In portraying himself as a he-man alpha male who faced down death and lived to tell the tale, Ernest Hemingway created a myth that was impossible to live up to, one that would plague him for life.
That's among the takeaways from “Hemingway.” Airing today through Wednesday on PBS, the three-part, six-hour documentary series from longtime collaborators Ken Burns and Lynn Novick paints an intimate portrait of one of America's greatest writers, whose prose was economical yet profound in novels such as “A Farewell to Arms,” “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea,” and influenced scribes for generations. But he was also a tragic figure haunted by mental illness, alcoholism, traumatic brain injuries and depression before taking his own life in 1961 at the age of 61.
The story – told through Peter Coyote's narration with an all-star voice cast including Jeff Daniels (as Hemingway), Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Patricia Clarkson and Mary-Louise Parker – is one that had been gestating with the two filmmakers for decades.
“It is such a massively complicated story,” explains Burns, “of a protean artist but also someone who failed himself, a guy who believed his own PR and suffered from it. Needed to create that PR in order to get his work done. Did extraordinary work, was highly disciplined.
“You know, (he) had huge sort of genetic disposition to madness,” Burns continues, “had suicidal ideation from even before (when) his own father committed suicide; experiences with life and death because his father was a family doctor, goes to war as a teenager and is nearly killed and sees unbelievable horror. Has a high-strung mother who inculcates him with a kind of self-dramatization but also this love of Bach and repetition and counterpoint. You have a guy who had ... nine or 10 or 11 major concussions that created CTE but it also produced the dementia, the mental illness, the suicidal ideation.”
For Novick, Hemingway was a case of art and creativity intersecting with celebrity culture.
“He lived as an artist and also as a hugely famous person for most of his adult life,” she says, “and what happens when you get that famous that young – what does that do to you? It's the fascinating thing of just making your own myth and then trying to live up to it and then it becoming this kind of albatross or burden.”