When I started watching For Whom the Bell Tolls, I really didn’t know what I was in for. It’s a long movie. Three hours, with an intermission. It starts off pretty slow, and even when the fighting gets going in the second half, the movie feels longer than it actually is. I was really hoping it would grow on me but I sat through the whole thing and just never connected with it. I hate to admit it but I don’t think I have the attention span for long classic films anymore. Maybe I never did.
Despite how I felt about it, the film version of For Whom the Bell Tolls had a very successful opening in 1943 and was nominated for 9 Academy Awards. Hemingway knew that he wanted Bergman and Cooper to star as Maria and Robert Jordan in the movie even before he finished writing the book, so it’s not surprising that their performances are both pretty incredible (although Katina Paxinou as Pilar clearly steals the show). I had no idea that Hemingway was actually really close to Gary Cooper until I watched the 2013 documentary Cooper and Hemingway: The True Gen. It’s an in-depth look at the friendship of these two men, which was actually quite fascinating.
It’s funny that Hemingway’s brilliant dialogue doesn’t seem to translate to film. It sounds stiff and fake. But when I read his books I don’t hear the characters speak that way. For some reason it works on the page but not on the screen. For Whom the Bell Tolls was the first film adaptation of Hemingway’s work that I’ve seen, and I’m not sure that I’ll watch any more of them. Although I might make an exception for The Killers and To Have and Have Not because I hear they’re both amazing.
For a closer look at Hemingway film adaptations from someone who doesn’t seem to like them much either, have a read of “How the Movies Mangle Hemingway.”