The reputations of both film adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929)—the 1932 film directed by Frank Borzage and starring Gary Cooper and the 1957 remake produced by David O. Selznick and starring Rock Hudson—have suffered in the decades since their release; yet, they succeeded in different respects in their own time. William Horrigan notes that Borzage was a successful and prolific filmmaker, “winning the first Academy Award in 1927” and making “nearly 100 films, sixty-four of them before A Farewell to Arms” (297). David Pierce observes that Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms was a “huge hit” and, as a result, “was put forward by Paramount as one of its two nominees for the Academy Award as Best Picture” (134). The film won the Oscar for best cinematography and “was remembered as an outstanding achievement” (134). David O. Selznick’s 1957 remake did not fare quite so well; the critical consensus at the time was that the film was a self-indulgent disappointment, plagued by Selznick’s infamous “micromanagement” and serving merely as a vehicle to promote his wife, Jennifer Jones, who starred in the role of Catherine Barkley (Barlowe 37). Dismissed by critics as “pure melodrama,” the film nonetheless managed to gross twenty-five million dollars in theaters with “a profit close to seven million . . .” (Barlowe 37).
There is no denying the tension between the novel and its adaptations. Hemingway’s own distaste for the films is legendary, at least among Hemingway scholars. Frank Laurence recounts the episode in which Paramount, in preparing for the release of the 1932 film, offered to host the author at an advanced screening (44). Hemingway replied with a telegram that “told Paramount executives to use their imagination as to where to put the print of A Farewell to Arms but not to send it to [him]” (44). While the 1957 version was produced by Hollywood giant David O. Selznick, who was infamous for his obsessive fidelity to the literary source material,1 this did not save the production in Hemingway’s eyes. Upon hearing of changes being made to the story, Hemingway wrote a letter to a friend in which he referred to “‘. . . that bastard [David] Selznick sabotageing [sic] a Farewell to Arms’” (qtd. in Barlowe 25).2 Jamie Barlowe observes that, not surprisingly, “Hemingway biographers and critics have emulated his disgust with the alterations to his plots, characters, and landscapes and his belief that cinematic and telematic audiences were a low-brow bunch” (25). Yet, in the twenty-first century, many adaptation studies scholars celebrate adaptation as transformation; in this view, transgressive infidelities are signs of cinematic creativity.3
In this light, my goal for this essay is not to catalog the differences between the films and the novel, which Hemingway scholars have already done anyway.4 Rather, my intent is to think about an unusual problem the adaptations face precisely because their precursor creates it. This is the problem of desertion. What does it mean to make the protagonist Frederic Henry, the hero of this story set in the Great War, a deserter? Desertion has long been synonymous with cowardice and betrayal. It is common knowledge that penalties for desertion have ranged from flogging to imprisonment to execution. Without a doubt, Frederic’s desertion is the fulcrum of the narrative—in the films as much as in the novel; the entire plot shifts direction on the moment when he dives into the river and escapes the firing squad, never to return to the Italian army. So, how does Hemingway resolve the problem of desertion in his novel?5 And how do the films handle such a treacherous subject, especially during the interwar years in the case of the 1932 version and the early years of the Cold War in the case of the 1957 version? I will argue that the way these two films depict Frederic’s desertion signals their aesthetic responses to the novel and shapes the philosophical trajectories of the stories they tell. Both films swerve to avoid colliding with the nihilism that pervades the novel and, not insignificantly, its author’s life. Both films craft their narratives as love’s triumph over the hopelessness and meaninglessness that the novel confronts. The 1932 version radically alters Hemingway’s text in developing a romantic-religious conversion for Frederic, while the 1957 version provides a recognizably “Hollywood” but still religiously coded romantic-sacrificial redemption of its protagonist.
A sobering passage from the novel provides a way of framing my thesis. In it, Frederic has abandoned his duty as an ambulance driver for the Italian army, escaped a firing squad, and reunited with Catherine Barkley in Milan. He recalls going to bed with her in their hotel room and how they “were never lonely and never afraid when [they] were together” (216). But then his recollections take a despairing turn: “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry” (216). This passage, particularly the line “and afterward many are strong in the broken places,” evokes Frederic’s nihilistic worldview insofar as it recalls Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous maxim from Twilight of Idols: “. . . what does not kill me makes me stronger” (8). It also foreshadows Catherine’s death at the end of the novel,6 and it suggests that death is largely what this novel is about. This is not a controversial point, given the novel’s historical context: an estimated twenty million people—soldiers and civilians—died in World War I, with another twenty-one million wounded (www.census.gov/history). The specter of the war’s dead and wounded would have been ubiquitous in European cities and towns in the years after the war.
