either.  Except maybe orgastic  and reducto absurdum.  They can do better than that.

Why do authors rewrite?

I’m a big fan of rewriting.  But here’s an article from the Boston Globe making the point that rewriting hasn’t always been the standard.  One reason was technology:

In the age of Shakespeare and Milton, paper was an expensive luxury; blotting out a few lines was one thing, but producing draft after draft would have been quite another. Writers didn’t get to revise during the publishing process, either. Printing was slow and messy, and in the rare case a writer got to see a proof of his work—that is, a printed sample of the text, laid out like a book—he had to travel in person to a publishing center like London.

Another was a philosophical opposition to revisiting your original inspiration.  If you believe that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions, you’re not going to approve of a writing method that is deliberately unspontaneous.

The author points to Modernism as the source of our current deification of rewriting:

The Modernists wanted to produce avant-garde literature—literature that was less spontaneous and enthusiastic than it was startling and enigmatic. In an interview with the Paris Review, Hemingway famously described his “principle of the iceberg”: “There is seven-eighths of it under the water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.”

This is all pretty straightforward, although I’d point out that there’s solid evidence that Shakespeare did do some rewriting–for example, of King Lear, where the Quarto version is substantially different from that of the First Folio.  And I think the author doesn’t give enough weight to writing-as-a-job vs. writing-to-create-art. If your next meal depends on getting your novel finished, you’re not going to spend months revising its conclusion.

I’m on board, though, with the author’s discussion of the typewriter’s effect on rewriting.  The typewriter didn’t actually make rewriting easier; in a sense, it made the process harder.

Today we equate a keyboard with speed, the fastest way to get words down, but as Sullivan points out this wasn’t always the case. In fact, a typescript offered a chance to slow down. Most Modernist writers, like Hemingway with “The Sun Also Rises,” wrote by hand and then painstakingly typed up the results. That took time, but seeing their writing in such dramatically different forms—handwritten in a notebook, typed on a page, printed as a proof—encouraged them to revise it aggressively.

This was certainly my experience when I wrote my original drafts by hand.

Finally, the author points out that the computer may paradoxically make us less inclined to rewrite:

Today, most of us compose directly on our computers. Instead of generating physical page after physical page, which we can then reread and reorder, we now create a living document that, increasingly, is not printed at all until it becomes a final, published product. While this makes self-editing easier, Sullivan thinks it may paradoxically make wholesale revision, the kind that leads to radically rethinking our work, more difficult.

I think that’s right.  As I approach the end of the first draft of the novel I’m working on, I’m mulling how to approach the rewrite.  Do I start with the existing Word document, and just edit and add and cut and paste until I’m satisfied with the result?  Or do I re-keyboard the whole thing?  The former is certainly easier; just thinking about the latter makes me tired.  But re-keyboarding might cause me to re-imagine the story at a deeper level, and that might ultimately lead to a stronger finished product.

What’s a writer to do?

The New Yorker tells us why novels have bad endings (plus, the best ending ever!)

The last time we checked in on The New Yorker, someone was pontificating on why genre fiction by definition can’t be high art. Now someone else tells us why novels tend to have bad endings.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way and state that this basic premise is idiotic.  Some novels have great endings; some novels have lousy endings.  There is nothing inherent in the art form that makes it hard for Mark Twain, for example, to come up with a good ending for Huckleberry Finn (one of the article’s prime examples). Her basic explanation for this purported phenomenon has something to do with entropy and makes absolutely no sense to me.  But instead of analyzing it, let me offer my own theory of why some endings are better than others.

Writers don’t start with entire plots; they start with ideas or images from which the plot emerges (usually with a lot of hard work).  Sometimes the image has to do with the ending; sometimes it doesn’t.  And the image tends to be what’s most vital, most deeply imagined, about the novel.  I don’t know anything about the genesis of Huckleberry Finn, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it started with Twain imagining a white boy and a black man floating down the Mississippi on a raft.  This is worth a novel!  But then you have to get them onto the raft, and you have to explain what happens to them afterwards, and none of that other stuff is quite as interesting.  The image is the art; everything else is craft.

OK, enough of that.  Thinking about endings made me want to re-read the best ending ever, which is the final few paragraphs of James Joyce’s The Dead.  I can imagine Joyce constructing a story just to lead up to this moment, with Gabriel staring out the window at the snow, thinking of his wife’s lost lover.  It’s an ending that makes your soul swoon softly, as it should in the presence of great art.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Great books, bad Amazon reviews

Here‘s a delightful article that simply quotes one-star reviews of great books on Amazon.  (I read about it in the Boston Globe this morning and assumed it was recent–but it’s actually from way back in 2005.)

