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The Old Man and the Sea, first editionFirst edition

The Old Man and the Sea

Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
1952, United States

Literature form
Novella

Genres
Literary

Writing language
English

Author's country
United States

Length
Approx. 24,500 words

The Old Man and the Sea scene
Spencer Tracy is the old man, a studio tank the sea and the fish rubber in 1958's The Old Man and the Sea.

THE NOVELLA | THE TEXT | THE MOVIES

1958, 1990, 1999

The simple fishing story on screen

The Old Man and the Sea (1958): Director John Sturges; writer Peter Viertel; featuring Spencer Tracy, Felipe Pazos

Ernest Hemingway's famous novella The Old Man and the Sea, would seem a difficult book to adapt for the movies.

The drama follows a single plot line, the catching and losing of a great fish, and most of the action consists of an old man sitting in a tiny boat, talking to himself. Hardly the stuff of great cinematic experiences.

And how to turn all that simple, flat but poetic Hemingway language that's so effective on the printed page into something that shimmers on the big or small screen?

For the most famous film treatment, the screenwriter opts to basically recite Hemingway's prose.

Comfortable old man on the sea

Spencer Tracy is famous for the acting that hides hiding. His unpretentious style would seem a natural fit for the titular old guy in the 1958 adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea.

But the decision to have the prose almost always spoken by Tracy, either as narration or as the old man in his boat, makes the character he plays less interesting. It becomes too difficult to separate the narration about the old man from the thoughts of the old man and he ends up seeming to have godlike insight. True, the character is meant to have a certain wisdom gained from years of struggling with nature, but he is also meant to be a foolish weak mortal caught in the large mystery of life he cannot understand, except through his blind faiths in religion and Joe DiMaggio.

Tracy does a great job of acting the poor Cuban fisherman who is just referred to as the Old Man. But physically he never seems convincing. He's too well-fed, too white, too much in control.

The boy, played by one Felipe Pazos in his only known film-acting job, is also somewhat too knowing and too self-possessed to be a real kid bred in an impoverished fishing village.

Nonetheless the scenes between the two of them are touching. I found myself wondering what would happen with them in the future as the man grows weaker and is unable to fish and as the boy matures and makes his own way in life.


Opening scenes in the Cuban fishing village from 1958's The Old Man and the Sea.

A minor complaint about the film is that the stock ocean scenes often seem mismatched with the shots of Tracy in the boat, presumably filmed on a tank in a studio. Still, the film is well worth viewing for a fan of the book.

Director John Sturges also made such action classics as The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven and knows something about telling a story. So the simple elements of the story move along nicely.

If you love the book, you'll appreciate the film. If you found the book deadly boring, the film will finish you.

— Eric McMillan

THE NOVELLA | THE TEXT | THE MOVIES

1958, 1990, 1999