Ernest Hemingway, a man more interesting than the myth revealed in Ken Burns documentary

Fans of Ernest Hemingway are in for a shock. The life of the literary giant, known as much for being a drunken womanizing sportsman as he is for being the most influential American writer, is laid bare in the latest documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. They expose that the real man is much more interesting than the myth. The real depth of Hemingway’s macho lusty life proves to be far greater than fiction.

Ernest Hemingway at his home in Cuba, circa 1950s. (Credit: Courtesy of A.E. Hotchner)

 Hemingway is a three-part, six-hour documentary series directed by award-winning filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, premiering on PBS April 5-7, 2021. It is a thorough examination of the man and the myth, plus the author’s creative process from which emerged his greatest works, including The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea.

Ken Burns recently told members of the Television Critics Association, “We were drawn to trying to get at a real Hemingway.  And I think the persona of the wild man, the drunk, the bar guy, the big-game hunter, the big-sea fisherman is sort of what we inherit, the baggage we carry. Almost immediately we began to see how thin and frail that was, not just for him, but in fact.”

Burns enthusiastically called using actor Jeff Daniels as the “voice” of Hemingway “a great gift,” as Daniels is tasked with reading passages from Hemingway’s novels and short stories and brings them to life. Daniels also reads very personal letters, where you get the full range of how much the author was struggling every day to maintain his discipline to write. That literary brilliance touched on moments common to all of us. The writings also reveal that he was wrestling with personal demons few could imagine. Hemingway had an assortment of shocking problems that would impact his troubled life and the PBS profile is unflinching.

 Burns explained the great pleasure of diving into Hemingway’s life was that he found the author was much more than the he-man image he built for himself. “I don’t think Hemingway would survive if that’s all he was, just that barroom guy. He had that great discipline every single day to write, and he had also all of these other competing things under the surface.  I think we were drawn inexorably to that.”

Filmmaker Lynn Novick observed, “I think the public persona became such a burden for him. And it becomes kind of exhausting, someone said in the film, to be Hemingway after a while. So, it was especially wonderful to discover him young, before he became that stereotype or iconic figure, when he was a young man at the beginning of his life and his career, the kind of energy and discipline that he had that he tried to carry through. And how difficult it became as he got older, and trying to live up to the image he created for himself really was tragic, and that’s where the trajectory of his life takes us.”

Tune in Hemingway on PBS, April 5-7, 2021, then streaming on the PBS Video app.

Margie Barron has written for a wide variety of outlets including Gannett newspapers, Nickelodeon, Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine, Fresh!, Senior Life, Production Update, airline magazines, etc. Margie is also proud to have been half of the husband & wife writing team Frank & Margie Barron, who had written together for various entertainment and travel publications for more than 38 years.