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2 Moby 2 Dick - Moby Dick (1956)

April 15, 2024

James and I recently watched the 1956 film Moby Dick, directed by John Huston and starring Gregory Peck.  (By sheer coincidence and unbeknownst to us, we watched it on Gregory Peck's birthday). 

So, in the spirit of my dive into multiple versions of Dracula, here's the sequel to my original Moby Dick blog/essay, discussing the 1956 movie.

I was going to also include a look at the 2017 graphic novel by Christophe Chaboute, but then this part spiraled out of control, and then that one did too, so now I'm going to save the graphic novel for Part 3.

Moby Dick (1956)

As should be obvious from my Dracula stuff, I'm fascinated by adaptations.  


I can see this book being a challenge to adapt into film. It's a very long, densely written novel with lots of philosophical digressions and a plot where really not that much happens, and the most memorable character, Ahab, by design has no character arc. It's divided into what I called "philosophical chapters" and "narrative chapters," with the fairly simple plot happening in the latter.  It's about a lot of things and a lot of ideas.  And whales.  Just a shit ton about whales. 


So I wasn't sure what to expect, but when I saw in the opening credits that the screenplay was by Ray Bradbury, I started to get optimistic.  And honestly...I think this movie is pretty good, both as a movie and as an adaptation.  It focused on a few threads from the book, making really good adaptational changes in support.  Surprise, surprise, Bradbury is a good writer.  Also, it looks pretty good and the acting was compelling.


I'd say this is a worthy substitute for the book if you're interested in the classic tale but aren't feeling up for tackling the novel. 


Language and Dialogue


The thing that immediately jumped out at me was how much of the movie's dialogue was either word for word or slightly paraphrased from the novel.  The elevated language in the book, especially from Ahab, was occasionally "turned down" a bit in the film, but it was still recognizably of the same stuff and if I hadn't read the novel so recently I probably wouldn't have noticed that it had been changed at all.


The paring down and subtle simplifications were well done and helped the language seem more natural when spoken.  As I mentioned briefly in my comic book piece, films and novels have a different suspension of disbelief when it comes to characters talking; you can get away with dialogue in a book that would seem weird and stilted when being spoken in a naturalistic setting by actual humans.  Which is good for a novel like Moby Dick, which self-consciously has characters stop for Shakespearean soliloquies as almost an experiment in medium.


Take this example from Ahab's brief moment of lucidity just prior to the final confrontation with Moby Dick:


Book, Chapter 132: 

What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?



What nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing commands me against all human lovings and longings to keep pushing and crowding and jamming myself on all the time making me do what in my own natural heart I dare not dream of doing?


Or this one, when Starbuck is confronting Ahab about the purpose of their cruise:


Book, Chapter 36:

Starbuck: How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market.


Ahab: Nantucket market! Hoot! But come closer, Starbuck; thou requirest a little lower layer. If money’s to be the measurer, man, and the accountants have computed their great counting house the globe, by girdling it with guineas, one to every three parts of an inch; then, let me tell thee, that my vengeance will fetch a great premium HERE!



Starbuck: How many barrels of sperm oil will thy vengeance yield? What will it fetch on the New Bedford market? 


Ahab: Money is not the measurer, man. It will fetch me a great premium... here.


Both of these examples are good edits for the film; they excise some of the complexity without changing the character of the words.  I would imagine this is a tough line to walk and that it's really easy to over-tune the dialogue, making it "efficient" in all the worst ways.


(Also, the second example reveals some good attention to detail; Bradbury simplified the beginning of the story and had The Pequod depart from New Bedford, rather than having Ishmael start in New Bedford, then make his way to Nantucket to depart on the ship.  So in the film, all the crew's references to the home base of Nantucket were changed to New Bedford.  This would have been really easy to forget to do, especially with so much of the text coming from the novel.)


Additionally, there are several speeches that aren't from the book, but sound like they could be, to the point where I thought for sure they were until I went back and checked.  Like this part of Ahab's speech when he makes his crew pledge to kill Moby Dick:


What say ye, all ye men? Will you give as much blood as shall be needed to temper the steel? To my anger, now add your own. You be the cogs that fit my wheel the gunpowder that takes my torch. Pledge yourselves heart, soul, body, life and lung as I pledge myself. 


