I finished Moby-Dick a few months ago and I’m still sort of astonished I did. It’s more or less how I felt after finishing my first marathon. It’s an amazing, exhausting, frustrating and brilliant book, and I’ve been tumbling the themes and images over in my head since I completed it. There’s a lot to say about it, but since there’s probably little I could say that hasn’t been said before, I’ve held off writing about it.
As I read it, I kept thinking how theatrical the book was and, particularly, how cinematic. Melville paints rich pictures of the sea and sky, the bloody work of whaling and hard, sweaty labor of the men who do it. Consider this description, in chapter 96, of the three harpooners boiling blubber into oil at the Pequod’s “try-works” as the ship sailed deep into the night:
Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod , freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.
Consider, also, the scenes when Tashtego falls into the whale’s skull, or when Ahab rails at the St. Elmo’s Fire on the masts, or when the Pequod is pursued by Malay pirates as it chases a pod of whales, or when Starbuck picks up Ahab’s musket and contemplates murdering the sleeping captain.
Melville wrote Moby-Dick as a novel, because what other choices did he have in 1850? The influence of Shakespeare is obvious, but the book would fail written as a play; without the sea and ship and, of course, the whale, it would lose all the tension between man and nature that is at the heart of the book. But what about a movie? If Melville were alive today, would he want Moby-Dick made into a movie? I think yes (not least because he was broke).
Moby-Dick has been filmed, and I was surprised to discover how many versions there are (I confess to having seen none of them). There’s the well-regarded 1956 version directed by John Huston (screenplay by Ray Bradbury!), with Gregory Peck as Ahab. There’s a 1998 TV movie, with Patrick Stewart as Ahab and Peck returning to play Father Mapple. There’s a 2011 TV miniseries, with William Hurt as Ahab and Ethan Hawke as Starbuck. There are silent versions, a cartoon versions, parody versions. There’s even a version set in a nuclear submarine, featuring a 400-foot whale that attacks helicopters. (Seriously. Check out the trailer.)
I conjured up a version directed by Steven Spielberg (Jaws meets Amistad!), and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Ahab. I had fun on Twitter casting the movie and soliciting suggestions. But I also encountered resistance from one follower, who argued that the format of the novel – which includes lengthy non-fiction digressions about whales and the history and nature of whaling – makes it impossible to film and maintain the integrity of the work. He argued that the digressions needed to be in the movie, as true to Melville as possible.
I disagree. Melville’s long, often tedious asides are essentially footnotes, there to help the reader understand the world of whaling. They’re not part of the narrative, but they support the narrative. In a movie, what’s necessary to the telling of Moby-Dick can be told through the characters, and what’s not can be excluded.
Slavish devotion to the source material can be as big a mistake as ignoring it. “Watchmen,” Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie version of the 1985 comic book, was as close to a panel-for-panel adaptation is possible, and yet failed because what works in a comic doesn’t necessarily work in film. Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Ring” struck the right balance, cutting scenes and manipulating the order of events to suit the conventions of movie making, yet staying true to the tone and spirit of Tolkien’s books.
Later this year, “In the Heart of the Sea,” a big-budget movie by Ron Howard opens. The movie is based on a 2000 non-fiction book by Nathanial Philbrick, but very prominently claims to be “based on the incredible true story that inspired Moby-Dick.” This might be Hollywood’s latest solution to tackling Melville: by adapting a modern book, it maintains a modern sensibility yet preserves the man vs. whale conflict at the heart of the book.
It’s understandable, but unfortunate, but because won’t have the slightly unhinged richness and mania of Melville. It easy to make an earnest account of the dangers of whaling; much harder to include – as Melville does – scenes of Fleece, the cook, arguing with sharks; Ishmael and the polynesian harpooner Queequeg sharing a bed in port; and later, Queequeg commissioning a coffin that eventually saves Ishmael life. Melville writes with humor, wit and passion, and that’s much harder to adapt for film than any of his treatises on whaling law or flensing technique.