Why I Hate Moby Dick Film Adaptations

Gregory Peck as Ahab, 1956
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in the 1956 adaptation of Moby Dick

Moby Dick is my all-time favorite novel. There are several film adaptations out there, from the celebrated Gregory Peck version, to Patrick Stewart, William Hurt, and even Barry Bostwick. They all suck. I mean, sure: they might be perfectly good films in their own right, but without exception, every production completely misses every major salient point of the novel, thereby ruining the experience for super-fans such as myself. The films always seem to focus on the same plot line: a whaling captain obsessed with hunting down the sperm whale that bit off his leg, to the [SPOILER] detriment of his entire crew. But that’s not what the novel is about!

Let me set the stage. Many years ago – never mind how many, exactly – I was a college student at a little school in Massachusetts. I had signed up for a typical literature course, “The American Novel.” The catalog didn’t give a list of the books we’d be reading, so right up until the first day of class I was dreading the inevitable. I just knew we were going to have to read Moby Dick, and I was not looking forward to it. Let’s face it: for most American students, Moby Dick has a pretty bad reputation as a long, hard, slog of a read. And I’m not going to discount that! There are times when even I have a tough time reading the words off the pages without drifting away on some other mental tangent until I realize I had just blown through an entire chapter without remembering what the heck I had just read.

Anyhow, when the first day of class arrived, I quickly scanned the syllabus in fear and dread. Sure enough, there it was, right smack in the middle of the semester. I consigned myself to many hours of painfully boring, difficult reading [and re-reading]. But that didn’t end up being the case, and it was my professor who made all the difference. When we got to the Moby Dick section, she said to the class, “I know what you’re thinking, and I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. This is not the story of a vengeful sea captain’s hunt for his white whale.” She went on to explain. Moby Dick is the story of man’s relationship with God. It’s the story of man’s folly and arrogance, of betrayal and hatred, of rebellion and collaborators. And I don’t mean “man” in the generic sense of “mankind”; I mean that Melville highlighted the flaws of men, by juxtaposing their actions against the innate power, grace, and responsibility wielded by women. Commentaries and reviews abound lamenting the dearth of female characters in the novel – but not only was it done intentionally, the ones that do exist are role models of responsibility and proper social behavior that the men in the novel either strive unsuccessfully to achieve, or simply aren’t even aware of. And it’s all wrapped up in a tidy box presented by a narrator unworthy of either trust or respect. Oh, how I do love the ol’ unreliable narrator ploy!

Let’s hit that last point: one criticism I hear a lot is how there are these long, rambling tomes on one topic or another; in particular, there is one rather tedious section making the point that whales are not mammals, but fish. Most people roll their eyes and slog on through it as quickly as they can. But why is it there in the first place? Authors don’t write anything just for the heck of it; every word in a novel is there for a reason – so what does this section mean? If one assumes that people back then must not have had a particularly good grasp of cetacean biology, they’d be wrong. By the time Moby Dick was written in the mid-nineteenth century, everyone knew whales were mammals. This section is important because if you hadn’t picked up on the more subtle clues by then, this one should clobber you over the head. Ishmael is a blithering idiot. You can’t trust or believe a word he says! And what he does say is frequently wrong, controversial, or just plain dumb. He’s an arrogant excuse for a schoolteacher who likes to hear himself speak, peppering his narrative with references to classical literature, religion, and philosophy in order to satisfy his own inflated sense of intelligence. He’s not the noble yet sometimes-naïve hero the movies frequently make him out to be. Instead, he’s one of those annoying, idiot think-they-know-it-alls-but-really-don’t who you just want to slap across the face and shout, “Shut the hell up, moron!” He can’t even think for himself; instead he’s always falling in line with everyone else around him, even when he knows what they’re doing is wrong. He’s not someone to be admired by any stretch of the imagination. The movies always get that wrong.