Yet, the novel is also undeniably about love, and it is an example of Hemingway’s career-long focus on doomed romantic couples. Following suit, a promotional poster for the 1932 film calls it an “Unforgettable story of an undaunted love!” (n. pag.). One poster for the 1957 film strikes a similarly exuberant tone, calling it “One of the greatest love stories of all time!” (n. pag.). So, which is it? A love story or a war story?7 I admit I never noticed the contradiction in my readings of the novel over the years. But when I first encountered the film adaptations, I was startled by how urgently they insisted on refashioning the novel as a passionate love story, minimizing the elements of war and death that are so pronounced in the literature. Both films can be called “sentimental” or “melodrama,” but whether this is an indictment or merely an appropriate genre label is a matter of personal taste and, therefore, not a definitive critical statement on their artistic quality or substance.
It is not trite to conclude that A Farewell to Arms is both—both love story and war story. Saying this acknowledges that both elements are present and intertwined in the novel and, therefore, warrant interpretations made in their favor by the filmmakers who created the adaptations. An interpretation is an act of reading, and Robert Stam theorizes that adaptation is a form of reading; that is, a film adaptation acts as one interpretation of its precursor (62-3). Stam asserts that any such reading is “inevitably partial” (62-3), as the filmmakers cannot help but give their particular understanding of what the text means, given their own personal and cultural contexts, illuminating certain aspects of the text while dimming the brightness of others. The strategies that Borzage and Selznick employ in developing their “inevitably partial” readings of A Farewell to Arms range from celebration to adjustment to revision.8
True to his fidelity-driven approach to making adaptations, Selznick makes a pronounced effort to celebrate his source material—and himself as producer. The opening credits of the 1957 remake flaunt Selznick’s status as curator of “Ernest Hemingway’s romantic tragedy of World War I” (0.00.31). A dissolve reveals a bombed-out ruin, which then serves as the backdrop for the gigantic, scrolling, crimson title (0.00.40). The grandiosity of these opening gestures confirms Subba Rao’s suspicion that “Selznick was bent on making his version of A Farewell to Arms the epic motion picture of World War I, just as his version of Gone with the Wind was the great cinematic epic of the Civil War” (150). One testament to Selznick’s faithfulness is the fact that much of the dialogue in the film is quoted from the novel, while some of Frederic’s internal monologues in the novel get quoted out loud in the film (e.g., the opening voiceover and his despair after learning that his son was stillborn).
In contrast to Selznick, Borzage acknowledges Hemingway’s authorship via the film’s opening credits but makes no extraordinary gestures of homage beyond that. Instead, Borzage experiments extensively with the narrative, adding new scenes including a foot-fetish scene in a brothel and a marriage scene in a hospital, and completely rewriting the plot involving Rinaldi’s friendship, Frederic’s desertion, and Catherine’s difficulties during labor. Made in 1932 amid the increasingly intense public scrutiny of cinema that brought about the establishment of the Hays Office just two years later, the film exhibits signs of the censorship pressure brought to bear on Hollywood by the American public’s moralizing audiences.9 Nonetheless, this does not account for all of the alterations and additions Borzage made. Clearly, he is telling a different story than the one his predecessor told.
Both films, even the more faithful 1957 version, make significant tonal adjustments to the narrative that lay the groundwork for their philosophical recalibrations of Hemingway’s work. In the novel, Frederic’s first-person narration is terse, alternating between stoicism and cynicism.10 After all, he is telling his dismal story in the past tense, meaning that he has already lived through all that death, defeat, and personal loss that he recounts. The films, however, begin correcting the emotional altitude of the precursor immediately. The 1932 film opens with an intertitle that reads, “Disaster as well as victory is written for every nation on the record of the World War, but high on the rolls of glory two names are inscribed—The Marne and the Piave” (0.01.10). This foreword is strange, as its emphasis on the “glory” of war contradicts the novel’s explicit rejection of the same.11 Despite Hemingway’s explicit denunciations of war, the opening intertitle of the 1957 film strikes a chord similar to its predecessor, announcing that “No people ever fought more valiantly, no nation ever rose more gallantly out of defeat to victory” than Italy did in WWI (0.03.32). The foreword scrolls on to explain that “our story” is “not of war alone” but “also of a love between an American boy and an English girl” (0.03.41). The wording of this segment casts Frederic and Catherine in innocent and even vulnerable terms as a “boy” and a “girl” who are sweetly but tragically in love.
