Film of the Book: Moby Dick

Directed by John Huston (1956)

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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).

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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…

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THE FILM!

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Friday Frippery! A conversation regarding whales…

Call me FF…

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Tap-thump! Tap-thump! Tap-thump! FF heard the unmistakeable sound of the captain crossing the deck.

“Ahoy, FF, thou lazy dog! Whyest dost thou lyeth there on that… thing… whilst Ahab practiceth his best cod Shakespearian?? Whatest is that thing, anyway, in the name of the gods above in Heaven, or perhaps the devils beneath in Hell! Or vice-versa. If Gods exist. Eth.”

FF raised her sunglasses and perched them on her golden curls. “It’s a sun-lounger, sir. Don’t you like it? I ordered it from Amazon and they had a drone drop it off an hour ago. It’s very comfortable.”

Ahab stuck his bone leg in the socket he had had specially made for it and, swivelling madly like Zebedee on his spring, cried out, “Thou liest here in the sun imbibing the devil’s grog…”

“It’s a margarita,” murmured FF, sipping.

“… when there is work to be (or not to be) done! Hast thou seen the great white whale?”

“No, and I’m at 92% now. Strange, isn’t it?”

Ahab ceased to swivel and fixed her with his mad eye. “Eh? 92%? Thou speakest in strange riddles as of one who has seen things not of nature!”

“Well, the book’s called Moby-Dick: or, the White Whale so you’d kinda think the whale would actually be in it, wouldn’t you?” FF waved her Kindle at the infuriated captain. “But no. We’ve sailed every sea in the entire world and not a blessed sign of him yet. A cheat, I call it! Plenty of other whales though – big ones, little ones, lots and lots of dead ones. And as for gory! Well, let’s just say I know more than I ever wanted to about how to skin them and squeeze the oil out of their blubber.” She shuddered, and sipped her margarita. “Sir.”

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Ahab shook his fist at the cloudless sky. “Thou wasteth time reading stupid books on thy infernal device when thou shouldst be aloft the main mast searching for the monster whom thou hast sworn a great oath to destroyeth!”

“To be fair, though, sir, that was during the first night party and you’d been pretty generous with the old gin before you asked. I’m not sure that really counts as a proper oath.”

“Thy honour grovels on its lowly belly acrost the mud in the deeps where lie littered the bodies of great heroes and the monsters they pursued to their doom! Queequeg the cannibal shalt not fail me, he with his skin tattooed with marks that would scare the devils themselves. Nor even the poor, crazed savage, Pip, whose little black hand is nearly as soft as that of a decent white boy!”

“That reminds me, sir, an e-mail came in from Head Office. They want you to confirm you’ve completed the online training course in cultural sensitivity.”

“Aarghh! Get thee up to the lookout afore I call on the Heavens to strike thee with the unnatural fire of the corpusants!”

“No can do, I’m afraid, sir. Health and safety. You’ll just have to rely on the sonar equipment.”

“Gah! Art thou a yellow-bellied poltroon?? Thou wilt know real danger when Ahab sends thee in the little boat to stick harpoons in the monstrous Leviathan!”

FF shuddered. “I fear that won’t be possible, sir. Whaling has been outlawed by international convention. These days we use electricity to light our lamps.”

Ahab leapt up and down so hard his bone leg began to splinter. “Outlawed?! Never! For here, on the great ocean, Ahab is all – the captain, the King, the God! And the great white whale shall die, die horribly, because Ahab sayeth so! Look! What ist that strange vessel that approacheth?”

“It’s Greenpeace, sir. They’re here to protect the whale. I Skyped them when I realised you were insane, sir.”

Ahab turned purple with rage, and shook both fists at FF. “Thou hast ruined my revenge! Truly, verily, and yea, ’tis true what they say! To allow a woman aboardeth a ship is folly, for they are cursed, and curseth those who saileth with them!” Tap-thump! Tap-thump! Tap-thump!

“Silly old misogynist!” murmured FF, as she lay back on her lounger and opened the new Ian Rankin.

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HAVE A GREAT FRIDAY! 😉

TBR Thursday 95…

Episode 95…

The TBR has gone up 4 to a new high of 184!! But the additions are all books that were on the wishlist so overall the situation remains stable. Oh, for goodness sake, at least try and look as if you believe me!

Here are a few that will be rising to the top of the pile soon…

Factual

murder incCourtesy of NetGalley, this one sounds like it might be fun. A perfect excuse to dig out old Cagney and Edward G Robinson films…

The Blurb says: Murder, Inc. and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia’s New York focuses on the dramatic trials of a group of Brooklyn gangsters in 1940 and 1941. The media nicknamed the gangsters “Murder, Inc.,” and that nickname quickly became a kind of free-floating “meme,” linked at various times to criminals in general; to a record label; and even to a Bruce Springsteen song. The 1940-1941 trials inspired a wave of media coverage, several books and memoirs, and a sub-genre of the gangster film. The trials concluded with a notorious and unsolved murder mystery. Murder, Inc. narrates the life and times of the Brooklyn gang, and also relates their lives both to New York’s Roaring Twenties and Depression era gangs and to the wider “gangster” culture expressed especially in the film. At the same time, Murder, Inc., is a moral reflection on the gangsters; the gangbusters, like Fiorello La Guardia and Thomas Dewey, who opposed them; and popular culture’s fascination with “gangsterism.” It is especially this combination of crime story and moral reflection that makes Murder, Inc. unique.

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Fiction

moby dickWell, I’ve put it off for as long as possible… or have I? Will I find another excuse to stick it back to the bottom of the heap? It’s on both my GAN Quest list and my Classics Club list, so I have to read it sometime. I suppose. Can you tell I’m just thrilled at the thought…?

