SUBJECTS — Literature/U.S.;


MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness, Caring.

AGE: 12+; No MPAA Rating;

Drama; 1958; 86 minutes; Color. Available from

This Learning Guide provides tips on teaching the novella, The Old Man and the Sea, as well as ideas for using the film in class after the book has been read. For suggestions about using filmed adaptations of literary works in the ELA classroom, see Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories, and Plays.

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.


Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.


Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, has gone 84 days without catching a fish. Manolin, his young apprentice is no longer permitted by the village to fish with Santiago but tends to the old man with affection and respect. Each day Santiago hauls his gear to his skiff and heads out alone to try a new day’s luck. On day 85, the old man hooks a huge marlin and struggles for two days and nights to bring in the fish. Eventually, despite pain and exhaustion, Santiago returns to the village with the marlin, which has been reduced to a skeleton by the relentless attack of sharks.

The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novella by Ernest Hemingway. The author selected the screenwriter and kept overall artistic control of the film. The movie closely follows the written work retaining not only its language but also its tone and structure. Spencer Tracy, in the leading role, captures Hemingway’s characterization of an old man who refuses to give up in the face of apparent failure. The film shows the affection between the old man and Manolin, the young boy who tends to him.


Selected Awards:

1959 Academy Awards: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture; 1959 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Actor (Tracy); Best Cinematography, Color.


Featured Actors:

Spencer Tracy as The Old Man/Narrator; Felipe Pazos as The Boy; Harry Bellaveraas Martin; Don Diamond the Cafe Proprietor; Don Blackman as the Hand Wrestler; Joey Ray as the Gambler; and Mary Hemingway as the Tourist.



John Sturges.


Watching the film allows students who have read the novella to see the story in a cinematic format. This permits them to compare words with cinema in terms of artistic and thematic effect. The film also provides repetition and confirmation of lessons analyzing the written work. Finally, watching the film, children will come to empathize with a person who is very old.




Be sure that your child does not watch this film as a substitute for reading Hemingway’s novella. The book is a masterful example of Hemingway’s clear, spare but evocative prose. After having read the book, however, the film can be seen as a study in capturing the ideas Hemingway seeks to convey through the film. Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question.


Joe DiMaggio was an all-star center fielder for the New York Yankees from 1936 to 1951.


Ernest Hemingway is one of the greats of American Literature and biographies detailing his life are readily available. Some general information about the author’s character will help students understand Hemingway’s work and empathize with Santiago, despite the differences in age and circumstances between themselves and the old man.

Hemingway is often seen as the “macho” man of American Literature in that his heroes must work beyond conflict, disappointment and pain in order to live with the resilience and determination that characterize manhood. His heroes are somehow wounded and expected to suffer with dignity and grace as they complete the tasks life has set before them. Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea, exemplifies this motif: his primary wound is old age; his secondary wound is the lack of luck; and the final wound is the injury sustained to his hands as he seeks to reel in the huge fish. Despite their wounds, Hemingway characters seek victory on a personal level in the face of certain defeat.

Hemingway seems to test his heroes, just as anyone involved in a competitive sport tests him or herself each time there is a competition. Hemingway believed firmly in a fair fight and was certain that courage and perseverance in the presence of daunting odds and inevitable defeat revealed one’s true character. This courage served as the foundation of Hemingway’s code, which requires an individual to behave with dignity and grace even if he cannot win.

What young people can best garner from Hemingway’s personal values, exemplified in his tale of an old fisherman who refuses to give in to the forces that work against him, is sanguinity — the attitude that expresses a confident and sturdy character.

Metaphorically, the novella is autobiographical. The aging writer, who had previous success but in recent years has had difficulty writing another critically acclaimed book, tests himself again and writes The Old Man and the Sea. When the book was published, he had no idea whether or not it would be a success.

In 1960, Ernest Hemingway, having suffered from mental illness for several years and having a physical condition that affected his mind, committed suicide.


The page numbers cited in this Guide are from the Scribner Classics Version.

“I may not be as strong as I think,” the old man said. “But I know many tricks and I have resolution.” Pg. 23.

Now is the time to think of only one thing. That which I was born for. Pp. 35 & 36.

[The marlin’s] choice had been to stay in the deep dark water far out beyond all snares and traps and treacheries. My choice was to go there to find him beyond all people. Beyond all people in the world. Now we are jointed together and have been since noon. And no one to help either one of us. Pg. 41.

You have only yourself . . . . Pg. 44.

“Fish,” he said softly, aloud, “I’ll stay with you until I am dead.” Pg. 44.

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you before this day ends.” Pg. 45.

I wish I could feed the fish, he thought. He is my brother. But I must kill him and keep strong to do it. Pg. 49.