This segment also portrays WWI in the romantic language of heroic striving and adventure, which makes sense in light of the production’s Cold War context but which contravenes the sense of futility and resignation Hemingway conveys in the novel. Frederic’s disenchantment is poignantly evoked in a passage about the absurdity of war:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. . . . I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. . . . Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates. (161)
Frederic articulates the shattering disillusionment shared by an entire generation in Europe.12 The governments of France, England, Germany, Italy, and Austria sent millions of young men to their deaths thinking they would be fighting war much as it had been fought in the nineteenth century. What they uncovered was the nightmare of industrial warfare, the randomized slaughter caused by mechanized artillery, automatic weapons, and poison gas. What Frederic learns transcends warfare, and his statement conveys his realization that there is no overarching truth arbitrating human events, no grand purpose giving meaning to the chaos.
His nihilistic outlook is cemented by a memory he recalls after learning that his son was stillborn. He remembers throwing a log on a fire and watching as ants poured out of the log, tried to escape the heat, and then “finally fell off into the fire” (280). He remembers realizing that it was “a splendid chance to be a messiah and lift the log off the fire” (280); instead, he does nothing but empty a cup of water on the log “so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in,” and he figures doing so “only steamed the ants” (280). In refusing to rescue the ants, to be their savior, he acts out his denial of the existence of a savior, a Messiah, a God who saves those in need, a God who provides order and meaning in an otherwise indifferent and arbitrary universe. What he accepts is the Nietzschean philosophy that no such God exists, and consequently, no divinely sanctioned moral code governs human behavior (Anderson, n. pag.).
In light of these passages, Frederic’s desertion becomes an expression of his nihilism, his conviction that there is no truth but what the individual creates for him- or herself, no power higher than what the individual wills for him- or herself. This self-asserting and self-justifying individualism is evident in the statements he makes to himself after running away: “You were out of it now. You had no obligation. . . . I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck. . . . That life was over” (200).13 In this staccato manifesto, he singlehandedly suspends ethics. He invents a new reality for himself as he speaks it, a new truth in which all the legal, moral, and emotional bonds to the Italian army, his ambulance unit, and the men he befriended are suddenly cancelled, made irrelevant by the sheer force of his will. It is telling, then, that neither film includes lines from the passages about the obscenity of war and the ants in the fire.14 These omissions signal the films’ rejection, or at least avoidance, of Hemingway’s nihilism, redacting that element and recasting the story as the saga of tragic lovers.
The adaptations orchestrate this philosophical transformation by rewriting the scene of Frederic’s desertion. In the novel, he escapes a firing squad bent on killing officers as retribution for the Italian army’s defeat and humiliation. Only then does he run away to reunite with Catherine. However, Borzage inverts this sequence in his film, inserting a new scene in which Frederic resolves to go in search of Catherine, with whom he has lost contact (1.00.11 – 1.01.36). The scene is set in a secluded part of the Italian camp; it opens on a medium-long two-shot of Frederic and the priest (1.00.11). This shot and the entire scene are marked by the use of chiaroscuro produced by Borzage’s low-key lighting and soft focus, which initially render Frederic’s face invisible under deep shadow. The combination of the pronounced shadowing and the gothic set design evokes a visual echo of a cemetery and conveys a sense of ruin and foreboding. Frederic explains that all his letters to Catherine have been returned unopened, and he has received none from her, leading him to the conclusion that “Something’s happened to her” (1.00.25). He resolves, “I’ve got to go and find her—myself” (1.00.32); when the priest advises him about the ban on leaves of absence, he brushes this aside, provoking the priest to warn, “That’s desertion” (1.00.42). Frederic responds by asking, “What does this war mean to me anymore? What does anything mean but finding her?” (1.00.53). Hearing Frederic’s expression of love and devotion to Catherine, the priest shakes his hand in farewell and bids, “May the Lord bless and preserve you” (1.01.20). (See Figure 1.) This exchange is one of the key rhetorical moves the film makes to justify Frederic’s act of desertion by rewriting his motives. First, the film shows Frederic willingly taking on the stigma of desertion and risking his life not in a pragmatic act self-preservation as in the novel but in a noble statement of selflessness. The film elevates one set of ideals, those of romantic love and self-sacrifice, over another set, those of loyalty and comradery. Second, the film sanctions Frederic’s choice by having the priest bless it, obviously suggesting that the Christian God would approve of the young man’s actions. What follows is an expressionist montage sequence filled with images of bombings, shootings, refugees fleeing, shattered and twisted landscapes, dead bodies, and even wounded bodies splayed in postures of crucifixion (1.01.50 – 1.07.04). The latter forcefully underscore not only the senselessness of the slaughter but also the self-sacrificial nature of Frederic’s quest.