The Blurb says:  “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”

So Melville wrote of his masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imaginations in literary history. In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

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Crime

out of boundsCourtesy of NetGalley. I enjoyed McDermid’s last outing for DCI Karen Pirie, The Skeleton Road, especially since it’s good to see her setting a series in her native Scotland. So I have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: When a teenage joyrider crashes a stolen car and ends up in a coma, a routine DNA test reveals a connection to an unsolved murder from twenty-two years before. Finding the answer to the cold case should be straightforward. But it’s as twisted as the DNA helix itself.

Meanwhile, Karen finds herself irresistibly drawn to another mystery that she has no business investigating, a mystery that has its roots in a terrorist bombing two decades ago. And again, she finds that nothing is as it seems.

An enthralling, twisty read, Out of Bounds reaffirms Val McDermid’s place as one of the most dependable professionals in the mystery and thriller business.

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Horror

thin airCourtesy of NetGalley – I suspect I may have an addiction problem. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter was deliciously scary so I’m hoping she can do it again… it’ll soon be time to wake the fretful porpentine from hibernation for the spooky season…

The Blurb says: In 1935, young medic Stephen Pearce travels to India to join an expedition with his brother, Kits. The elite team of five will climb Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain and one of mountaineering’s biggest killers. No one has scaled it before, and they are, quite literally, following in the footsteps of one of the most famous mountain disasters of all time – the 1907 Lyell Expedition.

Five men lost their lives back then, overcome by the atrocious weather, misfortune and ‘mountain sickness’ at such high altitudes. Lyell became a classic British hero when he published his memoir, Bloody, But Unbowed, which regaled his heroism in the face of extreme odds. It is this book that will guide this new group to get to the very top.

As the team prepare for the epic climb, Pearce’s unease about the expedition deepens. The only other survivor of the 1907 expedition, Charles Tennant, warns him off. He hints of dark things ahead and tells Pearce that, while five men lost their lives on the mountain, only four were laid to rest…

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Great American Novel Quest – The Second Batch

The Quest continues…

 

Great American Novel Quest

The first batch of ten contenders produced some fantastic reads, but so they should have since they were carefully chosen as some of the traditional front-runners in the race to be The Great American Novel. However, the list was also heavily weighted towards Dead White Men, with the addition of the occasional living one. All white and only one woman. This time round I’ve selected a rather more diverse group – 6 from the pens of female writers, three of whom are black, and a couple of recent books that haven’t been around long enough for us to know what their eventual status will be.

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There has been much interesting and thought-provoking chit-chat amongst my fellow readers as to the near impossibility of a book achieving that pesky fifth criteria which it needs to be declared The GAN…

For the elusive fifth flag, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole.

…though I would (and did) argue that American Pastoral does. I’ve found coming up with a revised fifth criterion that’s better than this one to be impossible also – to skew it so that favourite books can get in would certainly increase the number but would kind of take away the point, which is surely that The Great American Novel is one of the rarest of beasts, perhaps mythical. And entirely subjective.

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But, to be honest, the quest is more about finding Great American Novels in general than identifying one ‘winner’, so I’m quite content that several in this second batch are unlikely to be The GAN. I’m hopeful that some will be GANs and that more will be great novels. And if one of them happens to gain the elusive fifth flag, then that will be an added bonus.

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So… a drum roll, maestro, please… for…

The Second Batch

.
Beloved by Toni MorrisonStaring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale HurstonWhen Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds …”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiea story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home. Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet.

 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America.

Absalom! Absalom! by William FaulknerThe story of Thomas Sutpen, an enigmatic stranger who came to Jefferson in the early 1830s to wrest his mansion out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness. He was a man, Faulkner said, ‘who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him.'”

Gone with the Wind by Margaret MitchellMany novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone With the Wind does, creating haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of characters so vivid that we remember their words and feel their fear and hunger for the rest of our lives.”

The House of Mirth by Edith WhartonThe tragic love story reveals the destructive effects of wealth and social hypocrisy on Lily Bart, a ravishing beauty. More a tale of social exclusion than of failed love, The House of Mirth reveals Wharton’s compelling gifts as a storyteller and her clear-eyed observations of the savagery beneath the well-bred surface of high society.

 

Middlesex by Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

Lolita by Vladimir NabokovHumbert Humbert – scholar, aesthete and romantic – has fallen completely and utterly in love with Lolita Haze, his landlady’s gum-snapping, silky skinned twelve-year-old daughter. Hilarious, flamboyant, heart-breaking and full of ingenious word play, Lolita is an immaculate, unforgettable masterpiece of obsession, delusion and lust.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher StoweStowe’s powerful abolitionist novel fueled the fire of the human rights debate in 1852. Denouncing the institution of slavery in dramatic terms, the incendiary novel quickly draws the reader into the world of slaves and their masters.”

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – (carried over from the first batch) an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).

(NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.)

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Many thanks to everyone who has joined in the discussions and/or suggested contenders. I have another 25 or so still to come after this, but am still looking for recommendations. I’d particularly like to add some more cultural diversity to the list (there are no black male authors on it, for example, and none from authors with Latin-American or, indeed, Native American heritage). Also, more women are needed to even things up a bit – there are very few female authors amongst the remaining 25, since I’ve included most of the ones on my list in this batch. And I’d love to mix some outstanding modern American fiction (1980 to 2010, say) in with the classics, whether they would be contenders for GAN status or not. For preference, though, they should shed some light on that great conundrum which is America.

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So… what do you think of the list? Are there ones that you would endorse… or dump? Any recommendations?