The Patrick Stewart version portrays Ishmael as some sort of sailing newbie, but that also isn’t the case. In the novel, Ishmael waxes on about how every couple of years he begins to go a little stir crazy and must head out to sea to straighten out his head. He always signs up as a merchant sailor, since it’s better to get paid for a voyage than to purchase a ticket. He knows his way around a ship’s rigging – he’s just never hunted whales before. But I guess it makes for better visual drama to portray him as some wide-eyed newbie abused by the hardened sailors around him. Yuk.

Confession time: I didn’t watch all of the William Hurt version of the movie. I couldn’t get a half-hour into it before I had to switch it off. I just about died when the movie begins with Ishmael rescuing Pip, the Pequod’s cabin boy, from an apparent slave owner beating. No! Pip was on the Pequod long before Ishmael shows up. The book begins with Ishmael traveling from New York City (which he calls “your insular city of the Manhattoes” – this guy always sounds like Eugene from The Walking Dead) to New Bedford. I’m pretty sure there weren’t any Connecticut slave plantations at that time. And after that, the movie transitions to Ahab at home in Nantucket with his family, experiencing difficulty with his new prosthetic, and tenderly reflecting over a meal with his beloved wife and adored son. Starbuck comes to the door and Ahab kindly asks him to make sure the ship gets ready to sail. No, no, no! After losing his leg, Ahab retreats from everything in this world, including his own family. He becomes twisted and evil, and we are not supposed to feel any sympathy for him whatsoever. That scene was the nail in the coffin for me.

That brings me to Ahab. The movies almost always get him wrong. One must not have any sympathy for him. There is no nobility, nor a speck of goodness left within him. He’s not just some captain obsessed with killing a whale that dismasted him: he is at war with God. He has declared open rebellion against the Almighty, embraces Satan and paganism, and is knowingly hunting Moby Dick not because it took off his leg, but because it is “but a pasteboard mask” before the face of God, and he wishes to punch God right in the kisser, straight through that mask. Ahab secrets his own boat crew of pagan Zoroastrian sailors aboard the Pequod, and he takes council in the prophecies of the Parsee. He knowingly and willfully embraces those things which oppose his Christian God. In one of my favorite passages, he has the blacksmith forge a tough nail-iron custom harpoon for him to personally use against Moby Dick. Just as the smithy is about to temper the glowing hot barb in a bucket of cold water, Ahab snatches it away, has his three pagan harpooners (the Polynesian Queequeg, Native American Tashtego, and African Daggoo) fill a bowl with their pagan blood, in which he quashes the iron while howling deliriously, “Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!” That’s Latin for, “I baptize you not in the name of the father, but in the name of the devil!” Ahab knows what he’s doing, and he is pure evil. Any film portrayal of him having even a shred of decency rubs me the wrong way.

So why is Ahab so evil? The primary clue lies in the sermon of Father Mapple. To their credit, most movies seem to include that scene, which is good, but they don’t seem to understand its importance to the story. One version even make it seem as if this is how Ishmael introduces Queequeg to Christianity! In the scene, Father Mapple preaches the story of Jonah to his congregation. Jonah was a successful businessman, God called upon him to give it all up to preach the Gospel, but Jonah tried to shirk that duty and run away. God sent a whale to swallow him (presumably the very same Moby Dick), and Jonah repents while in the belly of the beast. He’s vomited upon the shore and then sets forth to do God’s bidding, as one should do when called upon by God. Father Mapple, like Ahab, was a successful whaling captain. He, too, was called upon by God, but unlike Jonah, Mapple heeded the call. It’s obvious it wasn’t easy for Mapple to let go of his old life, since his pulpit strongly reflected his sailing past, but he did. He obeyed the commands of God.

So why is this important? Like Father Mapple and Jonah before him, Ahab also must have been called by God to give up his life and preach the Word. But Ahab was a proud, strong man. Like Jonah, Ahab ignored the calling of God, and God again sent the whale to swallow him. Ahab, though, kills whales for a living, and he was not about to go quietly. He put up a tremendous fight, and in the end, Moby Dick was only able to take his leg. Did that cower Ahab into submission? Not one bit! Unlike Jonah, Ahab gave God the bird and doubled down on his hatred. That is where this story begins: with Ahab in open war, so full of pride that he cannot bend the knee to anyone, not even God himself. He knows he’s going down, but he is going to slap the face of the sun before he does. Where is any of that in the movies?