In Selznick’s version, Frederic’s desertion bears a similarly religious coding. Unlike the 1932 version, the 1957 film maintains the novel’s sequencing of events, where Frederic first escapes the firing squad and only then sets out to reunite with Catherine. However, the remake rewrites this scene in a poignantly symbolic manner by shifting the focus of the scene from Frederic to Rinaldi. As the two are brought before the makeshift court martial, Rinaldi (played by Vittorio de Sica) is positioned in the center of the frame (1.38.06); the composition of the arches and pillars further centralizes Rinaldi and separates Frederic from the space where his friend is about to be tried and found guilty of desertion. Subsequently, as Frederic pleads for his friend’s life, the film cuts outside to a medium-close shot of Rinaldi as he is placed in a chair and offered Last Rights (1.39.46). Centered in the frame between Rinaldi and the priest and held in the priest’s extended hand is a crucifix. (See Figure 2.) The left third of the frame is shaded, while the right third is blackened by the priest’s robes, leaving Rinaldi’s mournful face bathed in light in the center third. His expression, combined with the positioning of his face within inches of the crucifix, suggests that he has become, like Christ, a sacrificial lamb. This symbolism is underscored by the subsequent long shot of Rinaldi’s body draped over the figurative cross of the wooden chair as the firing squad fires (1.40.02).15 It is at this precise moment that Frederic, angered and emboldened by his friend’s murder, escapes from the building and into the river. While Rinaldi cannot be said literally to give his life to save Frederic’s, his death does serve as the distraction needed to liberate Frederic. After making his way downriver and out of range of the military police, Frederic swims and stumbles into a kneeling position at the edge of the water. Lying there amid the detritus of war is a nameless corpse whose head is positioned to gaze at the kneeling Frederic (1.41.40). After rising to his feet, Frederic takes the man’s shirt to wear in place of his incriminating uniform, and the scene dissolves out of focus. While neither Rinaldi nor the nameless man actually saves Frederic, the symbolism of the sacrificial exchanges between Frederic and the two other men resonates throughout this scene, redeeming Frederic and absolving him of the sin of desertion.
The fusion of romantic and religious imagery that the two films share reaches a crescendo in the climactic scene of the 1932 version. Framed in close-up, the two lovers press themselves together cheek to cheek as Frederic coaches Catherine through what will prove to be her last words. She repeats after him that they will be “never parted . . . in life and in death” (1.27.00). The lines echo and revise traditional wedding vows, reminding viewers of the improvised ceremony the priest conducts for them earlier in the film and assuring viewers of the purity of the two technically unmarried lovers. A moment later, Catherine expires, and as she does, bells begin ringing in the background (1.27.40).16 Still clutching Catherine, Frederic gazes offscreen, triggering a montage of horns blowing, bells ringing, and crowds cheering as Armistice is suddenly declared.