But, thank God they are not as intelligent as we who kill them, although they are more noble and more able. Pg. 52.

“I’ll kill him though,” he said. “In all his greatness and his glory.” Pg. 53.

[After sunset, Santiago admires the stars that have just come out recalling that he has considered them as his friends.]

“The fish is my friend, too,” he said aloud. “I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars.” Pg. 59.

Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity. Pg 59.

You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who. Pg. 70.

[The advent of the sharks and the inevitability that they will eat the entire marlin,] “makes everything wrong.” Pg. 83.


1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction and discussion questions suggested in TWM’s article on Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories, and Plays.


2. Despite the fact that he has not caught a fish in 84 days, Santiago lugs his gear to his skiff and goes to sea. What motivates him?

Suggested Response:

Santiago tells us, “You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. . . . ” Pg. 80. He also states that he was born for the battle with the marlin. See pg. 70. These descriptions are not intended to include all of the factors which motivate Santiago. Motivation is often a complex affair. For example, Santiago also wants to regain his luck and his status in the village as a good fisherman. Another factor that Santiago didn’t talk about but which may have motivated him was that he didn’t not want to disappoint the boy by giving up, Another valid reason is that he does not want to admit that he is too old to fish, that is, he wants to demonstrate that he can still be an actor in the world. And finally, he may not want to give in to old age; he wants to retain his ability to catch fish.


3. There are two important “pairings” of characters in this film: Santiago with Manolin and Santiago with the fish. What do we learn from these pairings? In other words, what ideas are introduced by showing the similarities, differences, feelings, and actions of the two sets of characters?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. From the pairing of Santiago and Manolin, the readers/viewers see mutual love and respect; how important it is to have a mentor; how important it is to have an apprentice; and the interdependence of the young and the old. From the pairing of Santiago and the marlin readers/viewers can see the respect and affection for their prey felt by fishermen in the days when fishing employed simple technologies. The new more powerful technology used today by sport and commercial fisherman increases their advantage over the fish and seems to separate the fishermen from their catch. Also, while both Santiago and the marlin struggle against their fate, neither can win. The marlin dies and the sharks eat up Santiago’s catch. However, according to Hemingway, both Santiago and the marlin prove their worth as animate beings through their struggle. [Examples of the pairings are frequent in the text. See, e.g., pages 41, 43, & 70.]


4. Read the following passage. It appears after the sharks have started taking big chunks of the fish and the old man has killed one shark with his harpoon, but lost the harpoon in the process. He realizes that eventually the sharks will take all of the fish. The novella continues,

“But man is not made for defeat,” [the old man] said, “Man can be destroyed but not defeated.” I am sorry that I killed the fish though, he thought. Now the bad time is coming and I do not even have the harpoon. The dentuso [shark] is cruel and able and strong and intelligent. But I was more intelligent than [the marlin] was. Perhaps not, he thought. Perhaps I was only better armed.

“Don’t think, old man,” he said aloud. “Sail on this course and take it when it comes.”

But I must think, he thought. Because it is all I have left. I wonder how the great DiMaggio would have liked the way I hit [the shark] in the brain? . . . Pp. 78 & 79.

Answer the following questions.

4A. If man is not made for defeat, what is man made for? After answering the question, comment on your answer. Do you agree with Hemingway’s statement about what a man is made for? Explain your reasons.

Suggested Response:

According to Hemingway, man is made to strive to win with honor despite his wounds and his reverses. There is a difference between winning and striving to win. The sharks win in this story because they get the fish, but they have no honor. Santiago does not win, but he finds redemption because he demonstrates that he has the fortitude to strive against the daunting forces of nature and to kill the marlin. The marlin loses to Santiago but he is a noble creature who, like Santiago, fights the good fight and loses. The marlin’s loss does not reduce or demean its nobility. The remainder of the response is personal to the student.


4B. What role do the sharks play in the story?

Suggested Response:

The sharks can be seen as several things: the forces of nature arrayed against an individual; the forces of evil; the anti-nobility forces; the forces of entropy.


4C. As Santiago awaits another attack by the sharks he says that he doesn’t want to think. Why does he say this?

Suggested Response:

Since he believes that the sharks will return and eventually get the fish, he is afraid that thinking about it will deprive him of the will to fight and then he would lose his honor and his manhood.


4D. Why at the end of this passage, does Santiago start thinking about baseball despite his own command that he should not think at that point?

Suggested Response:

Since Santiago is human and human beings cannot stop thinking, he will think about baseball; a diversion, something that will not sap his will to keep striving.


5. Read the following passage and answer the questions set out below the passage. The passage occurs after Santiago has finished thinking about baseball. His mind returns to his present situation.

