Friday, December 2, 2011

TO HAVE (Howard Hawks) AND HAVE (Hemingway) NOT (1944)

Last weekend wasn't the first time I'd watched Howard Hawks's version of To Have and Have Not, but it was the first time since I'd read the actual novel by Ernest Hemingway. As I noted when I reviewed The Gun Runners, Don Siegel's partial adaptation of the same source material, Hemingway's novel describes the downward spiral of an otherwise typical two-fisted lone-wolf hero who trusts the wrong people and takes too many risks out of Depression desperation for money. It may have been the last time Hemingway wrote a hero who wasn't just a version of himself, and it's an expansive attempt to draw a broader picture of society from a variety of perspectives, particularly in the final section, and in a variety of literary styles. The novel is more ambitious than its reputation suggests and seems to have set the tone for Hemingway's later incomplete experiments in fiction. Hawks's movie had a different kind of ambition, which was to exploit the blockbuster success of the movie adaptation of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. That meant selling To Have and Have Not as "Ernest Hemingway's most daring man-woman story," when the novel was nothing of the sort. Hemingway's Harry Morgan is married with children, concern for whose future drives him to increasingly desperate and ultimately fatal schemes. Hawks's Harry, as conceived by Jules Furthman and Hemingway rival William Faulkner, is unattached, unless you count his loyalty to his rummy sidekick Eddie. In the novel, Harry contemplates murdering Harry to take the heat off himself in the first episode, but spares him thanks to a lucky bookkeeping break. Nothing close to that happens in the movie, but the overall compassion the movie Harry has for Eddie is typical of the book. In the book, however, Eddie disappears after the first episode, and in a later chapter Harry has a different rummy sidekick who gets killed in cold blood by the bank robbers Harry has agreed to transport in a getaway boat. That's the sort of detail that got the novel its bad name and the movie its repute for having "cleaned up" Hemingway's story.

Drastic literary adaptations like this one raise questions of aesthetic ethics. Hawks's movie is regarded as a classic and beloved for introducing Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart and the world. On the other hand, it's a travesty of Hemingway and has threatened since its release to take the novel's place in the pop-culture consciousness.  Can it be "wrong" and "right" at the same time? That's hard to say when you watch a movie adaptation of a novel after reading the novel. My feeling tends to be that the filmmakers owe some fidelity to the novel, and owe the public a reasonably accurate representation of the novel. But I'm not going to say that an unfaithful adaptation can't be a good movie. I recently read T. T. Flynn's novel The Man From Laramie, which was made into an Anthony Mann - Jimmy Stewart western not long after publication. Mann took liberties with the story, but I can say unhesitantly that the film was better than the book, which was little more than a page-turner burdened with purplish prose. The story was improved by the adaptation, but should that be our only standard of judgement? Approaching the matter from the other side, To Have and Have Not may be one of the most flagrant travesties of a novel, but it's far from being the worst literary adaptation. Compared to such things as Roland Joffe's The Scarlet Letter or Brian de Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities, Hawks's film isn't even a bad movie. But is it good enough that its merits outweigh its injustice to Hemingway?

Like The Gun Runners, Furthman and Faulkner's script works mostly with the first section of the novel, which is based on the short story "One Trip Across." In the story, Harry Morgan turns down a group of Cuban revolutionaries who want him to do some smuggling for them because it's too great a risk to his livelihood. Harry's main trade is taking tourists out fishing. He takes a Mr. Johnson out and patiently endures the man's failure to learn anything about the sport after days at sea until Johnson's incompetence costs Harry a rod and reel. Johnson decides to leave Cuba the next day and promises to meet Harry at the bank the next morning to square up with him. After Harry learns that Johnson left early, leaving Harry about $800 in the hole, our hero is more willing to take on risky work. Instead of helping the revolutionaries, who've been shot up anyway, he gets involved with a Chinese people-smuggling ring in the full expectation that he might get killed in the process. Harry pre-emptively bumps off the Chinese boss, dumps the illegals within wading distance of shore, and faces the dilemma of what to do about Eddie that I mentioned earlier.