(Additionally, that example has a trick that Bradbury uses a few times, which is to interpolate a line from a different part of the book.  The phrase "heart, soul, body, life and lung" in regard to a pledge is said by Ahab really late in the novel.  These are all over the place; it's really pretty clever adaptational economy.)

Another deft adaptational choice was to shuffle some of the stuff said by Ishmael in the "philosophical chapters" into the mouths of other characters during the narrative in the film.  For example, the legends about all the specific infamous whales and Moby Dick himself, told directly to the reader by Ishmael in Chapters 41 and 45, are given to the Manxman in the film.  


The film did have some bits of Ishmael, in voiceover, backfilling some information but most of the exposition was shifted into the actual narrative and said by the characters.  


As I mentioned in Part 1, a lot of the character dialogue in the novel was described in summary by Ishmael.  You don't get very much "I said this" "He replied that" type detail in the book.  The dialogue created to flesh out these scenes was done well, and not noticeably invented for the film.


Adaptational Changes 


Overall, the plot has been simplified a bit, like in the above example about cutting Nantucket out of the beginning.  There's also far fewer encounters with other ships and the montage showing the various whale hunts condenses several discrete book encounters. 


In another good simplification, Ahab's secret whale hunting crew, headed by the sinisterly framed Fedlallah, is cut entirely from the film, though some of their material is shuffled around to other characters, the most obvious being a striking image used at the very end.  (More on that later).

The film also makes some great additions and a does a wise restructuring of the final third or so.

"I know that it's high time to get to sea again." - The beginning


They really speed through the opening, in New Bedford, which is probably a good move. The individual scenes were more impactful in the book because they had more room to breathe, but they also don't really matter plot wise, so I think it was, on balance, a good trade off.  The movie just doesn't have the time, and the medium of film doesn't easily lend itself to laying out some of the more atmospheric and philosophical questions in the novel.  


(I still submit, especially if you aren't going to maintain the weighty ominousness of the New Bedford scenes in the book, you probably could just jettison them entirely and start on the Pequod.)


Something that I think is emblematic of the fall-out from the decision to "get on with it" at the beginning is the painting at the Spouter Inn.  In the novel it's this unsettling thing of weird  incomprehensible horror:


Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. ... But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. (Chapter 3)


The film nods in that direction, with Ishmael seeing a scary painting of a whale fighting some ships and later when talking to the sailors in the Inn, looks at it again and says, a little nervously, "Can whales do that?"  It's pretty good, in theory, but I think it suffers from the speed at which its handled.  It goes by so quickly you don't get a good look at the painting and his trepidation or awe doesn't really have time to make an impact.  This example is the film's opening in microcosm. 


One other interesting thing about the opening is how the film handles the friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg.  The movie actually has a "problem" in the opposite direction as the book.  The book really takes its time establishing how the two men grow close, which ends up being a little strange because their friendship has essentially no impact on the rest of the story.   The establishment of their friendship in the film has some of the same scenes, but feels a little perfunctory, like they were just included because they are in the source material.  But, Ishmael and Queequeg's friendship is used more in the back end of the film, for mostly thematic parallels, than the book.  (It's still not a lot, but it's more, and it's convincing.)  So in both versions it feels kind of unbalanced, given more weight than it should at the beginning of the novel, and less than it should at the beginning of the film.  


I wonder how it would all sit with someone not familiar with the book.  I could extrapolate what they were going for, as the scenes did serve as a good Cliffs Notes version of the beginning, but I don't know if it would feel too fast and unearned to someone going in cold.


I was a little surprised the filmmakers included so much of Father Mapple's sermon on Jonah from Chapter 9.  It was mostly right out of the book and had a similar intensity and ominousness, but given the brevity of the rest of the opening it was odd to see so much time spent on it.  Maybe it was because they managed to get Orson Welles to play Mapple?  I wasn't sorry to see it; it was a good and effective scene. 


A Painted Ship Upon a Painted Ocean - Becalmed


The standout scene addition to me is the Pequod getting becalmed after entering the waters where Ahab is convinced he'll find Moby Dick.  It's hard not to see a parallel to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where a crewman's decision to murder an albatross causes Nature to becalm them and threatens the whole ship with destruction.