In terms of narrative construction, the montage sequence makes little sense; however, it is a highly expressive sequence insofar as it links victory in WWI with the metaphysical victory of love over death, which Frederic and Catherine have achieved through their exchange of vows. From here, the film cuts back to a medium-long shot of Frederic stooping and picking Catherine up in his arms. As he lifts her from the bed, the sheet clings to her body and pulls away from the mattress in a long, white train that suggests a wedding gown, further reinforcing the marital overtones of the scene (1.28.04). Frederic turns with Catherine, putting his back to the camera, and declares, “Peace. Peace” (1.28.20). (See Figure 3.) Like the montage sequence, this utterance bears a double meaning: it refers presumably to the armistice and, more importantly for the film, to the peace that has been granted Catherine in death. This point marks a jarring break from the novel, the ending of which is charged with Frederic’s resignation and despair as he bids goodbye “to a statue” (283-4) and then “walk[s] back to the hotel in the rain” (284). In the film, death is not the crushing, existential defeat that it is in the novel; rather, death is rendered as a gateway to a heavenly realm of “Peace.” William Horrigan suggests that “What Borzage is proposing [with this ending] . . . is not death as initiation into a ‘lack,’ but as an avenue toward spiritual transcendence for the surviving partner” (303). This point is hammered home as the film dissolves to a shot gazing up into the clouds as a flock of doves flies overhead (1.28.28). The shot evokes biblical imagery of the Holy Spirit as a dove, and it suggests both that Catherine is going to heaven and that the Holy Spirit is presiding over Frederic and sanctifying him. Through this overtly religious imagery, the film engineers Frederic’s unlikely and twofold conversion: first, from whoremonger to devoted husband and second, from cynical unbeliever to a man who has been spiritually set free.17
While Selznick’s film does not deliver such a didactically religious conversion scene, it manages to provide its tragic protagonists a more broadly spiritual and sentimental redemption. The climactic hospital sequence begins with a medium shot of Frederic standing paralyzed in the hallway outside Catherine’s room, having just been told that she is hemorrhaging. He turns his back to the camera but stays rooted in place; as he repeatedly begs God not to let Catherine die, the camera slowly dollies away from him, leaving him utterly alone in the hall (2.24.40 – 2.25.20). (See Figure 4.) The spatial isolation of Frederic produced by the camera’s movement evokes the emotional isolation he is experiencing; it also suggests that the God to whom he is praying is abandoning him, leaving him alone in his pain and grief. Through the whole scene, Rock Hudson is backlit by a few wall lamps in the background, which produce the effect of a silhouette of Frederic, whose blank and blackened image evokes his fear and despair.
Unlike Borzage’s lovers, Selznick’s find little solace in each other’s arms on the deathbed. In fact, Catherine’s final words are, “It’s just a dirty trick” (2.28.11-22), expressing her resentment over the cruel and unexpected turn of events she is suffering. Despite his devastation at her passing, Frederic gathers himself and tells her dead body, “You’ll never leave me. You’re with me till I die” (2.29.14-30). With these words, Frederic affirms that his love for Catherine transcends death and unites them even in its wake. While this affirmation does not bear the explicitly religious coding that Borzage gives his ending, it does resonate with spiritual—not solely emotional—implications. Frederic leaves Catherine and begins walking back to his hotel, not in the rain but on a rain-soaked street. As he does so, a piano begins playing on the soundtrack, queuing an aural flashback to Catherine telling Frederic how happy they will be when they begin raising their child (2.30.34-46). At this point, the medium-close shot of Frederic dissolves into a close-up on Catherine and him as they lie in bed, with her telling him, “It’s the only life I want” (2.30.56 – 2.31.20). The insertion of this flashback redeems Catherine’s death by temporarily resurrecting her and, in doing so, suggesting retroactively that she believes love is worth the cost even of death. This renders death not as a loss but as a sign of their love, a sign that is transferred to Frederic as the flashback ends and the film dissolves back onto a medium-close shot of him. As he walks off down the street, Selznick’s version of Frederic is not alone, accompanied as he is by not only his memory of Catherine but also the soaring strings and swelling voices on the sentimental soundtrack.
