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Ken Burns’ ‘Hemingway’ Documentary on PBS April 5

Ken Burns documentary Hemingway on PBS
(Image credit: PBS)

Hemingway, a three-part, six-hour documentary about the author from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, premieres on PBS April 5. “Interweaving his eventful biography -- a life lived at the ultimately treacherous nexus of art, fame, and celebrity -- with carefully selected excerpts from his iconic short stories, novels, and non-fiction, the series reveals the brilliant, ambitious, charismatic, and complicated man behind the myth, and the art he created,” said PBS. 

The documentary concludes April 7. Burns and Novick direct. Geoffrey C. Ward wrote the project and Burns, Novick and Sarah Botstein produce. 

Jeff Daniels provides the voice of Ernest Hemingway, whose novels include The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. 

Burns said the perception of Hemingway is different from the true Hemingway. “We were drawn to trying to get at a real Hemingway,” he said in a TCA press tour panel. “And I think the persona of the wildman, 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, not just for him, but in fact.”

Between his prose and his letters, Hemingway revealed his true self, said Burns, mentioning “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.”

Burns and Novick tackle a complicated character, one whose masculinity, to some, went over the line into toxic. “It’s tempting to say that Hemingway’s macho bluster doesn’t hold up well in the light of the 21st century,” said the New York Times, but it didn’t go unnoticed in the 20th either.”

 “As I confronted all of this negative stuff, it became important that the art transcended it and basically didn't excuse it,” said Burns. “And we do not excuse him. We hold his feet to the fire.”

Novick started the project not liking Hemingway all that much, and wondering what it would be like for the viewer to spend six hours with him. “He was so terrible to so many of the great friends he had,” she said. “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 tried to do to get under his skin, as Edna [Irish novelist O’Brien] would say, I felt a lot more compassion for him and his struggles and his demons...than I did at the beginning,” added Novick. 

Meryl Streep voices Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn. 

Daniels was drawn to learn more about Hemingway who, like the actor, spent a lot of time in Michigan, when he took on the project. “Like Edna was saying, he inhabits the skin of his opposite, and that's what actors do,” said Daniels. “That's what great artists do. And nice to know that those of us who are acting and do that didn't invent it. People like Hemingway did.” 

Hemingway died by suicide in 1961. 

Burns said he starts every project with the anxiety that he’ll never pull off the mission. “We bite off more than we can chew,” he said, “and then learn how to chew it.