‘Islands in the Stream’: capturing a great writer’s work on film

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It’s an understatement to say that Ernest Hemingway was not well served by Hollywood.

“The Sun Also Rises,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “The Old Man and the Sea,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and the other adaptations can be pretty neatly divided into two categories — faithful but overblown bores or travesties that gut the original stories.

My favorite Hemingway film is one of the least known, director Franklin Schaffner’s 1977 “Islands in the Stream” starring his “Patton” collaborator George C. Scott. The irony here, of course, is that the posthumously published novel is considered minor Hemingway, but Schaffner and Scott used this story of an isolated, twice-divorced artist to capture the essence of Hemingway as a man and artist.

In the story, Thomas Hudson (Scott) is a world-renowned painter-turned-sculptor who has isolated himself in the Bahamas just as World War II starts.

He’s fathered three sons by two ex-wives and has lived at a distance from all of them until the boys spend a summer at his beachside compound — the oldest, draft-age son is from his first wife and the two younger boys are from Hudson’s second marriage.

Scott resembles the Hemingway of the later years so the fiction of Hudson being a visual artist falls away and we can see the autobiographical nature of a story the writer might not have intended to publish (it appeared nine years after his death in 1961).

“Islands in the Stream” contains many of the adventure story elements of earlier Hemingway tales — Hudson helps Jewish refugees from Europe sneak into Cuba (after U.S. authorities have turned them away) — but it goes deeper into male-female relationships and father-son ties than the other movie adaptations.

Scott carries the film with minimal dialogue, but we see him drop his gruff detachment when he spends a summer with his sons and then realizes after they leave how lonely his life has become.

Claire Bloom turns up for a wonderful sequence in which the first wife visits to share some terrible news with her ex-husband. In the space of just a few minutes, we get a real sense of what brought these two people together and then tore them apart.

In the final moments of the movie, Scott gets an incredible death scene after Hudson is wounded in a run to Cuba. He sees his life flashing before his eyes — which Schaffner does a beautiful job of visualizing — and has enough time to come to terms with who he was.

“Islands in the Stream” opened and closed with barely a ripple in 1977 and has never found the audience it deserves. The film’s obscurity is mystifying. The DVD recently went out of print and I picked it up in a bargain bin for $5. If you see one in your travels, grab it. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

Joe Meyers

One Response

  1. Joe

    Thanks for taking the time to post your blog about Islands in the Stream. I fully agree with you that the film’s obscurity is mystifying; unpopularity, yes—I’m a bit of a cultural cynic and snob—but critical obscurity?

    The ending reflection is indeed incredible.
    It’s very appropriate I stumbled on to your piece just before Valentine’s Day.

    Good work!