Moby Dick

And some certain significance lurks in all things

I recently had a chance to visit Herman Melville’s Arrowhead in Pittsfield, MA, where Melville lived for a good portion of his life and also where he wrote Moby-Dick (or The Whale), a novel central to the American canon and which few modern readers seem to be able to plow through.  During the tour of Arrowhead, our group was allowed entry into Melville’s study, which gazes out upon the whalelike Mount Greylock and wherein rest plenty of items from his novelist days, including his impossibly tiny bifocals and the chair he sat in while writing Moby-Dick.  As the hammy, college-aged tour guide sifted through his required talking points, I shut my eyes and tried to absorb everything in the room, the essence of Melville himself, even imagining a conversation between myself and the author.  I cannot remember exactly what we chatted about.

The newest attempt to capture the novel in film form is the non-hyphenated Moby Dick, a film split into two parts as a television miniseries.  The screenplay is adapted by English playwright Nigel Williams, who was Emmy-nominated for his similar treatment of Elizabeth I.  The film stars Charlie Cox (of Stardust and Boardwalk Empire fame) as Ishmael, the protagonist and narrator, who in the novel is a social outcast, former schoolteacher, and something of a philosopher, who goes to sea due to an unbearable feeling of alienation from human society.  Williams’ screenplay portrays Ishmael as an idealistic adventurer whose past is never really explored, and seeks employment on a whaling ship for the sake of seeing the world.  Ahab, an unplayable role as Herman Melville originally wrote it (and mistakenly billed as the “lead” in every film version), is taken up here by William Hurt, who portrays the monomaniacal captain in the way we might think of crazy people today, not so much in the 1840’s (and Ahab was anything but a typical “crazy person”).  Ethan Hawke, who has plenty of experience with period pieces, plays Starbuck, the Pequod’s first mate, for all intents and purposes the deuteragonist of the story, and the only crew member who stands against Ahab’s vengeful pursuit of the White Whale from the very beginning (and who also happened to have an overpriced coffee chain/hipster hangout inexplicably named after him).  Eddie Marsan appears as Stubb, the second mate, whose patter-like, Shakespearean passages decorate the novel, but who appears as something of a generic, brutish sailor in the film; his happy-go-lucky personality is nowhere to be seen.  Raoul Trujillo fills out the main cast as Queequeg, a cannibal from the fictional South Seas island of Kokovoko, who becomes Ishmael’s best friend early in the story.  The iconic scene in which Ishmael watches Queequeg’s religious ritual from under the covers of the hotel bed is preserved in this film, albeit a bit rushed.

The story, of course, follows Ishmael as he ships onboard the Pequod (out of Nantucket) in order to learn the honorable whaling trade while simultaneously escaping the pressures of his shore life.  The journey is to last three years, and after he befriends Queequeg at a New Bedford inn, the duo board the vessel together.  As they make their way to the ship and sign their names on the roster, they are repeatedly hassled by a beggar named Elijah (played in the film by Billy Boyd), who hints at difficult times to come on the Pequod.  After Ishmael relates the terms of his contract, Elijah asks, “Anything down there about your souls?…Oh, perhaps you hav’n’t got any…No matter though, I know many chaps that hav’n’t got any — good luck to ’em; and they are all the better off for it. A soul’s a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon.”  Once onboard, Ishmael meets the crew, including Starbuck, Stubb, and third mate Flask (Matthew Lemche), along with the other harpooneers, Daggoo (Onyekachi Ejim), a towering African man, and Tashtego (Billy Merasty), a Wampanoag tribesman from Massachusetts.  Queequeg serves as the harpooneer on Starbuck’s boat (changed to Stubb’s in the film) while Ishmael serves as an oarsman for the same (in the film, he doubles as watch onboard the ship).  When Captain Ahab finally shows himself, he reveals his true purpose: not simply to hunt whales for oil and profit, but to hunt down Moby Dick, a nearly pure white sperm whale, who took Ahab’s leg during his most recent voyage.  Ahab is bent on revenge on the animal, which he anthropomorphizes as being ruthless and evil, and nails a gold doubloon (a Spanish sixteen-dollar piece) to one of the ship’s masts as incentive to any sailor who can “raise” Moby Dick.  Everyone onboard is taken by Ahab’s charisma and desire for the doubloon, and much of the novel explores human nature through individual characters’ ruminations on the doubloon, on Ahab’s madness, and on Moby Dick himself: what he ultimately symbolizes (whiteness, fate, the ocean, nature, God, the universe) remains utterly inscrutable even in the end, and lengthy chapters are devoted to Ishmael’s (and others’) philosophical musings.

