About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, July 8, 2011

2010 Moby Dick: Or,The Whale in The Movies

Call me...a guy who can't come up with a good Ishmael pun.

As it says in my profile up top, Moby Dick by Herman Melville is one of my all time favourite books. It is a dense novel that may seem daunting at first but, trust me, it is an extremely rewarding experience in the end. 

There is something about Melville's themes of obsession and morality (among other things) and his brilliant glimpses into a world that is now long gone that have had a way of staying with me over the years.

I have visited New Bedford, Massachusetts, the setting of the early parts of the novel, Melville's one time residence and the 19th century whaling capitol of the U.S. I have seen the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Seaman's Bethel, a chapel Melville attended regularly and that is described in detail in Moby Dick.  I have been to these places not once but twice.

Some years ago, never mind how long precisely....well, okay, okay, it was 1991. I had just finished reading the book for the first time. I noticed that one its settings was not too far away and decided to go. I stuffed a shirt or two into my old carpet-bag, tucked it under my arm and started for I-89 and the I-93.  Quitting the good city of Montreal, I duly arrived in New Bedford.

Coming soon to the back of a book jacket near you.

The owner of the Bed and Breakfast I stayed at asked me why I wanted to visit his city. I replied, "I'm sure you hear this all time but I came here because I read Moby Dick". I was stunned when he answered, "No, I do not hear that all the time. In all the years I've been running this place, you are the first person to ever say that.".  

Well, at least I didn't get "Huh? Read Moby what?" as an answer. He did hastened to add that, "Nobody reads anymore".

However, people do still watch plenty of movies.

Aside from being a literary classic, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick also has all the makings of a great adventure movie. A brooding obsessed Captain, A bunch of guys on boats throwing harpoons around on the tumultuous high seas and a great big white monster as the villain of the piece. In Hollywood parlance: it practically writes itself. Just don't mention that to Melville.

The immortal tale of Captain Ahab, and his quest to track down and kill the great white whale that maimed him, has seen many screen adaptations.

The first Moby Dick film adaptation turned up in 1926. As was often the case with silent era literary adaptations, the film was only very loosely based on Melville’s novel.  For this film, Moby Dick was retitled The Sea Beast. 

Captain Ahab was played by John Barrymore (of the famous American acting clan that also gave us Lionel, John jr and Drew). In this version, Ahab has a fiancée and an evil brother. Yikes! I shudder to think of what horrors the "evil twin" of an already unstable guy like Ahab might be capable of.

The Sea Beast was remade in 1930 under the novel's original title. In this variation on Moby Dick, Barrymore reprises the role of Ahab, who slays the great while whale and returns home to his waiting fiancée. Ah, Hollywood.

The actor must have done serious reading between the lines to come up with this unique take on the world's most infamous whaling captain. Take a look...

In 1956 (105 years after the initial publication of Melville's novel) legendary film maker John Huston made his version of Moby Dick. It starred Gregory Peck as Ahab and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’s Richard Basehart as Ishmael.  

Ray Bradbuy adapted Melville’s novel for the screen. As the story goes, Bradbury and the allegedly bullying Huston did not exactly hit if off. Huston apparently used little of Bradbury's contributions in the final film.

Huston's adaptation is often thought of as the classic (if somewhat dated and simplistic) film version of Moby Dick . For more than a generation, Peck’s Ahab was the frame of reference in the popular consciousness for the character(much the same way that everyone thought of James Mason, in Disney’s 1954 adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, as the definitive version of Captain Nemo).  

Sadly, for such an iconic role, Peck is miscast. He chooses to play Ahab as a man who has descended into insanity because of the loss of his leg to a whale. Such an interpretation is a tad facile. The whale is the trigger of Ahab's psychosis, not the definition of it.

Huston had originally cast the appropriately borderline insane Orson Welles as Ahab. Peck was to have had a much smaller part in the film, playing the pastor of the Seaman's Bethel, Father Mapple. Reportedly under pressure from the studio, Huston reversed the casting, leaving Welles to play Father Mapple and Peck (the much bigger box office draw at the time) to play Ahab.

Far from being a definitive take on Melville, the 1956 Moby Dick is more of a sample of the book than a faithful adaptation. Due to the nature of the medium of cinema, Huston chose to focus on the more visually oriented aspects of Ahab's adventurous quest. The look of the ships, the seas, the costumes, the period whalers and the white whale itself (though limited by the special effects capabilities of the day) are the aspects of the film that stand out the most.

Huston is also a tad more heavy handed than the novel when it comes to religious symbolism and allegory. 

In 1978, director Paul Stanley made a film version of a one-man play of Moby Dick.  It featured actor Jack Aranson playing Captain Ahab and just about everybody else in the book.  Though I am still in the process of seeking this film out and have not yet seen it, it is, according to many Melvellians, the very best screen adaptation of Moby Dick.

The great Ricardo Montalban played a Melville-quoting Ahab  (of sorts) in the second Star Trek movie

In 1998, Patrick Stewart took on the role of a Captain that was somewhat different from Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Stewart played Ahab in a TV miniseries adaptation.