In Hawks's movie, the setting has shifted to French-ruled Martinique, with Free French patriots taking the place of Cuban rebels. The business with Johnson on the boat is much as in the novel, but the movie takes pains to minimize the extent to which the Bogart character is shown as a sucker. Before Johnson can abscond, the pretty drifter Slim (Bacall) picks his pocket. Harry discovers the theft, takes the wallet from Slim, and finds that Johnson had plenty of traveler's checks that he could have made out to Harry on the spot. Harry and Slim confront Johnson, and Harry compels Johnson to make the checks payable to him. Before Johnson can sign, however, he's killed in a crossfire between Free French and Vichy forces, and Harry is SOL. That makes him more amenable to doing things for the Free French, and from that point Hawks's more-or-less original romance begins.

What does that leave us with? Apart from some cosmetic details -- a Gestapo officer is nicknamed "Bee-Lips" like a fixer from the novel -- there's nothing more of Hemingway in the movie. The personality of Eddie, tailored to Walter Brennan's screen persona and enhanced with allegedly comic business like his constant inquiry, "Was you ever bitten by a dead bee?" is almost entirely made up for the film, as is the whole character of Slim. The notion that Slim is "all right" because she answers the dead-bee query correctly -- "Why, have you?" -- would probably have made Hemingway puke. On that note, I was intrigued by the scene where the Gestapo man is plying Eddie with booze in order to loosen his tongue about the whereabouts of Harry's passengers. Impressed by the fat spy's slimy politeness, Eddie declares him "all right" and starts to ask the bee question when Harry abruptly changes the subject. Was Harry afraid that the Nazi would give the correct answer? Was this moment Hawks's own unconscious confession that the whole dead-bee idea was garbage? Perhaps.

Subtract Hemingway and Hawks's To Have and Have Not is self-evidently a Casablanca ripoff, with Bogart reprising his reluctant-hero act, Hoagy Carmichael sitting in at the piano for Dooley Wilson, and Dan Seymour (in the Gestapo role) as a substitute fat man for Sidney Greenstreet. The big difference is that the Bogart character doesn't romance the noble Free French woman whose husband lies wounded, but the charismatically insolent Slim. From Warner Bros.'s standpoint, an important purpose of the picture is to put over Lauren Bacall, particularly as a singer -- though that thread of her career wasn't really picked up again for another quarter-century, until Bacall starred in a Broadway musical. If you dig the stars you'll dig the film. The chemistry is there. Bacall earned her spot. But otherwise, with the arguable exception of Brennan, Bogart's surrounded by a B-team cast by Casablanca standards -- and I'd be willing to argue against Brennan in this picture. Bogart himself is coasting. Harry Morgan should be a more desperate character, almost like Bogart's Roy Earle from High Sierra in his fatedness and compromised ruthlessness, but once you give the character partners (the Free French) who are certain not to betray him, the noirish edge is largely gone from his one trip across, leaving behind little more than a likable lark that becomes a little less likable, fairly or not, when you learn what To Have and Have Not was and could have been. No one who likes the Hawks movie without having read the book should like it less, and those who've done both and like the film better should stick to their guns, since we'd presumably disagree on the book more than on the movie. All I know is that I can't look at this picture the same way I used to. I suppose that's too bad, but on the other hand I'm glad I read the real thing.


Jon said...

Yeah I tend to agree with you. I thnk the reason for watching this movie is the Bogie-Bacall chemistry and that's about the extent. Still they are a rather fetching pair and, hell, Bacall is darn sexy here. Like I said though, that's the reason for watching.

Samuel Wilson said...

Jon, Bacall's appearance is definitely an event, and it wouldn't have been possible in a more faithful adaptation of the novel. So the film is a trade-off, impossible to approve of entirely, but not to be dispised, either.