Film of the Book: Moby Dick

Directed by John Huston (1956)


From the book review:

Our narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.

See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

Having slated the book of Moby-Dick, it took me some time to work up the enthusiasm to watch the film despite knowing that it had a pretty good reputation. After all, lots of people unaccountably seem to think the book’s good too! I was cheered by a couple of things – the running time is only 1 hour 50 minutes, so clearly a lot of the extraneous digressions must have been cut – hurrah! And Huston wrote the screenplay along with Ray Bradbury who, unlike Melville, knew a thing or two about how to tell a good story.

The film starts off much like the book, with our narrator Ishmael arriving in the town of New Bedford to join a whaling ship. There he meets Queequeg the cannibal, a South Sea Islander. Imagine my surprise on discovering that this “dark-complexioned” man is played by a white actor! I couldn’t decide whether it would have been better or worse if they’d at least tried to make him look black-ish. But scuttling quickly away from that thorny issue towards another, I couldn’t help but note that the film had also omitted the YA instalove between Ishmael and Queequeg that led to (implied… or possibly just inferred) gay sex romps in the book – I can’t begin to express how happy I was at that decision! Melville’s obsession with hands squeezing blubber while fantasizing about squeezing other things has left me with emotional scars…

Friedrich von Ledebur as the quaintly coloured Queequeg
Friedrich von Ledebur as the quaintly coloured Queequeg

So it was obvious from an early stage that there were going to be significant differences between book and film. Huston did indeed strip out pretty much all of the digressions and a good deal of the philosophising, though I felt he and Bradbury had managed to condense the main points so that the film doesn’t lose too much of the depth. We still see Ahab’s obsession with getting his revenge, and Bradbury (I assume) creates some fairly sharply focused dialogue between Ahab and Starbuck that I felt actually made the whole religion/blasphemy point much clearer than Melville managed in the book. Plus, to my joy, Ahab mostly speaks in standard English rather than the cod-Shakespearian horrors employed by Melville. There’s still a bit of ye-ing rather than you-ing, but nothing too out of place for its 19th century context. The major difference is that the movie keeps the action going – Ahab appears within the first few minutes and it’s not long before the Pequod sails – unlike in the book, where I had nearly died of boredom before we even saw the ship. Then, boom! Ahab persuades the crew to take an oath to kill the Great White Whale, and the hunt is on!

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab and Leo Genn as Starbuck
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab and Leo Genn as Starbuck

On the whole, the acting is good, rather than excellent, but the action and drama made up for any weaknesses in performance. Gregory Peck is not at all my idea of Ahab, but once I got used to him I thought he does a fine job, at points when he does his raging speeches reminding me of Orson Welles. Which is a coincidence since Welles himself appears in a great, if oddly superfluous, cameo as the preacher giving a sermon before the voyage, thundering away about Jonah and the whale.

Orson Welles thundering...
Orson Welles thundering…

Despite his unlikeliness for the role, Friedrich von Ledebur as Queequeg stands out, as does Harry Andrews as Stubb. But really the success of the film is all down to Huston’s direction in the end. Not just the big action scenes, but little touches like the women standing in silence as the ship sets sail – where did he find those amazing faces? (In a small town in Ireland apparently.) With no words at all, he manages to create a real sense of the dangers of the voyage just from the worn and fatalistic expressions of these women watching their men sail out, perhaps never to return.

The special effects are great for the time, and the way Huston films it gives a real sense of the power of the sea and the constant peril to the sailors leaping about the dizzyingly high rigging of the fragile-looking ship. The scenes with the whales work brilliantly, though they can get a little gory for modern tastes (mine, at least), and when Moby Dick finally appears (after only an hour and a half, unlike in the book when it took roughly six weeks 😉 ) he is terrifying! The storm is fantastic, with Ahab ordering his men up the rigging in defiance of howling wind and lashing rain; and the birds hovering over the hunting scenes create a real atmosphere of wild menace – man against nature. And I loved the St Elmo’s Fire scene (or, as Melville would incomprehensibly put it, the corpusants scene).


I loved the way much of the film is in subdued tones of blue and grey and brown, almost as if it’s in black and white, giving extra dramatic effect to sudden flashes of bright colour – the blood of the whales, or the green of the St Elmo’s Fire. I’m going to admit that during the climactic finale, as Ahab and the whale fought their final battle to the death, the tears were pouring down my face as I frantically cheered Moby on!

In short, this is the story I hoped for when I read the book! No lack of narrative drive here! No long hours of tedium while Melville shows off his knowledge of whales, religion, Shakespeare and anything else he can think of. Extract the gem of the story from the dross, get a great scriptwriter to polish it, hire some decent actors, work a few miracles with effects, and hey presto! A magnificent film is born!

