When I encounter references to The Old Man and the Sea, it reminds me of something I once read about it. An interviewer asked Hemingway to explain the symbolism in the novel. Hemingway said--and I'm paraphrasing from memory here--he thought if he made a real old man, a real fish, and a real ocean, they might mean something to someone. Well, he did and they do, and for that reason alone, the novel isn't overrated.
I can understand why many students don't like this excellent novel, and I wonder whether this is an example of a story that actually benefits from being read when you are a little older. I remember teaching Literature to a class of returning students who were all in the 30s and 40s (and some of them older), and I was amazed at how they could identify with situations and circumstances in the novels we were studying. This novel with its allegorical symbolism of what life is and how to struggle against the forces that are ranged against us and maintain a certain level of dignity perhaps is more aimed at older readers.
I agree that the book is very much worth reading and is far more subtle than a first reading might suggest. This is often true of Hemingway's work. His extremely brief short story titled "Hills Like White Elephants" is a good example. On the surface, the story seems to be merely the transcript of a conversation. When read more closely, however, the story reveals numerous levels of complexity, symbolism, and implication. Hemingway, of course, originated the so-called "ice berg" theory of literature, in which only the tip of the work is visible above the surface. You may want to get hold of a good annotated bibliography of Hemingway criticism to get a quick sense of what various people have seen in The Old Man and the Sea; doing so may enrich your own understanding and appreciation of the story. Of course, this may not happen, but you will at least have a fuller sense of why this work is admired by others. Good luck!
Old Man and the Sea is not overrated, but it is monumentally overhyped. Hype backlash ruins many things that are great, or good, or even not bad. Hemingway earned an enormous amount of criticism for his stripped-down style, but his lasting popularity shows how simple prose and solid storytelling can overcome all the pretentious literary tricks in the world. However, the punishment for overcoming convention is to be judged in every action, and the acceptance of this particular story in literary and educational circles means that it will be treated with the same suspicion as other books forced on unwilling students; old-fashioned, they will say, boring, no point, nothing happens. Reading for personal pleasure is a habit children come into on their own; reading for school is work, and will be viewed as such, even if you assign the most interesting and least literary book in the world.
Sometimes students consider just the "simple" plot line of the novel and think "it's just about a man who spends the entire novel trying to bring in the bigmarlin -- and it doesn't go well..." That's the problem -- to appreciate this novel you have to read it for what Hemingway intended. Hemingway is credited with suggesting that good writing can be like an iceberg -- what is seen above the water (the actual text) is very small in relation to the part of the iceberg that is unseen below the water line (the meaning). I thik the novel is kind of fun, intellectual exercise in trying to determine what is beneath the water. Some ideas that come to mind: the Heminway Code Hero as personified by Santiago; Christ figure motif; religious imagery; themes and style of Modernism; and how the novel is typical of Hemingway in regards to theme and style. There is SO much to appreciate about this fine novel.
I assume you are asking this question because you don't like the story. Certainly, everyone is allowed their own opinion, but I am sorry you can't appreciate it for the wonderful piece of writing I find it to be. I love the wonderfully colorful descriptive language Hemingway uses when telling of the sea and the creatures in it. I admire Santiago's dignity in the face of adversity and appreciate Manolin's care of the old man. The story speaks to me on many levels.
I don't believe that The Old Man and the Sea is over-rated. For the most part, it received positive reviews when Hemingway wrote it. And what probably makes it so much more deserving of accolades is the fact that Santiago, the main character, still speaks to the modern audience of how a man of character stands firm in the face of adversity without giving up who he is in the process.
Certainly people react differently to literature based on personal experiences, but the timelessness of Hemingway's main character is inspiring even today, and I find this man and his inner-strength compelling.