The film, here, is really effective in conveying fatigue and hopelessness as the shirtless sailors bake under the tropical sun. And the repeated cuts between a close up of the gold coin Ahab nailed to the mast as a reward for the man who spots Moby Dick and a similarly framed shot of the merciless sun really emphasizes the connection between Ahab's mission and their plight.


And though I guess it's on the nose, I really liked the Manxman's line: Even the sun's nailed to the sky like that gold doubloon's nailed to the mast. 


In another literary allusion, one of the characters says "You, lad, pull that gold coin off the mast. Throw it over the side. Pay the sea a ransom. Maybe it'll come back to life and bring us a wind."  This is a pretty direct reference to the Book of Jonah, where the title character is thrown overboard to appease God and avert the storm that is about to sink the ship he's on.  Tying this in explicitly is really clever and more directly ties Father Mapple's sermon to the action of the story.


This sequence includes another excellent change regarding Queequeg's coffin, the thing that will end up saving Ishmael's life at the end of the story.  In the book, Queequeg comes down with a fever and, thinking he's about to die, he has the ship's carpenter carve him a coffin.  In the film, while they're becalmed, Queequeg is rolling the bones, and interprets the results as a portent of doom, and so he gets the carpenter to make his coffin, sure that he will soon be dead.  In the novel the coffin existing is due to a random sickness, in the film it's directly because of Ahab's obsession.  Having a plot critical thing which is also a piece of foreshadowing tied into actual character actions is an improvement.  


"From Hell's heart I stab at thee" - The ending


The ending has been shuffled around quite a bit, but I think it's all for the better, at least for this adaptation.  In the novel, Queequeg's coffin scene is followed by Ahab's blood "baptism" of the harpoons, followed by a typhoon, then the Pequod meeting the Rachel, where Ahab refuses to help the Rachel's captain find his missing son because the Rachel has recently spotted the white whale.  Ahab has his moment of calm reflection and then Moby Dick is sighted for the first time in the novel.  A three day chase ensues, with Moby Dick wrecking all the whaleboats each day, and finally sinking the Pequod and killing Ahab on day three.

The film endgame starts with the added becalmed sequence, which leads to Queequeg getting his coffin, and then Moby Dick is spotted for the first time.  Ahab has his boats futilely give chase.  After the wind finally picks back up, the Pequod meets the Rachel where, again, Ahab refuses to help because of how close they are to Moby Dick.  Ahab, now convinced he will soon find his prey, does the blood baptism, and then they are hit by the typhoon, almost like Nature is again conspiring to stop him.   Following the storm, Ahab has his calm moment and Moby Dick is sighted again shortly thereafter.

The causal chain here is stronger than in the novel and all ties back to Ahab.  They're becalmed because of his obsession with killing Moby Dick, which leads to Queequeg's coffin.  Moby Dick's sudden appearance re-ignites Ahab's madness just as he was about to relent and leave those waters.  The typhoon appearing where it does feels like a direct result of Ahab's rejection the Rachel's entreaty and the blasphemous blood baptism.  And having the storm arrive when they're so close to Moby Dick amplifies the insanity of Ahab obsession when he refuses to strike the sails and risks the entire ship, even threatening to kill Starbuck if he does not obey.  The brief encounter with the Delight is excised entirely, which I think was a smart and narratively economical choice. 

The final confrontation plays out slightly differently, and this is one spot where I think the adaptation maybe didn't make the best choice.   The final fight is only one confrontation, not three, which doesn't really matter, especially since it is not the first time the characters or audience is encountering the whale like it is in the novel.  The film manages to not have the novel's sense of anticlimax.  This is not a criticism of the novel; I think the fact that after all that chase Moby Dick wrecks them extremely easily really fits with the themes and ideas the book was going for.  But this film isn't the book and is focused on different aspects of the story, so making the battle more of a crescendo is a good thing for this version.  This isn't the part I think was a misstep.


What I think is odd is the decision to have Moby Dick kill Ahab first, and then having Starbuck, after seeing Ahab's dead body, lead a renewed attack on the whale, and then having Moby Dick destroy the boats and then sink the Pequod.


In the novel, Ahab's boat is the only one in the water, as everyone else is on the Pequod trying to repair their own boats, smashed the day before.  Moby Dick in his "retribution, swift vengeance, [and] eternal malice" strikes the Pequod before killing Ahab..   Then the Pequod sinks and Ahab's boat gets sucked into the whirlpool.  The book ends 4 paragraphs after Ahab dies.