In both film adaptations, Catherine and her love for Frederic transcend death; in the 1932 version, her passing is reconfigured as a passing on into heaven, where eternal peace awaits; in the 1957 version, she returns in ghostly fashion not so much to Frederic as to the film itself, assuring audiences that love indeed conquers all. Whereas the films bestow redemption on Frederic in the form of Catherine’s love, Hemingway offers his protagonist no such grace, no such promise of some greater meaning, some shining truth capable of withstanding all the devastation of war. Nonetheless, chastising the film adaptations for telling a different version of Hemingway’s story misses the point. One point worth making, however, is that A Farewell to Arms has proven to be a resilient and highly adaptable story, one that troubles its various authors, including Hemingway, with the painful realities of loss, death, and disloyalty. Hemingway resorted to resignation and despair, while Borzage and Selznick restored to the story the idealism that the novel had crushed. In responding to the problem of desertion in the ways they do, by recalibrating it as an act of love and self-sacrifice, the adaptations arguably sidestep the horns of the philosophical bull that Hemingway took head on, but in doing so the films demonstrate how urgent and how difficult the questions are that the novel raises. In an ironic twist, the films might be said to commit their own form of desertion, to run from Hemingway’s nihilistic ranks, leaving him, like Frederic, alone in the rain.
1 See, for example, Selznick’s highly faithful adaptation of Gone with the Wind and his notorious clashes with Alfred Hitchcock over the latter’s efforts to make changes to their production of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
2 The 1957 adaptation of The Sun Also Rises fared at least as poorly in the author’s eyes. Upon seeing it, Hemingway remarked, “‘. . . you see a movie like that, it’s like pissing in your father’s beer’” (qtd. in Barlowe 25).
3 A good deal of contemporary adaptation theory deconstructs the binary of original v. derivative and emphasizes the transtextuality of all texts, whether cinematic or literary. In this light, it is worth noting Lisa Tyler’s intriguing essay arguing that A Farewell to Arms is itself a “retelling” of Wuthering Heights. She asserts that Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel was “an important source for Hemingway’s novel,” which “persistently echoes Wuthering Heights in its themes and symbols, sometimes even in its minutest details” (n. pag.). In addition, Leonard Leff examines the artistic and commercial value of a Broadway adaptation of Hemingway’s novel.
4 See essays by Frank Laurence, Gopal Rao, Subba Rao, William Horrigan, and Jamie Barlowe.
5 Henry Fleming, of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, is a ready literary precedent, but Crane has Fleming redeem himself; in the end, Fleming rises from the ashes of his shame and distinguishes himself as one of the fiercest fighters on the battlefield.
6 Catherine’s dialogue during childbirth echoes this passage. After prolonged pain, she says, “I’m all broken. They’ve broken me” (Hemingway 276).
7 In reflecting on this question, I am reminded of what Tim O’Brien wrote in The Things They Carried (1990). In “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien recounts how Curt Lemon, a platoon mate, is killed when he steps on an improvised land mine (85). Later that day, Rat Kiley, Curt’s closest friend in the platoon, finds a baby water buffalo and begins slowly and systematically shooting off chunks of the animal’s body (85-6). By the time Rat Kiley finishes his butchery, he is weeping (86). Recalling people’s responses to this story, O’Brien instructs his readers on the truth it contains: “It wasn’t a war story,” he writes; “It was a love story” (86). I do not take this to mean that war stories and love stories are mutually exclusive; rather, O’Brien suggests that, at bottom, war stories are about the terrible things people do out of love and the terrible things that happen to them when they lose loved ones, whether those lost be lovers or friends.
8 In Film Adaptation and Its Discontents, Leitch explains that celebration is a curatorial mode of adaptation (96) used to preserve and honor the literary work and to provide the “pictorial realization” (97) of all those words on all those pages. Adjustment, of course, entails the ways filmmakers compress, expand, or update various elements in the precursor (98-100). And revision marks an instance where a filmmaker identifies an element in the precursor text that is problematic, perhaps ethically, historically, or culturally, and then sets out to fix that problem by altering that element in the adaptation (106).
9 For an enlightening study of the censorship pressures both films faced, see Jamie Barlowe. He notes that the addition of the scene of the impromptu wedding in the hospital “is another instance of [Borzage’s] perfunctory adherence to censorship codes” (30). Selznick makes a similar concession by having the lovers conduct their own informal wedding vows at a race track (33-34).
