Sex, Lies, and Hemingway
November 22, 2010 | by Miranda Popkey
On a late night last week, I slipped out of the Paris Review offices, and into a more glamorous setting across the street. On lower level of the Tribeca Grand Hotel, movie stars were posing with practiced ease in front of a cluster of photographers. The occasion was a preview screening of the film Garden of Eden, which will be released on December 10. Among the celebrities there were Mena Suvari—who oozed classic Hollywood glamour in an all-black ensemble, bright red lipstick, and soft, blond, Veronica Lake waves—and Matthew Modine, tan, rugged, and sporting a jaunty blue scarf. Both star in the new film, based on the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name. It’s an autobiographical tale set in Europe between the wars that chronicles a love triangle between Hemingway stand-in David Bourne (Jack Huston), his wife, Catherine (Suvari), and the stunning Italian heiress Marita (Caterina Murino), whom Catherine introduces into the relationship during the couple’s seaside honeymoon—a decision she will later come to regret.
The novel, unfinished at the time of Hemingway’s death and published—amid editing controversies—in 1986, was recently adapted for the screen by James Linville, former managing editor of The Paris Review. “My experience in the film industry has been very good so far,” he told me. “And much less rough and tumble than the New York poetry world. I’m being fun,” he hastened to add, though it's easy to see why one would want to trade the world of rejection slips for the chance to mingle with beautiful people.
Away from the photographers’ flashes, Ms. Suvari spoke of her attraction to a “complex, complicated” role (Linville described Catherine as a “bitch-goddess”) and said that the novel is definitely her “favorite one, ever.” Others were slightly less enthusiastic. Mario Jurisic, one of the film’s producers, was outright blunt: “I couldn’t read it,” he told me, leaning in to make sure his comment got on the record. (If he had to pick, he prefers The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls.)
Matthew Modine is also a fan of The Old Man and the Sea, but he was more keen to talk about shooting on location in Kenya. (David spends a portion of the movie writing a short story about a young boy hunting elephants with his father; Modine plays the father.) The experience, he said, was unbelievable: “I had a Masai warrior offer me his wife.” He declined the offer, but not before going to the warrior’s dung hut to meet the woman (“She had no front teeth!”). Modine was gracious in his refusal: “This is the most incredible thing that’s been ever offered to me in my life,” he recalled saying, perched on their matrimonial bed. The couple seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. Having thus cemented their friendship, the wife—as Modine recalled—felt comfortable asking if he could provide her with a cell phone.
To anyone who knows Papa, the scenes of the African savanna come as no surprise. But the plot also relies on sexual games and blurred gender lines—preoccupations that remain below the surface in much of Hemingway’s work. “What he did in this book is take every single theme throughout his entire career, take it apart, turn it upside down, look at it, and put it back together in a different way. There’s hunting in it, but it is an antihunting story. There’s things about relations between men and women, but in this case, it’s a striking female character who has a certain power in the world. And she’s struggling with, how do you live a life and be a woman with some kind of power and try to be an equal of a man, and in some ways it curdles.” Linville, though he doesn’t typically like books about writers, was attracted to this particular novel: “It's incredibly modern about sexuality and the difficulties of marriage.” Perhaps for this very reason, Hemingway, according to Linville, requested that the novel remain unpublished until ten years the death of his first wife.
According to Linville, his time at The Paris Review—in particular, helping George Plimpton edit the Interview series—nourished his interest in screenwriting and in the “sly little observations” that one finds in any dialogue. It’s proof enough that a stint at the Review can be a stepping stone to all sorts of illustrious careers—even those in the notoriously unliterary world of Hollywood.