Guest Review: Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man

Ernest Hemingway wrote two dozen stories about his alter ego, Nick Adams, throughout his literary career. Playwright and novelist A.E. Hotchner, a Hemingway friend who later penned the biography Papa Hemingway, combined several of the Nick Adams stories into the 1962 film Adventures of a Young Man. Hemingway liked the idea and wrote the movie’s opening and closing narration. It was his intent to record it, but he died in 1961.

The film opens in a small northern Michigan town in 1916 with Nick (Richard Beymer) feeling frustrated with a life already laid out for him by his parents. He loves his father (Arthur Kennedy), the town’s physician, but can’t cope with his domineering mother (Jessica Tandy). Nick sets out on “the road” to discover his place in the world and perhaps become a writer. On his odyssey, he encounters a punch-drunk former boxer (Paul Newman) and his caring friend, an alcoholic small-time promoter (Dan Dailey), and a newspaperman who admires Nick’s spunk–just not enough to give the inexperienced young man a job.

Nick ends up working in a restaurant in New York City, where he volunteers for the Italian Army (despite not being able to speak Italian). Once he joins his unit overseas, he is assigned to the medical corps where he befriends a fellow American (Eli Wallach) and an Italian officer (Ricardo Montalban). The horrors of war, a serious injury, and the death of two loved ones change Nick’s outlook on life–leaving him more experienced, perhaps sadder, but also better prepared for the challenges that await him.

The idea behind Adventures of a Young Man is both interesting and worthy. The opening scenes, set during a colorful autumn and accented by Franz Waxman’s score, have an almost lyrical quality. It’s a shame that the rest of the film–which clocks in at almost 2 1/2 hours–can’t sustain it. Instead, it tries to mask its obvious flaws: a bland protagonist, miscasting, and a lack of cohesion.

Having never read the Nick Adams stories, I can only comment on the character presented on screen. He’s a self-centered, incredibly naïve, and uninteresting young man until much too late in the movie. Even in his final scenes, when he’s supposed to have undergone a transformation, Nick’s focus seems to be on his own needs. It would have been nice to see him show some interest in what became of his jilted girlfriend (Diane Baker) and loyal friend (Michael J. Pollard).

It doesn’t help that Nick is played by Richard Beymer, best known for starring as Tony in the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story. Beymer’s All-American looks may work to his advantage as Nick, but his limited acting range becomes more apparent as the movie progresses. His later scenes opposite seasoned pros Eli Wallach and Ricardo Montalban are almost painful to watch. (Surprisingly, though, Paul Newman gives the film’s worst performance as “The Battler,” a former boxer who mumbles incoherently and stares open-mouthed into space. It just goes to show that anyone can have a bad day–but when A-list actors do, it’s captured on celluloid for posterity.)

Other than sequencing Hemingway’s stories, screenwriter Hotchner makes no attempt to connect them. As a result, Adventures of a Young Man unfolds like a string of disjointed TV episodes featuring a single continuing character.

Still, I suspect that Hemingway fans will want to see Adventures of a Young Man. For those readers who admire the Nick Adams stories, here are some of the titles interwoven into the plot: The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife, Indian Camp, The End of Something, The Three-Day Blow, The Battler, and Now I Lay Me.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!