Howard Hawks was once on a fishing trip with Ernest Hemingway when the director casually betted that he could make a good film out of the latter’s worst novel. The bet took place in a period when Hemingway, though already produced most of his major works and thus established the status as America’s great writer, had found little favour with the cinematic world. Only two notable adaptations were made- Frank Borzage’s pre-code A Farewell to Arms, starring Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper, and Sam Wood’s box-office hit For Whom the Bell Tolls, of which Hemingway personally handpicked the leading cast, including Cooper (again) and Ingrid Bergman. A third one would soon be making its way to the screen, and it was brought about unpropitiously by a fatuous bet.
Hawks ultimately plumped for To Have and Have Not, which he contemptuously called “a bunch of junk.” Critics had been equally acerbic to the book: “Mr. Hemingway’s record as a creative writer would be stronger if it had never been published,” J. Donald Adams of New York Times lamented. The novel centres on the adventures of Harry Morgan, a fishing boat captain forced into running contraband between Cuba and Key West during the Great Depression. His clients consist largely of the illegal immigrants and Cuban revolutionaries who seek illicit means to escaping the hunger and poverty that ravage the well-being of the residents. War- large or small, physical or mental- is the dominant concept of the stories. Near the end of the book a Cuban revolutionary contends: “War is a purifying and ennobling force. The question is whether only people like ourselves here are fitted to be soldiers or whether the different services have formed us.” Such confession negates the conventional notion of war as an inherent privilege for the potent and the powerful. War is, in many occasions, also the inevitable outcome of a lifelong struggle with fate and society. It embodies the fury of the aggrieved and the bereaved, a conflagration that cannot be summarily put out and is aimed to destroy all, including itself.
These profound ideas are inexplicably weeded out from the film treatment. In fact, the final screenplay departs so radically from its source novel that one wonders if the film should still be titled “To Have and Have Not,” since those five words convey little relevance now that the story is completely altered. Harry Morgan is played by Humphrey Bogart- hard-nosed, boorish, doughty; the portrayal resonates but seems at times a shade too jaunty to accord with one who, in the original, is dogged throughout by his inner conflicts and flagging conviction. The hero’s ruggedness is curiously offset by a mysterious beauty who dangles the cigarette in her mouth like a seasoned sleuth, and whose voice is as sonorous as Bogart’s is reedy. Hers is a character absent from the novel and invented partly to inject attenuating elements to an essentially masculine drama. She is played by Lauren Bacall, who in her debut is encompassed by an indomitable aura that most actors may toil for decades to attain. The supporting cast as well put on a memorable performance: Dolores Moran beguiles as Mme Helène de Bursac, and Walter Brennan interrupts with moments of screwball comedies as Eddie, a perennially inebriated, loyal sidekick of Morgan.
Hawks allegedly won the bet with the film opened to rave reviews from the audiences and the author. However, for one that is so enthralled by Hemingway’s expertness of declarative writing and the staggering power that it generates, I humbly beg to reverse the verdict. In point of fact, the book is never considered one of Hemingway’s greats; there are passages where the narration bungles and falters; the characters, whilst interesting at first blush, are never allowed the chance and space of developing further depths. But here comes the salient element of textual balance that distinguishes one outstanding work from the rest, and one can always rely on Hemingway to strike just the pertinent balance that makes his story a vivid mirage, so much so that even the most barren imaginative faculty needs little goading to conjure up scenic images. Thereby our disappointment is justified when we gawk with dismay at the motional images that bear meagre resemblance to those that we visualise when reading the book. And if the face is no longer one we’re familiar with, we can’t expect the heart to stay unchanged- the general spirit of the film is the coup de grâce that severs any remaining link with its source novel: gone are the grim and the tragic, in are the banal and the feel-good comedic.
We may also want to charge Hawks one last grave error of banishing from the film any traces of the tragedy that figures a prominent presence in the book. Hemingway once said in an interview that “simple wounds which do not break bone are of little account. They sometimes give confidence.” Hawk’s To Have and Have Not is a surface reading of such view of survival, in which the protagonist is made ever more invulnerable by the increase number of wounds he receives. In Hemingway’s novel, however, it is the accumulation of small inconsequential wounds that hurts. In the end, the author simply would not let his hero go easily: Harry Morgan struggles for hours from a gunshot wound before he dies in a surgical room. Ironically, the doctor assures his wife that he suffers little before breathing his last.