Ken Burns and Lynn Novick often make documentaries on expansive themes: baseball, jazz, the Vietnam War. But with their new project, Burns and Novick approached the life of one person: Ernest Hemingway, the self-described “daddy” of American literature.
“Hemingway,” a six-hour, three-part documentary that premieres Monday on PBS, paints a startlingly complex portrait of the man and the writer. Burns and Novick pay tribute to his exquisitely understated prose without shunning the toxic dimensions of his turbulent life: misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism; personal betrayals, verbal abuse, and casual cruelty.
Burns and Novick, drawing on archival materials and academic studies, attempt to break the mythology of Hemingway, undermining male bravado to reveal a deeply insecure, layered person haunted by mental illness. (The film’s lineup of literary talking heads, including authors Edna O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, and Mary Karr, adds crucial insights.)
In a Zoom conversation last week, Burns and Novick discussed their interest in Hemingway’s endless “contradictions,” as well as their own personal relationships with his celebrated body of work. Burns also responded to recent criticism from PBS for a lack of diversity and “over-reliance” on his nonfiction work. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
NBC News: The film highlights how often Hemingway embellished or exaggerated his own life story, cultivating a mythology around his male public image. What parts of the Hemingway myth were you most interested in deconstructing?
Ken Burns: That is a wonderful question. I’m not sure we had one more agenda to try to come to terms with this extraordinary writer and his complicated life, but I knew that mythology would be a barrier that we would have to get around.
For us, it’s basic: we say yes [to the project], and that means yes to marrying Ernest Hemingway for many years in all the complexity, all the contradictions, all the horrible things and all the wonderful things. Along the way, as we began to accumulate a functional sense of biography, we saw the poisonous and toxic nature of Hemingway’s self-created myth.
I remember giving a graduation speech several years ago, and my advice to seniors was that insecurity makes us all liars. I think it’s a truism. And regarding Hemingway: from an early age, his vulnerabilities, sensitivities, and perhaps mental illness helped persuade him to build this mythology that would be so constricting.
Lynn Novick: Mary Karr says in the movie: “[Hemingway’s] masculinity must have been so constrictive. “He stayed with us because I think I never really thought of it as a restrictive problem. But in many ways he was imprisoned by this macho person, a hyper-masculine person who, at the time, was considered a positive thing. .
Burns: Maria hints at how exhausting it must be. It is exhausting to maintain that building, because it is an attempt to maintain a kind of control that none of us have.
It is so interesting that his writing is so blunt and direct about the lack of control that any of us have. He is well aware of the finite nature of our existence and yet much of what we do is [say], “Pay no attention to that dark-clad figure with the scythe behind the curtain.”
Ken, “Hemingway” is only the second time you’ve profiled a novelist. What attracted you both to Hemingway as a documentary subject? Did any of you have a special affinity for your work?
Novick: We both have an affinity. I read it in high school English class and was totally mesmerized and paralyzed with “The Sun Also Rises.” The world he conjured and the characters, who were portrayed so vividly that they looked like real people. It was a wonderful way to become a serious reader of literature.
Then I went to visit his house in Key West in the 1990s. Ken and I had worked together for a few years, and I came back and said, “We have to do Hemingway.” I had already been thinking about Hemingway, so it was a great convergence.
Burns: He had read it in high school, like Lynn. I was drawn to him, hypnotized by him. I wanted to be a writer. I read [the short story] “The Killers” at 15 and it scared me, because there was so much left unsaid.
Novick: I think making a movie about a writer is challenging. The writer’s work is on the page, but we have to bring it to life and somehow give the audience a chance to see how we envision the fiction unfolding. The work is done sitting in a room alone with his typewriter or pencil, but that’s not very cinematic, so we had to come up with ways to represent his creative process and actual masterpieces.
The version of Hemingway you present is extraordinarily complex: a brilliant prose stylist and storyteller who could be misogynistic, racist, cruel to the people around him. Is it difficult for you to separate the art from the artist?
Burns: It is our job as filmmakers to show it all together: the complexity, the good and the bad, and not separate the art from the artist on film.
There is a simplistic narrative, a moralistic narrative, a narrative in which anyone in a white hat is good and anyone in a black hat is bad. But life doesn’t work that way, and real people aren’t. Everyone is complicated; a complicated human being is redundant. We are obliged, as storytellers, to look for that.
We’re not afraid to say that it can be one thing and another, and we don’t feel like we have to jump in and make an easy judgment on it that would force it into the dust heap or pantheon of history. It belongs to both places or neither, it is really irrelevant.
He is a human being who left an indelible mark on literature. It has many negative characteristics that must be questioned. We do not have the authority to make a final judgment. We just have to say, “This is what it looks like. Here’s racism, intolerable anti-Semitism, mistreatment of wives, a toxic environment for children sometimes, and unnecessary cruelty to friends, and then this body of work, and sometimes a loving husband, and sometimes a loving father. “
Novick: You have to look at the whole. We hope that by exploring [Hemingway’s life], the audience can make their own decisions.
There are moments in the film where we really expose some very difficult and troublesome aspects of his life and his writing. Abraham Verghese, a writer we love and admire, at one point shakes his head [in the film] and says: “It has many defects, like you and me. But there it is. “That doesn’t mean it’s okay, but we’re saying, ‘There it is.’
In a letter published last week, nearly 140 nonfiction filmmakers criticized PBS executives for a lack of diversity and for relying too heavily on white creators. I wanted to get your response to the letter.
Burns: First, I wholeheartedly support the goals of letter writers. I think this is very important, and one of the reasons why we have been on public television has been a commitment to inclusion and diversity, and it has been one that we have assumed not only in our issues but within our own company .
But can we do better? Of course we can. Can PBS do better? Of course they can.
We will work with some of our subscribers to see if we can really address it specifically in terms of real dollars. Most of the money we raise does not come from PBS; comes from outside sources. We may be in a unique position to be able to help, in some way, as PBS and the letter writers grapple with an ongoing American story.
I am very proud that [PBS] He does it as well as anyone else. The fact that it’s still not good enough? It simply means that we all have room for improvement.