Thursday, April 27, 2006

Book Break: “To Have and Have Not”

Author: Ernest Hemingway 1937
The great director Howard Hawks once boasted to Hemingway that he could make a terrific movie out of Hemingway’s worst book. Papa asked Hawks what work that would be. Hawks’s reply: “To Have and Have Not.” Hemingway did not disagree.
I bought my copy of the book in 1987 during a trip to Key West, the setting of much of the novel. It sat unread on the bookshelf ever since.
Last week, I took it down and read it over two nights. “To Have and Have Not” probably is Hemingway’s weakest book up to 1937 (far worse was to follow), but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading. There are wonderful descriptive passages of fishing and boating and hanging out at a bucket-o-blood named Freddy’s. Harry Morgan, the fatalistic hero, is a complex, interesting character. There’s plenty of cinematic-like action, including a doozy of an opening scene (does anybody use the word “doozy” anymore? I should do a Nexis search).
Unfortunately, there’s also stuff showing the rich for what some of them can be: arrogant, self-centered, conniving, dishonest—in other words, nothing really new. But “THAHN” was written during the Depression, and Hemingway’s social conscience was awakening. The result was the inclusion of this obvious material juxtaposed with the violent last act of Harry Morgan’s life. So the novel is seriously flawed, but it’s a fast read, and it’s Hemingway.
Hawks did make a terrific movie, although its resemblance to the novel is slight. Jules Furthman wrote many drafts that kept the settings of Cuba and Key West. But the United States government feared angering its ally, Cuba (this was during World War II), so the setting had to be changed. Hawks brought in William Faulkner, who in a few weeks tightened Furthman’s script and moved the action to Martinique. There are Vichy French and French Resistance fighters and, of course, Bogart and Bacall. It’s all great hokum. It’s also a semi-remake of “Casablanca,” but so what? Also, as far as I know, it’s the only movie involving two Nobel Prize winners, Faulkner (1949) and Hemingway (1954). Rent the movie. Read the book. You could do a lot worse.


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