A few nights ago, I discovered that Encore’s recent two-part mini-series adaptation of Moby-Dick (IMDB page) was available on demand. Starring Ethan Hawke as Starbuck and William Hurt as Ahab with appearances by Donald Sutherland and Gillian Anderson, the show was fairly star-studded and not badly cast at all. I thought Hurt as Ahab was credible, though I think the part was misdirected. I’m not alone in thinking the show portrayed Ahab as rather more like the Buddy Jesus version of Ahab than what die-hard fans of the novel will really be on board with, but I do believe that with better direction and writing, Hurt could have pulled off a great Ahab. Southerland as Father Mapple was a bit of a joke, and the foregrounding (briefly) of Ahab’s wife rubbed me the wrong way, but it was nice to see Scully again. Hawke played Starbuck admirably, and Billy Boyd played a solid Ishmael. Second Mate Stubb I liked, but Flask was neither stout nor rowdy enough for my taste. All in all, I was pleased with the casting and acting.
The plot itself diverged rather drastically from the novel (predictably, I suppose). Steelkilt, who has an important thematic role in the novel but is by no means part of the main story, has a major role in the film. I guess that a movie adaptation of the novel does need someone to step up and speak out against Ahab more vocally than Starbuck is permitted by his station to do, and the introduction of Steelkilt for that purpose is actually fairly ingenius. The purist in me hates the move, but the pragmatist can see why the filmmakers brought Steelkilt to the screen.
The writers screwed rather a lot with the sequence of events in the original. In the film, the white whale attacks when the boats first lower for another whale, and I thought that sapped a lot of suspense from the movie. On the other hand, I suppose the writers felt as if they needed to let us know very early on that Moby-Dick was a real threat. (But doesn’t anybody who’d be inclined to watch such a movie have at least an inkling that there’s a great white whale and a catastrophe?) I don’t object at all to the idea that Moby-Dick might have been lurking about, and in fact I even sort of liked the notion that Ahab and the whale had a real sense of each other’s proximity, but I think the attack should have been put off and the suspense drawn out. Other plot divergences such as the omission of Fedallah and crew struck me as being in good service to the film without detracting from any sense of fidelity to the original.
Ishmael becomes a bit too important in this version of the tale. Ahab confides in him one time, trounces him another, and he’s generally just too present within the story. Of course the novel has a number of problems with point of view, in that it’s a first-person narrative in which many events occur that would not have been accessible by the narrator (e.g. private moments between Ahab and Starbuck). But these are problems of the novel and need not be dealt with by the movie, which naturally has its own omnipresent point of view. I suppose the writers felt a need to make more of a protagonist of Ishmael so that his escape at the end seemed somehow justified by his importance within the rest of the movie, but again the purist in me found it distracting and unnecessary.
Probably my favorite moments in the film occurred once the harpooners had sunk a dart in a whale and were being pulled along behind. Melville describes the peril of such moments in great detail in the novel, and I think this film does the moments justice. It was great fun to watch. I also enjoyed some of the visual depictions of life aboard a whaler — such as cutting up blubber, etc. — and found myself wishing there were more of these moments. I wish we had seen a better representation of the try pots, which Melville describes thoroughly and with great, appropriately hellish effect.
I did enjoy the movie, which had a budget of 25 million bucks and was on the whole a nicely put-together piece (the costumes, the staging, the special effects) as TV movies go. I think it’s a better adaptation than the one of a few years ago starring Patrick Stewart. It’s been long enough since I’ve seen the Gregory Peck version that I can’t really compare the two, but I suspect this version of the story is more vivid and engaging, the former probably truer to the original and a little less silly on the Ahab front. If you’ve got three hours handy and are of a mind to watch a version of the Moby-Dick story that differs significantly from the novel but has plenty of merits of its own, give it a watch. You can read a couple of other reviews here and here.