Some of the reviews just kinda miss the point, like this one of Slaughterhouse-Five:

“In the novel, they often speak of a planet called Tralfamadore, where he was displayed in a zoo with a former movie star by the name of Montana Wildhack. I thought that the very concept of a man who was kidnapped by aliens was truly unbelievable and a tad ludicrous. I did not find the idea of aliens kidnapping a human and putting them in a zoo very plausible. While some of the Tralfamadorians’ concept of death and living in a moment would be comforting for a war veteran, I found it relatively odd. I do not believe that an alien can kidnap someone and house them in a zoo for years at a time, while it is only a microsecond on earth. I also do not believe that a person has seven parents.”

Some of them simply employ different critical standards from the rest of us. Here’s a one-sentence pan of Lord of the Rings:

“The book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs.”

And some of them do have a point.  Here’s a takedown of Gravity’s Rainbow:

“When one contrasts Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five with this book, it’s like comparing an Olympic sprinter with an obese man running for the bus with a hot dog in one hand and a soda in the other.”

And this one pretty well sums up The Sun Also Rises:

“Here’s the first half of the book: ‘We had dinner and a few drinks. We went to a cafe and talked and had some drinks. We ate dinner and had a few drinks. Dinner. Drinks. More dinner. More drinks. We took a cab here (or there) in Paris and had some drinks, and maybe we danced and flirted and talked sh*t about somebody. More dinner. More drinks. I love you, I hate you, maybe you should come up to my room, no you can’t’… I flipped through the second half of the book a day or two later and saw the words ‘dinner’ and ‘drinks’ on nearly every page and figured it wasn’t worth the risk.”

I just love that last sentence.

I wonder if you could chart a book’s reputation over time by the customer reviews.  The Sun Also Rises has 621 reviews; On the Road has 811; Slaughterhouse-Five has 911. That’s getting to be a reasonable sample size.  In any case, writers can take comfort that you can’t please everyone; some people are bound to hate even the best books.  Everybody likes To Kill a Mockingbird, right?  It now has 87 one-star reviews in Amazon.  Here’s one:

i had to read this book in 9th grade. i heard that it was supposed to be this wonderful american classic, and i actually looked forward to reading it. well, all i’m gonna say is that it sucked. it was just like any other book, nothing special. yes, the prejudice part was good, i think it could show people that we need to accept our differences, but it just wasn’t that deep. i got bored after 20 pages. all in all, i was very disappointed and to whoever gets an assignment to read this, good luck.

Great Expectations and sad endings

Here we saw how Hemingway struggled with the ending to A Farewell to Arms. You need to get the ending right.

For some novels, the most important decision will be whether the ending is sad or happy.  You’d think this decision would flow inevitably from the story you’re telling.  In some cases, that’s true.  In a genre private eye novel, the private eye will crack the case.  In a genre romance, girl will get boy.  In mainstream Hollywood movies nowadays, you’re pretty much guaranteed a happy ending; otherwise the movie wouldn’t have gotten made.  But for lots of novels, the ending balances on a knife edge between life and death, marriage and loneliness, joy and despair.  That, in fact, is what keeps the reader reading.  The author gets to make the call.

The ending to Pontiff caused me the most problems in this regard.  Should girl get boy, when boy is a priest?  If so, does that qualify as a happy ending?  In any case, did the ending work–was it true to the story?  Lemme know! (There is another sad aspect of the story that involves the death of a character at the climax, and I really didn’t want to do it.  But my plot gave me no choice.)

King Lear‘s ending is so damn sad that even critics like Samuel Johnson thought it was unbearable. For 300 years, from the Restoration to the mid-nineteenth century, the only version performed was a revision by Nahum Tate in which Cordelia survived and married Edgar. We have seen evidence that Shakespeare revised the play, but the revisions, if anything, made the play’s ending sadder.

The most celebrated case of revising an ending to make it happier was Great Expectations.

Dickens’ original ending was bleak. The narrator, Pip, who has been in love with the unattainable Estella since he first laid eyes on her, meets her on the street many years later:

It was four years more, before I saw herself. I had heard of her as leading a most unhappy life, and as being separated from her husband who had used her with great cruelty, and who had become quite renowned as a compound of pride, brutality, and meanness.

I had heard of the death of her husband (from an accident consequent on ill-treating a horse), and of her being married again to a Shropshire doctor, who, against his interest, had once very manfully interposed, on an occasion when he was in professional attendance on Mr. Drummle, and had witnessed some outrageous treatment of her. I had heard that the Shropshire doctor was not rich, and that they lived on her own personal fortune.

