Prof Rock Neelly
ENG 251 American Lit.
December 8, 2014
Moby Dick Movie Review
I'm going to go out on a limb and say Moby Dick doesn't lend itself to film and TV adaptations. The tale is dramatic, it's action-packed, it's visual and it's exciting, but there's an awful lot in the original text that you have to leave out in order to film it coherently. Melville's book is encyclopedic. It tells you a lot about whales and whaling; the motivations of the whalers, the camaraderie on board, the mechanics of capturing and dissecting the largest animal in the ocean and extracting the useful stuff that keeps America burning. This adaptation (and probably ANY adaptation) cuts to the chase, omitting these complex descriptions of whaling life in favor of characters and action, the meat and potatoes of Hollywood filmmaking. In doing so, it loses something of the quality of the story. It also loses the narrator: on TV, Ishmael, a witty and endearing narrator, becomes a one-dimensional protagonist, totally overshadowed by Ahab.
This is Ahab's film. William Hurt dominates every scene he appears in, and he appears in most of them. I'm convinced he's pulling out all the stops, aiming for an Emmy. I'm not sure how else to explain the hammy overacting, the grizzly beard, the cheesy dialogue delivered in a carefully cultivated "old salt" accent. Hurt thinks he's playing Hamlet, and he wants Ahab's descent into madness to be central to the story.
Ahab is typically dark, cursed, scarred, traumatized, intimidating and vengeful. Hurt's Ahab is just plain crazy. He jokes around with his men, delivers many of his most serious lines while grinning through his beard and squinting his eyes. On board the Pequod, he's like everybody's affectionate but slightly volatile Grandpa, not averse to a hug or a bit of laugh over a stein of grog. He says too much, and much of it is hard to understand, delivered in a sing-song cadence with emphasis in unusual places. Oscillating between booming vocal projection of Shakespearean proportions and just plain talking to himself, and introspective mumbling in which he appears to be talking to himself, Hurt seems to be performing for his own benefit rather than for an audience. This is an attempt to indicate Ahab's madness in a way nobody else has done before, but it alienates the audience as well as his fellow actors, and it's just not good acting. He's a pirate caricature whose attempts at pathos are unpersuasive. I prefer Gregory Peck's intense, brooding Ahab. A good Ahab should indicate more than he actually says, a dark exterior concealing untold depths of turmoil and mystery - like the sea! Argh!
Ethan Hawke is a solid Starbuck, and a very human foil to Hurt's gruff, squinty captain. He's emotional, penetrative, and seriously worried about the fate of the ship. More than anyone else he embodies the atmosphere of impending doom that plagues the voyage, and his sense of mortality is a visibly heavy burden. When Starbuck says that what he wants most from the journey is "to see Nantucket again", you believe him. He's a homesick sailor. At that point, everything's