In the film, Starbuck's motivation for renewing the attack, especially when he's been firmly Team Ahabs-Quest-Is-Insane-And-Bordeline-Blasphemy-Against-God-And-Nature was a little unclear.  Ahab's end is, after all, what he kind of thought was going to happen to all of them if they kept following the man.  Starbuck even almost organized a mutiny, which he didn't do in the novel.  So I'm not sure why the change of heart, especially since it seemed so personal.  He does have a line earlier about how Ahab has "snatched [the crew's] souls."  Is the implication that that is what happened to Starbuck too? If so, it wasn't really built to. 


A change to the ending I really liked was the image of Ahab's dead body entangled in all the rigging that is stuck to Moby Dick, literally tying him to the whale.  In the novel it's the body of Ahab's personal harpooner Fedlallah's, and the sight spurs on Ahab for his final attack.  Retaining this striking image using Ahab's body was a really great choice though, again, I'm not sure how to reconcile its effect on Starbuck.  I think it could have been a really cool final image of Moby Dick from the Pequod, like if right before the whale hits the ship, the sailors see Ahab one last time, both authors of their doom together at the end.

Things Lost, Things Retained, and Things Amplified


Not surprisingly since, as I said above, there's a lot of stuff in the novel, the movie has some differences in emphasis and framing.  It does manage to capture some of the comedy of the surprisingly funny novel.  Ishmael meeting Queequeg is played for laughs just like in the book, and is amusing, though it would have hit harder if they'd slowed the pacing down a bit.  Another small thing that was funnier in the film was Captain Bildad's off-hand acceptance of Ishmael onto the crew after he answers the two most softball questions ever.  I went back and checked and the dialogue is pretty close to the book but there I didn't notice it as a joke.  It was very funny in the film and an interesting example of how a line reading and framing can alter the effect of a text that is, on the page, exactly the same. 


Ishmael the narrator vs Ishmael the character.


One thing the film kind of struggles with that it inherits from the source material is Ishmael as a character.  There's a bifurcation in the novel of Ishmael the Narrator and Ishmael the Character.  Ishmael the Character basically vanishes after the Pequod goes to sea, but Ishmael the Narrator absolutely pervades the novel, though he's still absent for some of it, notably in the "stage play" sections.  The thematic and philosophical weight of the book is carried by Ishmael the Narrator, who is recounting the story after many years and much contemplation.  


The film doesn't have this bifurcation.  Character Ishmael is a little more present than he is in the novel but he still vanishes for long sections, and Narrator Ishmael is pure function, filling in some setup or plot stuff but not giving any, for lack of a better word, "analysis" the way book Ishmael did.  This is probably for the best, as persistent philosophizing in voiceover would not make for a compelling film.  Narrator Ishmael's voiceover in the film is not pervasive, being mostly at the beginning and at the brief epilogue.  This brevity de-emphasizes the "many years and much reflection" vibe of the novel and, despite the film's opening line about this happened some years ago, makes the narration feel more like a present tense narrator filling in the audience more or less contemporaneously with the action.  (Another example of how cinematic structure and emphasis can override a script.)  Essentially, in the film Character Ishmael and Narrator Ishmael are the same person and this makes his vanishing more noticeable.


Below Deck - Sublimated Themes


In Part 1, I used the term 'Pelagic Horror' to describe how Ishmael views the incomprehensible power of the sea, along with man's complete inability to reason with or stand against it.  The movie doesn't really have this aspect. This would, admittedly, have been pretty tough to do as neither Ishmael's contemplative narration nor the scene of Pip going mad as he gazes on the sea is present in the film so I appreciate that they didn't bother and just focused on the tragedy of Ahab.


Two other things I pointed out about the book, Ishmael's underlying nihilism and ambivalence toward whaling, are also not really present in the film, though the germ of the latter is very briefly planted.  Even more than the Pelagic Horror theme, in the novel these ideas are confined to Narrator Ishmael and so for the same reason would have been hard to capture. There's one moment in the film during the whaling montage where Ishmael gets a close look at the head of a dying whale and briefly looks distinctly troubled, whereas previously the hunts were portrayed as thrilling and perhaps even fun.  Nothing really comes of it, but it's kind of interesting to watch Ishmael maybe start down the path that will lead to the narrator he will become.  Ishmael Begins.