Thar she blows!
Thar she blows!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

So without the slightest hesitation I say: chuck out the book and watch the film instead!
I hereby declare…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…



* * * * *

59 thoughts on “Film of the Book: Moby Dick

  1. I shall definitely be going for the film rather than the book! A rare example of the written word being trumped by the silver screen. The whale in that last picture looks like an enormous German sausage. I would make a joke, but Monday morning is far too early in the week for sausage jokes 🙂

    • Yep, I think this is the first time the film has won outright. Hahaha! It’s never too early for sausage jokes! 😉 Gotta admit, slowing the thing down to shot by shot to pick up images did the special effects no favours – the whales look much more like… well, whales… when it’s running at the proper speed…

    • Aha! Yes, I can see that that would have helped. There’s some good stuff that’s been cut for the film, but mostly it’s all the tedious stuff, and the film is so much more focused. 🙂

  2. My goodness – now I can’t wait to see the film and then read the book, and I had no intention of doing either until I read this! It’s got to be both or neither: I feel the need to do justice to those many hours you spent ploughing through the book in order to watch the film in order to present us with this magnificent review…. 😀

  3. Trust Huston and Bradbury to tell a really good story, FictionFan! I’m really glad you were able to get the essence of the book Melville had, perhaps, intended. And that’s what a good film is supposed to do, in my humble opinion.

    • What a difference! I think this is the first time the film has won outright. Huston and Bradbury did a great job, and managed to keep the basics while turning it into a thrilling drama… 😀

  4. I’m inclined to agree with your supposition that the faces of these women were straight from some tiny Irish village, FF! As for this film, I never saw it. I struggled through the book, of course (need I say more?!?), but having read your review, I’m wondering why our teachers didn’t tell us to watch the film rather than wade through the book. Ah, education is grand, isn’t it? Glad you finally found a version so appealing!

    • According to wiki, they were – apparently it was partly filmed in an Irish village, and he just used some of the local women for the scene. Aren’t their faces so great? The film is definitely easier than the book and more enjoyable – actually I don’t know why they don’t get people to watch the film first in this instance – I reckon it would help a lot with understanding the book…

    • Nor me, and it wouldn’t have been one I’d have normally watched. So finally I’ve found a reason to be glad I read the book – because it encouraged me to watch the film! Which I’m even sure I’ll watch again… 🙂

  5. I’ve never seen the film, but courtesy of your review, I’ll make a point of it! Gregory Peck AND Harry Andrews…….. hm. 🙂

    • I think you’d love it – kinda like Die Hard on Sea! Only with whales instead of people with strange foreign accents… I didn’t know Harry Andrews, but I really liked him in this.

  6. I confess, I never saw the movie. But goodness, I might based on your review! I read the book long ago and wasn’t thrilled. But I did see In the Heart of the Sea which is about Melville’s inspiration for the book. That movie wasn’t particularly good, but Chris Hemsworth was a visual aspect that made up for some of the tedium. 😉 The cannibalization let a lot to be desired though. It ruined the taste of my popcorn!

    • Ah, I don’t know if it was you who mentioned it before but I’ve got In the Heart of the Sea sitting in my watchlist – must watch it, but not when I’m eating then! (My watchlist is taking on similar proportions to my TBR these days…) I’m all for sea adventures after this one – stirring stuff! I was truly expecting to hate it too…

  7. Wow so what you’re saying is even the most boring and tedious of tales can be transformed by talented filmmakers? Despite your superb review I still don’t think I’ll watch it but I’m very glad you enjoyed it quite so much!

  8. Thank you for making me smile and laugh while remembering some of those parts from the novel. I haven’t seen the movie – I think I was afraid it might put me to sleep – but I’ll have to give it a try now. I’m glad you cheered Moby on!

    • Haha! Yes, there were parts of the book that made me wish I could wash my brain! Sometimes that old Hollywood “decency” code comes in handy… 😉 I expected the film to be boring but really it’s great! I couldn’t believe how involved I felt by the time it got to the climax – great stuff!

  9. It’s almost over, FF. Now the book and the film are finished. And, like childbirth, they both will become forgetable (two t’s?) and you’ll progress to other things.
    You’ve certainly done your duty by these–and we get the idea that the book didn’t surpass the movie as is so often the case. Now you can relax–you’ve saved us having to endure either one (again).

    • Hahaha! But what will I do without it? I hope Dr Zhivago is awful… I need a “hate” book! I must say that while I didn’t enjoy the book, I’ve enjoyed myself a lot making fun of it, and the film is great, so all good in the end… 🙂

  10. Sounds riveting! Definitely going to take your advice and watch the movie instead. Though I have to admit, it’s hard for me to imagine Gregory Peck as Ahab. I keep hearing that he occasionally played villains, but have only seen him play upstanding citizens so far. 🙂

    • For the first twenty minutes or so I felt I really wasn’t going to be able to accept Peck in the role, but he won me over. According to wiki, he wasn’t too keen to do it because he felt it didn’t suit him. Wiki also says that John Huston actually wanted to cast his father, but Walter died before the film got made. A great film – almost made the whole trauma of reading the book worthwhile… 😉

  11. Now you’re telling me, after I spent untold hours labouring through the book. I am pleased that I read Moby Dick, but it sure is hard work in places. An editor could have made it great, like the movie seemingly. Must get around to watching it. Melville sure liked his digressions. Great post.

    • Thank you! Haha! Sorry about that! When I get a time-machine I’ll pop back to before you read it and warn you… 😉 Yes, I thought there were some good things in the book, but it was swamped by so much stuff that I felt really added very little. Huston and Bradbury did a great job of stripping it back to the essentials, massively improving it along the way…

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