Unlike Peck, Stewart is extremely well cast as the notorious Captain. His take on the character is a perfect and emotionally grounded mix of madness and nobility. This time around, Peck returns to the role John Huston first cast him in 42 years earlier, Father Mapple.

This Moby Dick takes full advantage of the TV minseries format. Much more of the book is depicted on screen. Overall, the miniseries is much more faithful to the novel than any other screen adaptation I have ever come across. Overall, a beautifully designed and compelling take on the book.

The producers of the late 90's TV version seemed to have had a penchant for casting out of the Sci-Fi genre. In addtion to Star Trek and X-Men franchises veteran Stewart, Henry Thomas (otherwise known as the kid from E.T.) plays Ismael. Perhaps they were motivated by the fact that the great white whale in this miniseries is mainly a product of that favorite Sci-Fi movie effect of then and now:CGI.

There is another TV miniseries version of Moby Dick. The upcoming adaptation will star William Hurt at the legendary obsessed one-legged captain and Ethan Hawke as coffee-chain-and-Battlestar-Galactica-character-name inspiring first officer, Starbuck. 

The Google search consensus seems to be that no one is sure exactly where and when this new TV miniseries will hit the airwaves. Nonetheless, I, for one, am very curious to see Hurt's Ahab.

Taking into consideration the 1926 and 1930 adaptations, the addition of Gillian Anderson to the cast as Ahab's wife, Elizabeth, is cause for some concern. That and isn't Anderson just a tad young for a guy Hurt's age? I mean I know it's 1851 and all but still...

Ahab's wife is referred to in the novel but she is never seen nor even named. I'm going to give the producers the benefit of the doubt and say that her presence in this adaptation was inspired by Sena J. Naslund's 1999 Melville-based novel, Ahab's Wife :Or, The Star Gazer. I expect a film version starring Anderson by 2013.

Quint from Jaws: a character that owes everything to Moby Dick

Some weeks ago, never mind how long precisely, I was innocently wandering the shelves of my neighbourhood anachronism known as the local video store when I came across this...

The last DVD I ever rented at my local Blockbuster

The 1960's Hanna-Barbera produced Saturday morning cartoon version aside, 2010: Moby Dick has got to be the most audaciously low brow adaptation of Melville ever attempted.

2010: Moby Dick, is a direct-to-DVD movie produced by Asylum, the studio responsible sensationalistic fare like Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus. Captain Ahab trades in his whaling ship for a 21st century nuclear submarine. Moby Dick has been upgraded from sperm whale to super gigantic prehistoric white whale. I wish I were kidding.

Ahab is played by Barry Bostwick.  The guy from Spin City and The Rocky Horror Picture Show is, of course, a perfect casting for the role of one of the most iconic literary figures of all time.

Asylum’s choice of source material for a CGI monster movie is perplexing at best. Melville purists would no doubt be outraged that such cheesy schlock is even coming within ten feet of Moby Dick.  Asylum could have made any low rent creature movie without dragging Melville into it. Surely Killer Whale-o-Saurus vs. Giant Super Sub would grab much more attention in the Netflix catalog. 

Oddly, Paul Bale’s screenplay displays an unexpected reverence towards Melville.  There are curious uses of lines or variations on lines from the novel.  When the Ishmael character, Dr. Michelle Herman (played by Renee O’Connor, Xena: Warrior Princess), is introduced, the famous first line of the book, “Call me Ishmael” becomes, “Call me Michelle”.   Ahab has lines like,"I'd strike the sun if it insulted me!", "Oh he's not a whale, he's the devil himself!" and " He tasks me! That whale, he tasks me!". My personal favourite is "He took my leg. I don't intend to give him my ass." Melville sure wrote some very contemporary sounding dialogue, didn't he?

There is even a reference to Typee, one of Melville's earlier novels. Um...who exactly is the target audience for this movie again?

Bostwick’s performance too is unexpectedly compelling. Entire scenes are transformed whenever Bostwick’s Ahab enters the frame. The presence of a theatrical Shakespearean character with an over-the-top gravitas suddenly juxtaposed with B-movie acting is like watching a Youtube mashup of Plan 9 From Outer Space and King Lear

The death of Ahab during the movie’s horribly contrived climax is, oddly, very close to the character’s death in the novel. However, if there are attempts to nuke the great white whale in Melville, those pages must be missing from all but a few editions.

Once you get past Bostwik’s Ahab and the somewhat clever Melville references, you are pretty much just left with yet another mediocre B-grade giant sea creature attacks movie. Still 2010: Moby Dick does manage to create a bad-accident-on-the-highway-like fascination towards the whole endeavour.  

Almost all of the film adaptations of Moby Dick have one thing in common. They each in their own way take a novel that is filled with complex characterizations, religious overtones, moral debates, historical insight, socio-cultural melanges and comprehensive 19th century cetology and break its narrative down its most basic action adventure quest elements. 2010: Moby Dick is simply the most extreme example of the process.

The movie also opens up the possibilities of more Asylum adaptations of other Herman Melville classics. How about Bartelby:The Curse of the Zombie Scrivener? Or perhaps Billy Budd vs. Predator?

We can only hope.

See ya 'round perdition's flame everybody!

Blogs on The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo to follow...

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