You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more? Pg. 80

Santiago talks several times about loving the marlin and about respecting its nobility. He calls the marlin his brother. If Santiago had not been a fisherman who was born to fish and whose very existence depended upon bringing in the catch, would he have killed the marlin? If so, why? If not, why not?

Suggested Response:

There are several possible good responses to this question. Here is one. Based on these passages it is likely that Santiago would not have killed the marlin if he had not earned his livelihood as a fisherman and had not been born to fish. Santiago is not a recreational killer such as sport fishermen or those who hunt for entertainment. Santiago recognizes that there is a question of whether it was a sin to take the animal’s life. It is interesting to note that Hemingway loved to hunt and to go deep sea fishing. His favorite prey on the water was marlins. Based on the last sentence of this passage, it appears that Hemingway the artist understood that there is a different way to look at killing an animal, and that it may very well be a sin to kill an animal that a person respects for its beauty and nobility. Another possible response is that he would have killed the marlin anyway, as he put it “for pride”, to demonstrate that he still had the ability to fish, and to prove himself once again to the boy and the village.


6. Although Santiago brings to shore only the bones of the great marlin, he has not failed. What idea does Hemingway seek to illustrate in the images that show this to be true?

Suggested Response:

The story tells us that success is not the fundamental criteria for determining manhood; the measure of a man is taken in how he meets the challenges of life. Because of the way he has met the challenge of bringing in the marlin, the old man earns the respect of the fishermen who measure the length of the fish and of the boy who goes to his shanty to be sure that he is alright. The boy will again be permitted to go fishing with the old man, indicating that the townspeople no longer see Santiago as unworthy. The old man dreams of the lions, his personal symbol for power and strength.


7. See the Quick Discussion Question above.


8. The story as framed by Hemingway deals only with men and what it means to be a man. Society has come a long way since 1952 when this book was published. Does The Old Man and the Sea have anything to say to girls or to women?

Suggested Response:

There are at least two important points to make in responding to this question but note that both are subject to challenge. One point is that although the story is about a man and his effort to retain his role as a man, it is also about all human beings. Life presents challenges to everyone, regardless of gender. Very often perseverance and resourcefulness will be required in traditional female roles as well as in traditional male roles. While success is not guaranteed in any endeavor in life, it is the willingness to meet the challenge and the way that the challenge is met that is the only thing that the individual can completely control and the only true measure of a life. (The challenge to this is essentially a male chauvinist argument, now pretty much discredited, that women are genetically or culturally incapable of measuring up to the crucial challenges of competition on the same level as men.) The second point is that since the time the book was written, more women have moved into the workforce. Their professional concerns are similar to those of men. Thus, whether or not the story had meaning to women or girls when it was written, it has a lot to say to them today. (The challenge to this is the argument that women bring a different perspective to the competitive world that is more nurturing, less adversarial, and more effective than the traditional macho approach.)


9. What if Santiago was not a villager who made his living from fishing, but instead was an aging tourist who had been fishing for many decades, whose luck at fishing had turned bad, and who had come down to Cuba for one last try to catch a marlin, the best of the big game fish? He needs to prove to himself that his luck has not run out. How would this change the story?

Suggested Response:

This change of facts would take away most of the meaning from the story. In order to justify killing an animal as noble and beautiful as the marlin, the fisherman must need to catch the fish to support and feed himself. Otherwise, many readers/viewers will wonder whether the need of the tourist to prove that he is not luckless or that he can still catch a big fish justifies torturing and killing such a magnificent creature. Unless this fisherman needs to fish for survival, his feelings of brotherhood with the fish are just a rationalization, a way to avoid the reality that he is torturing and murdering a beautiful fellow creature. For this story to make sense, the protagonist must be concerned with real challenges, not goals that he selected for fun and diversion. It can be said that Hemingway’s denigrating reference to the tourists was a way of making this point. This story has always been seen as somewhat autobiographical and that fishing for Santiago was what writing was for Hemingway. However, there is another way to look at the autobiographical nature of The Old Man and the Sea and this is that Hemingway was the tourist and that Hemingway was the old man who came to Cuba to prove that he could still fish and killed beautiful creatures for no good reason.


10. Santiago talks to the fish. What ironies can be found in the things Santiago says as he seeks to catch the huge marlin?

Suggested Response:

Santiago says that he loves the fish but he must kill it, a seeming contradiction. He calls the fish brother, yet he plunges a harpoon into the heart of the fish.


11. At the beginning, the villagers believe that Santiago has lost his luck and Santiago is starting to doubt his luck himself. The young boy, just starting as a fisherman, is frequently lucky and catches big fish. What is the role of luck in this story?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer. It could be seen as a representation of the life force. The boy is young and he is lucky. Santiago is old and he is not lucky. Luck could be a representation of the approval of God. It could be a symbol for a person’s abilities as a fisherman. Luck could simply stand for blind chance.


