Ernest Hemingway, the iconic literary figure considered one of the greatest American writers and among the first to live and work at the treacherous nexus of art and celebrity, is the subject of a new six-hour documentary series directed by award-winning filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (“The Vietnam War,” “Prohibition,” “The War”).
The documentary paints an intimate picture of Hemingway the writer — who captured on paper the complexities of the human condition in spare and profound prose, and whose work remains deeply influential around the world — while also penetrating the myth of Hemingway the man’s man to reveal a deeply troubled and ultimately tragic figure. The film also explores Hemingway’s limitations and biases as an artist and a man of his time.
“Hemingway”— written by Geoffrey C. Ward and produced by Sarah Botstein, both longtime collaborators of Burns and Novick — interweaves a close study of the biographical events of the author’s life with excerpts from his fiction, non-fiction and short stories. The filmmakers explore the painstaking process through which Hemingway created some of the most important works of fiction in American letters.
“‘Hemingway’ is both an intimate, turbulent family saga and an examination of some of the greatest works of American literature in the 20th century,” said director Ken Burns. “Our intent is to offer viewers an honest portrayal of a complex and conflicted writer who left an indelible mark on literature.”
“One of the great challenges of this project,” said producer Sarah Botstein, “was finding ways — visually, cinematically — to show how Hemingway honed his craft and how he used words to such extraordinary effect. In collaboration with our editors, we deployed all the tools in our filmmaking toolbox to make Hemingway’s work come fully alive on screen.”
Narrated by long-time collaborator Peter Coyote, the series features an all-star cast of actors bringing Hemingway (voiced by Jeff Daniels), his friends and family vividly to life. Through letters to and from his four wives, the film reveals Hemingway at his most romantic and his most vulnerable, grappling at times with insecurity, anxiety and existential loneliness.
In three two-hour episodes, “Hemingway” tracks the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the author who, in his final years, suffered from chronic alcoholism, serious mental illness, traumatic brain injuries and depression. In 1961, at the age of 61, Hemingway died by suicide, leaving behind an unparalleled body of artistic work and a complicated emotional legacy for those closest to him.
The filmmakers were granted unusually open access to the treasure trove of Hemingway’s manuscripts, correspondence, scrapbooks and photographs housed at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. Interviews with renowned biographers and scholars shed new light on the man and his work, and well-known writers around the world deepen the film’s exploration of Hemingway’s oeuvre. It also includes moving commentary from Hemingway’s surviving son, Patrick, and from the late Senator John McCain, whose lifelong role model was not Hemingway, but Robert Jordan, the protagonist of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
MORE: Watch a Q&A series with the filmmakers online or on the PBS Video app.