Prophecy and Omens


The film leans hard into fate, prophecy, and Ahab's "blasphemy" against God and/or Nature.   Starbuck articulates this several time in the film, saying things like "I do not fear Moby Dick, I fear the wrath of God" and saying of Ahab "He is twisting that which is holy into something dark and purposeless. He is a champion of darkness. Ahab's red flag challenges the heavens."  And as the becalmed and typhoon scenes show, the Pequod here feels more cursed for Ahab's obsession that it is in the book.


Portents and signs come up a lot in the film.  Elijah makes an explicit prediction of doom at the beginning in a way he doesn't in the novel and Queequeg glimpses disaster when he rolls the bones.  There's several cases of Ahab interpreting a pretty terrifying event as a positive omen, like him declaring that the typhoon's "winds are heaven sent!" to which Starbuck responds "Heaven sent to destroy us."  To the obsessed every sign is a good one, confirming their course, and every warning an impetus.  This is present in the book, and explicit during the final chase when Starbuck despairs to Ahab that "all good angels [are] mobbing thee with warnings," but not as pervasive as in the film.


A Gallimaufry of Observations


And here's some random stuff.I couldn't really fit anywhere above.


  • At the time of the film's release, the consensus seemed to be that Gregory Peck, at 40, was too young to play Ahab, an opinion he seems to have shared.  Honestly, I didn't mind it.  Having Ahab outwardly younger than you would expect has the effect of making it seem like he had been prematurely aged by his experience with the white whale.  (Though it seems like it wasn't a deliberate choice; allegedly the studio needed a bankable star before they'd make the film.  Also, given the attention to detail in the screenplay, if he was supposed to be Gregory Peck's actual age, Bradbury would likely have changed the line where Ahab says his first whale hunt was 40 years ago.)

  • I thought Peck captured Ahab as a volcano barely holding it together really well.  His ability to convey an Ahab that could sort of pretend to be a normal man and put up a facade of calmness was compelling.  Sort of like how Moby Dick's apparent calmness when they spot him was described being "but the vesture of tornadoes."  Peck had a similar intensity to the Ahab I pictured as I was reading the novel.

  • The scene where the Pequod meets the Rachel and Ahab refuses to help look for the Captain Gardiner's missing son was great.  It's shortened considerably from the novel and had this fantastic, and film only, exchange after Ahab's refusal:


Ahab:  Goodbye, I say, and fare thee well. God help you, Captain Gardiner! 

Gardiner: God forgive you, Captain Ahab.


  • The way the movie portrayed the birds swarming overhead just before they encounter Moby Dick for the first time was really chilling.  The sailors have lowered on a whale at night, with Ahab suspecting but not sure it's Moby Dick.  It dives with them too far away to see it clearly in the dark, and then the birds come.  The sound they make is really creepy as the movie begins cutting between the birds and the very unsettled crew.  The sequence has a coiled tension to it and lasts for a full minute and a half before Moby Dick breaches and they finally see him.  Maybe the birds are "all good angels mobbing thee with warnings" from the novel.

  • The first lines of the film are pulled almost word for word from the first paragraph of the novel, including the amazing "whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul," but the cinematography and score alters the tone.  The film doesn't have the depressive weight and almost dazed emptiness of Ishmael at the beginning of the novel.  He's shot slightly from below, walking down an idyllic countryside with a chipper rustic score and a spring in his step.  The exact same lines as the novel seem here more like a call to an adventure, rather than a coping mechanism for depression.  It's not necessarily better or worse, but it's another interesting example of the different tools film has, and how they can alter the meaning of a scene even without changing the language.

  • The whale stuff honestly looked pretty good, much better than I was anticipating.

  • There's a lot of dissolves in this movie, which is a little weird.  Maybe it was a more standard editing technique in the 50s?

  • Two good juxtapositions: I liked how when Ahab nails the gold doubloon to the mast, the shot is framed so the whale skull that is part of the ships decoration can be seen in the foreground.  I also like when Ahab is walking the deck while they are becalmed, you can hear the carpenter making Queequeg's coffin in the  background.




I was surprised at how much I liked this.  Highly recommend.

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