* CONTAINS SPOILERS
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville was published in 1851 and is considered one of the Great American Novels. The story is narrated by Ishmael, a sailor seeking adventure on a whaling ship commanded by the mysterious Captain Ahab. The famous premise of the story is Captain Ahab’s raging obsession with finding and killing Moby Dick, a white sperm whale that bit off his leg. Captain Ahab’s need for revenge is so all-consuming; he threatens to take his ship’s crew to the brink of destruction. (From my introduction post for the Moby-Dick 2013 read-a-long)
The producers of this TV series make a point of saying this is a “reimagining” of Melville’s famous book. Moby-Dick is so unique, I can only imagine the herculean feat of trying to adapt it for television. The hunt for the white whale is an interesting story in and of itself and this is what the producers focus on instead of recreating the book. Keeping it simple seems like a good strategy to me!
Moby-Dick will certainly get your attention for the number of famous actors in the series: William Hurt (Ahab), Ethan Hawke (Starbuck), Gillian Anderson (Elizabeth Ahab), Charlie Cox (Ishmael), Donald Sutherland (Father Mapple), Eddie Marsan (Stubb). With such high caliber talent, most of the acting is good. Unfortunately, the actors are limited by the script which is a little mediocre. Some characters like Flask are practically invisible and others like Pip given more prominence.
William Hurt as Ahab is definitely the star of the show. In this series, the writers try to humanize the captain by giving us a glimpse of his domestic life on land with his wife and child. But once on board the Pequod, Ahab starts foaming at the mouth to get to Moby Dick and we see his signature restless, moody behavior emerge. Hurt plays Ahab as both a wise father-figure and the stereotypical, crusty sea captain. I accepted his softer version of Ahab at first because there are some great scenes with Starbuck, Ishmael and Pip, but then his episodes of madness felt too unnatural. A good performance, but I think I would like to see more crazy in Ahab.
Is it just me or was Ethan Hawke born to play classic book roles? And he practically has the same hair in Moby-Dick as he did in Reality Bites! I was very happy to see writers give Starbuck a substantial presence in this series because I always wanted to see more of the character in the book. Hawke is good in the scenes where Starbuck struggles with following Ahab’s orders, including one notable conversation with Stubb that is not in the book.
Charlie Cox (whom you may have seen on Downton Abbey as the Duke of Crowborough) plays the young Ishmael. In the series, this Ishmael becomes Ahab’s pet and even has a close encounter with the white whale giving Ahab even more reason to bond with him. I missed the clever and funny narrator from the book finding Cox’s version a doe-eyed dimwit. Of course, his companion on this journey is Queequeg, the native harpoonist played by Raoul Trujillo. Now he was much more fun to watch with Trujillo showcasing all of Queequeg’s quirky exoticness.
A controversial divergence is the inclusion of Ahab’s wife, Elizabeth, a character who doesn’t exist in Melville’s book. Played by Gillian Anderson, I was surprised by how many scenes there are with Elizabeth, some which probably could have been left out without affecting the story. Again, I think the writers wanted to emphasize that Ahab had a fairly nice life away from the sea and he sacrificed it all to satisfy his vendetta against Moby Dick.
Although it wasn’t a big deal for me, I read some complaints by viewers who thought the scenes of Moby Dick menacingly cruising through the water was too much like the shark in the movie, Jaws. I was too distracted giggling at some of the whale special effects to make this comparison. However, I believe Moby-Dick did inspire the script for Jaws, so maybe this was an intentional shout-out.
The biggest controversy for me and a major divergence from Melville’s book was when Ishmael and Queequeg decide to side with Ahab against Starbuck and Stubb when they discover the two shipmates are planning to relieve the captain from duty. It didn’t sit well with me right away and it felt like I had a lump of stale bagel sitting in my stomach during these scenes. Of course, Ishmael and Queequeg discover Ahab is crazy but then it’s too late!
The producers of Moby-Dick succeed in making Melville’s classic story accessible to a general audience. It was definitely a treat to watch such a wonderful group of actors bring the book to life. Filmed in Nova Scotia, Canada (a place dear to my heart), the scenes of the ship on the water are breathtaking. It’s missing the countless themes that made the book so thought-provoking and some of the changes are distressing, but overall I was satisfied with Moby-Dick as an entertaining sea adventure.
And maybe that’s all my brain could handle after reading Moby-Dick the book.