Hemingway Docuseries Explores the Enigma of the Controversial Writer

Warning: This review contains details of suicide. Reader discretion is advised. If you or someone you know is considering suicide please call a hotline in your country. You can find a listing of numbers by clicking here

Based on the private and very public life of renowned American novelist/journalist Ernest Hemingway, this three-part documentary was released in April this year on the PBS channel. The documentary is yet another dynamic collaboration of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick who already have achievements in docuseries such as The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), and The Vietnam War (2017).

Hemingway has been painted as a highly controversial figure due to his larger-than-life persona created by a man seeking to gain love, adoration, and approval, which was so greatly lacking from his mother in childhood. Raised in Oak Park, Illinois, he became a reporter in his late teens before enlisting to become an ambulance driver in 1918 towards the end of WWI. He was immediately shipped to the Italian Front. After becoming seriously wounded by a bomb blast he returned to the United States as a hero, entertaining the residents of his hometown with war stories based upon his experiences. However, some believe that his stories were greatly exaggerated to create the persona of being a magnificent war hero.

Director Ken Burns pulls us into the enigma that was Ernest Hemingway by his excellent use of some of the best archival footage, photographs, audio recordings, and quotes from old interviews. The brilliant narration by American actor and author Peter Coyote combined with veteran actor Jeff Daniels acting as the voice of Ernest Hemingway transports you to a tumultuous time in our world in which the writer navigated his somewhat scandalous but adventurous lifestyle.

The documentary wasn’t afraid to explore the contradiction that Hemingway was as a novelist, journalist, four times a husband and father. The strength of the documentary is the fact that Burns chose to highlight Hemingway’s talents as a writer by acknowledging the enormous influence that he has made on fictional works by using his understated method of writing which will eventually be coined as “the Iceberg theory”. He eventually went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

The documentary tastefully skirts around the many controversies surrounding Hemingway in his close association to the island of Cuba, his possible participation in certain key events during the Spanish Civil war, and his constant battle with mental health. He suffered from numerous brain injuries which have been speculated to be the cause of his drastic decline in mental health including his sometimes irrational paranoia in his late fifties. It should be noted however that at least five members of his family including his late father committed suicide due to battling depression. During his final years, Hemingway underwent numerous electroshock treatments that seemed to make his condition worse. He tried several times to end his life as well. Eventually, on the second of July 1961, the award-winning novelist finally got a hold of his favourite double-barreled shotgun and shot himself fatally.

(Original Caption) Portrait of Ernest Hemingway (1898-1961), American journalist, novelist, and short story writer. “Back home, I start work at five. I’ve been working since five. I like to start things early. It comes of living in the country.”

In choosing the celebrate the man, the myth, and the legend, the good and the bad, Burns has successfully managed to show the audience that even people with immense talents and abilities can be greatly flawed in many ways. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that they have made immense contributions to the world of art, literature, culture, and science which has immortalised their legacies.

Alice’s Score: 8 out of 10

And you can check out more documentary content below:


Dark Alice has an old soul and a curious mind. I believe that anyone can be a hero and that the good guys should always win! I dislike cruelty to animals and think that they have far superior qualities to humans. My motto is there is no future without the past. I also have a weird penchant for Paranormal TV shows even though the slightest sound makes me jump. I enjoy writing reviews and throwing in fun facts to pique the readers’ curiosity. My ultimate goal in life would be to become a published writer one day. Read More

Leave a Reply