The film, though, while focusing more on the human drama than the action, takes a decidedly realistic approach and does away with most of the mysticism (which, while providing an emotional experience with well-performed characters, does not tell the same story).  The most jarring changes occur near the beginning: the opening of the film features Ishmael rescuing Pip (Daniel Gordon), a young black boy, from a beating, and taking him along to Nantucket to find his own way.  In the novel, Ishmael does not meet Pip until encountering him as the cabin boy onboard the Pequod (and Pip’s later experience stranded in the ocean before Ishmael rescues him is vital to the story’s careful foreshadowing, and even Ishmael realizes this in the text).  The rescue scene works for the drama the film seeks to employ, simultaneously providing action and characterization (Ishmael’s compulsion to save a complete stranger indicates a strong moral compass) and also earns the line “Call me Ishmael,” the book’s opening line and one of the most recognized openings in Western literature.  Second, a new character is added: Elizabeth (Gillian Anderson), the wife of Ahab, who worries about her husband’s quest (though she doesn’t seem to know his ulterior motives) and entrusts Starbuck to protect him.  Additionally, while speaking to Elijah, she receives a much more pointed prophecy than Ishmael ever did: “[Ahab] will die, and he knows it.”  This reminds me of the 1956 Gregory Peck version, in which Elijah related that everyone on the voyage would die save one sailor.  Do modern filmmakers understand the difference between foreshadowing and simply telling the audience what’s going to happen?

In the novel, Ahab’s wife is only briefly mentioned near the end of the book (called a “girl-wife,” much younger than Ahab) when he acknowledges that he has not been a satisfactory husband to her, even going as far as calling her a widow, as he spends all of his time at sea.  The third major alteration is the omission of the character Fedallah – in the original story, Fedallah is a Persian harpooneer who is smuggled onboard the Pequod in Ahab’s personal cabin along with a Persian boat crew and assigned to Ahab’s boat.  As hinted by Ishmael seeing “dark figures” sneaking onto the ship in Nantucket, as well as the crew’s thoughts about Fedallah’s sinister influence upon Ahab, it is hinted that Fedallah may be the devil in disguise (this is very likely just the crew’s superstition, however).  Fedallah tells Ahab he can only die once he sees a hearse made of American wood floating in the sea, a prophecy given by Boyd’s Elijah in the film.  I understand the omission for the sake of time as well as the current Western stigma about “people in turbans,” but I think it’s worth noting that another scene is added, during which Steelkilt (James Gilbert) refuses to climb the mast with a black man (Daggoo), and Stubb reprimands him for being so weak-minded.  This scene, which seems straight out of a Mark Twain novel (and leads to a contrived side-conflict between the two white sailors), illustrates how comfy we are with portrayals of white-on-black racism in films meant to portray Old Times.  “How quaint,” we seem to think, but racist attitudes are still largely present the media, and a big part of the reason is that we just won’t stop talking about it.

To the film’s detriment is the overuse of low-quality CG.  Moby Dick himself only appears at the very end of the novel (in three short chapters), and in the film we get the sense that he’s nearby the Pequod throughout the entire film, almost stalking the crew in a way, while the novel makes a very large point of driving in the fact (especially at the end) that Moby Dick is only a whale, a dumb animal who, while aggressive and dangerous, does not purposefully hunt humans; he actually runs away when the Pequod attacks, and destroys so many whaling vessels and sailors only because they’re trying to kill him.  Recall Starbuck’s famous line:

“Moby Dick seeks thee not!  It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” (Melville, ch. 135)

The film explores these ideas, but due to the constant appearances of the Whale and some choices during the climactic battle, director Mike Barker’s intentions are not quite clear.  This presents a bit of a problem: who is right, Ahab or Starbuck?  We get the sense that Ahab is still insane and the lesson (at least the one about anthropomorphism) still applies here.  Consider the following passage from the novel, in which Ishmael delves beautifully into what he thinks Ahab’s reasons might be for his relentless pursuit of Moby Dick, and then tell me whether you think this translates onto William Hurt’s somewhat dubious portrayal of the mad sea captain:

“The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; — Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” (Melville, ch. 41)

The filmmakers do a nice job of inserting Ishmael into the action.  In the novel, he serves largely as a narrator and not much of a participant after he boards the Pequod, but as a character in a movie, he gets himself into plenty of trouble.  The screenwriters choose to have Ahab take Ishmael under his wing as a protege’, and his role in the action, particularly in the second half of the miniseries, takes precedent over his relationships with Pip and Queequeg (though the story of Queequeg’s illness and the building of the coffin/life-buoy is wonderfully done).

This film feels good.  It’s an epic adventure in the tradition of older movies, and staging a three-hour production almost entirely onboard the same ship is a monstrous task, which the entire production team handles very well here (and on a comparatively modest budget).  The sailors even sing real-life chantey songs while carrying out the ship’s brutal work.  I think, though, that there must be another Moby Dick adaptation in the future, one that attempts to capture not only the characters and story, but the all-but-extinct metaphoric narrative that Melville so masterfully crafted.

Moby Dick (2011); written by Nigel Williams; adapted from the novel by Herman Melville; directed by Mike Barker; starring Charlie Cox, William Hurt, and Ethan Hawke.