I was in England again — in London, and walking along Piccadilly with little Pip — when a servant came running after me to ask would I step back to a lady in a carriage who wished to speak to me. It was a little pony carriage, which the lady was driving; and the lady and I looked sadly enough on one another.

“I am greatly changed, I know; but I thought you would like to shake hands with Estella, too, Pip. Lift up that pretty child and let me kiss it!” (She supposed the child, I think, to be my child.)

I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.

Too sad! One of his friends–maybe Wilkie Collins–complained.  So Dickens tried again.  He has Pip and Estella meet on the grounds of Miss Havisham’s ruined house, where they had first met many years ago:

“We are friends,” said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench. “And will continue friends apart”. I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

Too happy!  That’s what lots of critics have complained.  Shaw said: The novel “is too serious a book to be a trivially happy one. Its beginning is unhappy; its middle is unhappy; and the conventional happy ending is an outrage on it.”

Well, I dunno.  A novel can be unhappy throughout, yet achieve its happiness at the end.  Characters grow; characters change.  And there’s no question that the revised ending is better written than the original, which is awfully flat.  Most modern editions include both endings, I think, like a DVD where you can choose the author’s cut.

Dickens himself seemed happy with the revision.  He said: “I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.”

You be the judge.  Also, see the David Lean movie, with John Mills as Pip and Jean Simmons as the ethereally beautiful young Estella.

Hemingway tries to get the words right

Apropos of these post about revising and rewriting, it turns out the Simon & Schuster has released a new edition of A Farewell to Arms that includes all Hemingway’s alternate endings.  He claimed that he wrote the ending 39 times before he was satisfied.  The basic issue, he famously said, was “getting the words right.” Turns out that the actual number of endings was probably more like 47.

Here’s the first page of the manuscript, which is stored, with the rest of Hemingway’s papers, at the JFK Library in Dorchester, MA, about ten miles away from where I am sitting.

Endings are hard because they are so important. They don’t need to sum up what the novel was all about, but they control what readers are going to be feeling when they put the book down.

For close readers of Hemingway the endings are a fascinating glimpse into how the novel could have concluded on a different note, sometimes more blunt and sometimes more optimistic. And since modern authors tend to produce their work on computers, the new edition also serves as an artifact of a bygone craft, with handwritten notes and long passages crossed out, giving readers a sense of an author’s process.

One of the endings was suggested by Fitzgerald.  Speaking of Fitzgerald, has anyone written a better ending than the one he wrote for The Great Gatsby?

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Rule 7: Learn all them grammer and spelling rules

Here is some prose Ernest Hemingway scribbled on the envelope of a letter he wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald:

What about The Sun also and the movies? Any chance? I dint put in about the good parts. You know how good they are. You’re write about the book of stories. I wanted to hold it for more. That last one I had in Cosmopolitan would have made it.

(The letter itself is wonderful, and you can read it here.)

I dint put in?  You’re write?  Of course, Fitzgerald was a notoriously bad speller himself.

If you are as good a writer as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, you can spell however you please.  Why are you paying any attention to me?  Go back to your novel!  But if you’re not, do yourself a favor and learn how to spell.  And learn the rules of grammar, even if you choose to break them.  Clearly I’m still learning.  But this stuff matters.  The site I linked to above says of Hemingway:

Whenever his newspaper editors complained about [his poor spelling], he’d retort, “Well, that’s what you’re hired to correct!”

But editors aren’t doing that anymore!  The editors didn’t pick up the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Harvard English professor’s misspelling of “Ptolemy.”  No one noticed the grammatical errors and the misspelling of “rarefied” in Lisa Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door.  I was looking at the résumé for a technical editor a few months ago, and I noticed he had misspelled the name of the college from which he had graduated.  “Rutgers” just isn’t that hard to get right!  Even when their spelling is OK, some of these editors don’t seem to notice when they use the serial comma in one sentence and don’t use it in the next.  Make up your minds already!  Microsoft Word helps, but notice that its spellchecker wouldn’t have picked up “dint” or “write” in the Hemingway quote.  (It did pick up “Rutgars” though — the “editor” didn’t even bother to spellcheck his own résumé!)

Writers are pretty much on their own nowadays, particularly if they are going the self-publishing route with ebooks.  And that means it’s up to them to get the basics right.  If they don’t bother, they better hope they are as talented as Hemingway and Fitzgerald.