As for the criticism of the films being testosterone-driven action-flicks with no female cast to speak of, that’s not particularly true of the novel. First off, there are female characters in Moby Dick – and they are all successful, competent, and level-headed. There’s Mrs. Hussey who runs the inn in which Ishmael and Queequeg stay in Nantucket. She stays rational and relatively calm while Ishmael flies off the handle with worry that Queequeg might’ve committed suicide. There’s also Charity, the sister of Pequod part-owner Captain Bildad, who makes sure the Pequod is fully stocked with everything they might need, from food provisions, to religious pamphlets, to a night-cap for Stubb. These women are role models, while not a single male character can be thought of in that way.

As my professor was always keen to point out, there are many metaphors and allusions to birthing within the novel. My favorite is when Tashtego falls into the suspended head of a sperm whale, the rigging breaks, and the head begins to sink with Tashtego trapped inside. Queequeg dives into the ocean (nude) with a cutlass, slits the head open, reaches in, and pulls out Tashtego’s leg. Realizing the breech, he pushes it back in, twists Tashtego around, and pulls him through the slit head-first, thereby saving his shipmate. Ishmael even goes so far as to say, “Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing.”

Why is this all important? The women in the novel are successful and responsible. The male characters, however – they really don’t have many redeeming qualities. This is where the underlying tone of the book lies: women naturally pursue lives of meaning, consequence, responsibility and danger. They risk their lives giving birth, they raise the children, and spend their lives nurturing and caring for others. It’s women for whom the world turns. Men on the other hand, are like the drones of the beehive. Their whole existence revolves around impregnating the females; beyond that, men have to create their own danger, their own adventure, their own meaning – and no matter how hard they try, it’s always just a pale reflection of what women naturally do. The only other meaning a man can have in life is in the service of God – and that comes right back around to the depth of Ahab’s refusal and betrayal.

The novel itself just isn’t much of a traditional manly-man story in general. There are many passages with homoerotic undertones, starting with Queequeg’s loving embrace of Ishmael in the beds they repeatedly share. They’re even characterized as being a “cosy, loving pair.” In the chapter “A Squeeze of the Hand,” the sailors all gather around tubs of whale fat, reach in, and squish the nodules to release their oil. It becomes a bit of an affectionate endeavor as sailors begin to squeeze the hands around them and gaze sentimentally into each other’s eyes. Ishmael waxes poetically, “let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.” The movies tend to gloss over these details.

And one last detail that always drives me crazy: Ahab does not die lashed to the side of Moby Dick; the Parsee does, in accordance with his prophesies. Ahab himself, for all his bluster and posturing, dies a quick, quiet, and ignoble death. He doesn’t deserve some vainglorious and horrific ending that instills fear in the hearts of his crew. Instead, he is quickly and quietly yanked beneath the waves without a peep, barely noticed by anyone, never to be seen again. Ahab deserves the death of a traitor, not a hero.

So why do I hate all the movie adaptations of Moby Dick? Because they focus on the obsessive temper-tantrum of a whaling captain trying to kill a whale that had bitten off his leg. That’s not the story! I want a movie version that focuses on the relationship of Ishmael and Queequeg. I want a story that doesn’t show Ishmael in a flattering light, but as the annoyingly pretentious nineteenth-century intellectual hipster that he is. I want a screenplay that relishes in the depravity and evil that is Ahab – one that surfaces all his hatred, rot, and bigotry, and highlights his furious and deliberate rebellion against God. I want a movie that gets the characters straight and shows them the way Melville intended: as highly flawed and wayward soles, lost at sea, fruitlessly searching for a little meaning in their pointless lives. Regarding Moby Dick, Melville wrote to his buddy, Nathaniel Hawthorne: “I have written a wicked book.” I want to see a film adaptation that’s worthy of his hellfire-broiled masterpiece.