Documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have found their next subject: Papa.
Hemingway, a three-part, six-hour documentary series to run on PBS April 5-7, will examine Ernest Hemingway's life and death and the myth that surrounded both. Jeff Daniels will provide the voice of Hemingway, while Patricia Clarkson, Mary-Louise Parker, Keri Russell, and Meryl Streep will each voice one of his four wives. In the weeks prior to the premiere of the film, a nine-part series of virtual events, Conversations on Hemingway, will be held, bringing writers and scholars together to discuss the author and his works.
To film the series, PBS said, 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." Biographers and scholars involved in the film include Mary Dearborn and Marc Dudley, along with such writers as Mary Karr, Mario Vargas Llosa Akiko Manabe, Edna O’Brien, Tim O'Brien, Leonardo Padura, Abraham Verghese, and Tobias Wolff; the late Senator John McCain and Hemingway's surviving son, Patrick Hemingway, also took part.
"We were drawn to trying to get at a real Hemingway," Burns said at a virtual Q&A session with press on Tuesday. "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. But almost immediately, we began to see how thin and frail that was....[to see] how much he was struggling every day to maintain that discipline to touch those moments common to us all that are universal, but also wrestling with a whole set of demons, a whole set of problems that begin to betray the mask of the he-man that he built for himself."
The film, Novick added, challenges the broader contemporary perception of Hemingway in a way she found challenged her own assumptions as well. "Starting the project, I felt pretty clear that I didn't like Hemingway the man and that I wasn't sure how I was going to feel spending six hours with him as a viewer," she said. "He was so terrible to so many of the great friends he had, and he had a talent for becoming alienated from people who cared about him—a pretty impressive talent—and hurting people in the way he betrayed them in his work. And yet at the end, I think having really spent the time we have [trying] to get under his skin, as Edna [O'Brien] would say, I felt a lot more compassion for him and his struggles and his demons."
For Daniels, the opportunity to voice Hemingway—to read his letters, but not to physically attempt to portray him on screen— made the project particularly interesting. "You don't have to worry about anything other than—not only the sound, but the getting inside of him, the telling the truth of him without worrying about whether externally you're doing anything to help that along or not. It is very freeing, in a way. It helps you bear down—do a deep dive into what is he telling us, what is he saying, as if he's just saying it to one other person."
Scribner will publish the series' official tie-in book, The Hemingway Stories, as a trade paperback original on March 2. The book, a spokesperson for the company said, is a collection of the writer's greatest short stories as featured in the series with an introduction by Wolff. In addition, Scribner has repackaged works by Hemingway including A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, In Our Time, A Moveable Feast, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Sun Also Rises with the series' seal.
This article has been updated with further information.