12. Look at this story from the point of view of the fish. What is the marlin’s perspective on Santiago’s struggle?

Suggested Response:

Santiago’s technology of a skiff, hooks, line, and a harpoon, primitive though they may be according to modern standards, gives him a great advantage over the fish. Tricked by the man into taking the bait, without the ability to remove the hook, and without the knowledge of how to break the line, the fish can only fight the losing battle and die with dignity. Any fisherman will tell you that fish fight for their lives when they are hooked or netted but it’s not a fair fight. The fish usually have no chance due to the advanced technology of the fisherman. From the marlin’s point of view the old man’s musings about brotherhood and respect are little consolation for a brutal and painful early death.


13. Some critics see the visuals of the ocean and the marlin as weak. What is your opinion of the images of the great marlin in terms of showing the dramatic effect of this fish on Santiago?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. Students need to support their opinion with direct reference to the film. Some may assert that Hemingway’s written description of the fish is of greater value in terms of telling the story and showing Santiago’s love for the fish.


14. What is the contribution of the music to the presentation of the story? Give an example of how the music affected your perception of what was occurring on the screen.

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer. The film won an Academy Award for best music.



See the Subject Matter Discussion Questions above.

1. Do you think that a friendship between a young boy and an old man, like the friendship between Manolin and Santiago, could exist today?

Suggested Response:

Friendship is timeless and the human capacity for caring is eternal. While the circumstances will undoubtedly be different, friendships spring up in the most unlikely places.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country)


1. Which of the Pillars of Character did Manolin exemplify in his relations with the Old Man?

Suggested Response:

Trustworthiness (loyalty) and caring (friendship).



(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)


See Questions under “Friendship” and “Trustworthiness.”


Students can be requested to write essays responding to any of the discussion questions. See also Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction and assignments suggested in TWM’s article on Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories, and Plays.


Assignments specific to this story are:


1. Write an essay in which you describe how the boy, Manolin, has learned important lessons from Santiago.


2. The tourists do not understand what they see when they look out the window at the bones of the great marlin. Hemingway had a serious opinion in mind when he added these tourists to his novel and that opinion can be seen clearly in the film. Write a brief essay in which you make your point about what Hemingway meant to symbolize in the tourists. Then, answer this question: Hemingway lived in Cuba but he was always a famous writer and never changed his identity to be a Cuban. Wasn’t he therefore essentially a tourist? In referring to the tourists, was Hemingway engaging in self-criticism?


3. At the end of the film and the novella, Santiago is dreaming of the lions. Write a brief essay about what the lions represent to him. End the essay with a suggestion about what may be used to represent this same feeling in today’s society in which lions no longer express the same meaning.


4. There are many reasons that Santiago refuses to quit his grueling battle to catch the marlin. Write about three of the motives you see in Santiago’s determination to bring in the fish. Select which one you believe to be the most valid and justify your opinion.


5. Hemingway loved the ocean and spent innumerable hours swimming and fishing. Write a report on the topic of the health of the ocean and its plant and animal life. Create a PowerPoint presentation in which you show the results of your research and suggest a course of action that concerned nations can take in order to mitigate the decades of damage done to the sea.


6. Write a biography of Ernest Hemingway that focuses on his adventures and the damage he had done to his body with all of the injuries and insults it had suffered. End your essay with a suggestion about the psychological factors that may have led to such impassioned activities.


7. Investigate Hemingway’s notion of the wound and the code. Then write an informal essay in which you apply the notion of the wound and the code to the life of a student in today’s society. Think of your own life and the various insults to body or mind that may serve as a Hemingway-style wound and the code of principles that may allow you to transcend such wounds.


8. Hemingway loved deep sea fishing and his favorite prey was marlins. Deep sea fishing is no longer considered a high status sport. Write an opinion piece that would be published in a newspaper about why this may be true. Gather some facts about the scarcity of marlin and other choice sea animals once killed for sport, stuffed, and used as a decorative item on a wall.


9. Research Joe DiMaggio. Write a brief explanation about why Hemingway may have referred to this famous baseball player in his novella and why the name was mentioned in the film. Note that baseball is one of Cuba’s favorite sports Note also that when Manolin runs to tend the old man, he passes a group of boys playing baseball and is invited to joint them.


10. The voiceover in the film says that everything about Santiago is old except his eyes, which are the color of the sea. Write a brief essay in which you explain the point of comparing the old man himself to the sea. What similarities exist?


This Learning Guide was written by Mary RedClay and James Frieden. Revised on November 4, 2011.

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