10 Curiously, both films jettison the novel’s first-person narration in favor of third-person cinematography. The only exception to this in the 1932 version is a single scene where we see from a first-person POV as Frederic Henry is being wheeled into a hospital after being wounded (for an analysis of this scene, see William Horrigan, pp300-02); the only exception in the 1957 version is a bit of voiceover by Frederic Henry at the beginning of the film as he returns to camp from being on leave. The aesthetic choice to shoot the films with an objective rather than subjective camera obviously has an enormous impact on the stories the films tell in contrast with the novel. Hemingway’s famously sparse prose notwithstanding, the novel makes us privy to Frederic’s private thoughts, which are generally self-centered, aloof, self-entitled, and jaded. In the films, we must read the character externally, judging his mind by his actions and dialogue, which are rendered more sympathetically in the films than in the novel. This has a lot to do with the choices of Gary Cooper and Rock Hudson as the leading men.
11 In a 1948 introduction to a new edition of the novel, Hemingway writes that wars “are made, provoked and initiated by straight economic rivalries and by swine that stand to profit from them” (ix); he goes on to say, “I believe that all the people who stand to profit by a war and who help provoke it should be shot on the first day it starts . . .” (ix).
12 George Monteiro distinguishes between the virtues Frederic Henry cites and the words used to name those virtues. Monteiro explains that the problem lies with “Hemingway’s personal attitude toward not the qualities of honor, glory, courage, and sacrifice but the abstract words obscenely evoking those qualities that are employed in attempts to justify, not only the destruction and waste of the years 1914-1918, but perhaps earlier and more greatly venerated American wars as well” (30). Similarly, Zoe Trodd suggests that Hemingway’s distinct prose style acts as a “commentary upon language’s depleted capacity for expression” (9). She classifies his style as “a politics of form that expressed the damage done to language by abstractions like ‘glory, honor, courage,’ as Frederic Henry puts it” (10). I would enlarge these interpretations to say that Frederic Henry’s disillusionment also encompasses the whole enterprise of warfare and, by extension, human history, having seen the fundamental absurdity of it all in WWI.
13 The 1957 film attempts a version of this speech. After escaping the firing squad and reuniting with Catherine, (1.44.10 – 1.46.38), Frederic collapses into her arms and tells her what happened. He admits being “a deserter” but blames this on the firing squad and equates them to murderers, only to contradictorily conclude that they are “the good ones, the brave ones.” It is a somewhat muddled and inflated speech, presumably due to the tension between Selznick’s obsessive fidelity to his source material and the waning but still significant powers of the Production Code Administration, which would not wish to lionize a character for deserting from the ranks of one of the United States’ WWI allies.
14 In a brief but strange scene, Frederic Henry is walking to dinner in the rain while waiting out Catherine’s extended labor (1.19.24-51). He encounters a stray dog searching for food, and he stops to lift the lid from a pot that had been left on the street, informing the animal, “There’s nothing there, dog” and then moving on (1.19.38). He does not actually feed the dog, but he does at least make an effort to enable the dog to eat from the pot. While Borzage did not invent the scene, the moment is much more pronounced in the film than in the novel, where it consumes a mere half-a-dozen lines (Hemingway 270). Though such a meager demonstration of sympathy cannot redeem Frederic’s character in either version of the narrative, it does suggest that his heart has been softened by his love for Catherine and his concern for her safety.
15 The composition of this shot and the fact that de Sica plays Rinaldi recall the closing scene of Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). There, the priest who has been supporting the Italian resistance movement against Nazi occupation is braced over a chair and shot by firing squad. De Sica, along with Rossellini, was one of the major figures of Italian Neorealism and directed Bicycle Thieves (1948), one of the movement’s most famous and exemplary films.
16 For an analysis of the sentimentality in Borzage’s “‘tear-jerking’ ending” (46), see Frank Laurence.
17 The film foreshadows Frederic’s conversion through the use of metonymy. Early in the film, he and Rinaldi visit a brothel and get drunk. In the scene, Frederic takes off a prostitute’s shoe and plays with her foot. When their foreplay is interrupted by an aerial bombing, he runs off, still clutching her shoe without realizing it. A woman, who will turn out to be Catherine, falls into his arms while running from the bombardment. In his drunken confusion, he tries to put the prostitute’s shoe on her but finds that it does not fit. The shoe acts as a metonym for the prostitute who had been wearing it; the fact that it does not fit Catherine suggests, of course, that she is not like the “fallen” woman and that Frederic must change his behavior if he is to prove himself worthy of her.
A Farewell to Arms. Directed by Frank Borzage, performances by Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. Paramount, 1932
A Farewell to Arms. Directed by Charles Vidor, performances by Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. Twentieth Century Fox, 1957.
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