Moby Dick - from paper to celluloid

Seminar Paper, 2005

17 Pages, Grade: 2,3

Free online reading


I. Introduction

II. The movies

III. “Moby Dick” by John Huston (1956):

IV. Important characters and their actors in Huston´s picture

V. “Moby Dick” by Franc Roddam (1998)

VI. Important characters and their actors in Roddam´s picture

VII. Conclusion


I. Introduction:

“Moby Dick”, written by Herman Melville and published in 1851, is a classic novel. It is a realistic account of of a whaling voyage with asymbolic account of the conflict between man and his fate[1]. It is the story of of the undying love/hate relationship between Captain Ahab, of the whaler “Pequod”, and Moby Dick, an immense and ferocious white whale which in an earlier encounter had been responsible for the loss of one of Ahab´s legs. Ahab searches for the whale halfway round the world, sworn to kill it to avenge his lost leg. The two meet in the end, Moby Dick is harpooned by Ahab, but in the last sound of the dying whale the harpoon line catches round Ahab and drags him down with the whale[2].

Like many classic novels, “Moby Dick” was made a movie of, not only one, but several, each of which similar due to the written material they are based on but also very different, since they originate from different periods of time with different preferences regarding movies in general, actors, social messages or special effects.

But not only in movies about “Moby Dick” themselves its plot and message can be found. One specific film is to be mentioned here as a paradigm for the influence of Melville´s book to “The Next Generation”, not only in the meaning of television and the television show “Star Trek”. In the movie “Star Trek 8: First Contact” from 1996 there is a discussion between Captain Jean-Luc Picard, deeply hurt by his nemesis, the Borg, before and Lily Sloane, which bears a striking resemblence to the discussions between Captain Ahab and Starbuck, the first mate. In that discussion Picard - played by Patrick Stewart who, interestingly, two years later played Captain Ahab himself – quoted “Moby Dick”: “He piled upon the whale´s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart´s shell upon it.”[3]. Picard learned from Ahab´s mistakes, changed his mind and stopped his vendetta.

II. The movies:

Since 1930 three versions of “Moby Dick” were shot on film:

- The first movie called “Moby Dick” was released in 1930, directed by Lloyd Bacon with John Barrymore as Captain Ahab. But for this film, the producers decided not to use the storyline of Melville's original novel, but that of a silent film called “The Sea Beast” from 1926 by the very same John Barrymore.

Since this movie is only a very loose adaptation of the novel – there is no Character called Ishmael, Ahab has both legs at the beginning and survives the fight with Moby Dick and gets his girl at the end – I do not want to go into detail much, even though some people consider it the most interesting adaptation just because of that[4].

- The year 1956 saw the first real movie about the Novel “Moby Dick”, directed by John Huston and Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, see chapter III. “Moby Dick” by John Huston (1956), page 2.

- In 1998 a new version of “Moby Dick” shot for television came out, directed by Franc Roddam and Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab, see chapter V. “Moby Dick” by Franc Roddam (1998), page 8.

III. “Moby Dick” by John Huston (1956):

When the novel was published, critics reviewed it and most opinions were harsh. Moby Dick´s brash and larger-than-life characters, especially Ahab, were a bit too exaggerated for most readers, and Ishmael´s philosophizing deemed boring as well as blasphemous[5]. For instance the “Boston Post” wrote on November 20, 1851: “Mr Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature – since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist”[6], while the Literary Gazette from December 6, 1851 stated, that Melville should not “waste his strength on such purposelessand unequal doings as these rambling volumes about spermaceti whales”[7].

Since the early 20th century the overall attitude towards “Moby Dick” changed completely. “It was as if Melville´s ideal audience had finally appeared, eager to follow his sprawling philosophical treatise to wherever it might lead them. The differences among the contemporary reviews and the selections from the Melville Revival are quite stark. Virtually everything his contemporary critics found problematic early twentieth-century readers found enthralling”[8].

What does criticism on the novel have to do with the movie?

When the movie “Moby Dick” was brought to the big cinema screens in 1956, it received similar criticism like the novel. Gregory Peck, who starred as Captain Ahab, was miscast, and Peck himself actually thought Huston himself would have been the best choice for the role. Critics asked provocatively: “What director of integrity would not have preferred to leave the picture unmade rather than use the wooden Gregory Peck as the titanic Ahab?”[9].

For more than a decade John Huston wanted to produce a movie about “Moby Dick”, but not before 1956 he succeeded to persuade the bosses at Warner Bros. to allow him the shooting of his movie.

The turning point was, when Huston met Ray Bradbury, the author of the classic science-fiction novel “Fahrenheit 451”, in the early 1950s. He asked him to write a screenplay for “Moby Dick”. Bradbury agreed, but added, that he never read the novel. Huston simply asked Bradbury to come back the next day to start working and, handing him a copy of the book, said, "Just go home and read what you can.". So Bradbury wrote the screenplay for Huston´s project[10].

Bradbury´s screenplay was a dark and depressing story, without any major female parts or love interest, so the Hollywood bosses did not like it. The CEOs at Warner Bros. only accepted on the condition that a big-name actor takes the role of Ahab, while Huston originally planned to take his own father for the role of Ahab. But the bosses insisted on a big star to reach a broad audience for the movie (Huston´s father by the way had already been dead when “Moby Dick” was finally shot) and to meet the costs for shooting the picture of five million US Dollars[11], which seems to be relatively cheap for such a monumental movie today, but in 1956 this was a giant amount of money for one film.

The novel did not meet the preferences of readers and critics when it was published, it became a success not before the 20th century and it is the same with Huston´s movie, which is seen as a classic Hollywood epic now, but it was underestimated when it was released. It won a few minor awards, the Silver Ribbon, awarded by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists in 1957, the NYFCC Award by the New York Film Critics Circle in 1956 and the NBR Award by the National Board of Review, USA in 1956 (all three awarded to John Huston as Best Director, the third one went also to Richard Basehart, who played Ishmael, for Best Supporting Actor), but it did not get one of the major awards, not even one single nomination for them, the Golden Globes or the most important of all, the Academy Awards[12].

Even though Huston´s picture is a classic one today and an excellent adventure movie, there are some points to be mentioned, e.g. parts of the movie which differ from the novel for different reasons. In movies about classical literary texts like “Moby Dick” some change is presumed. Why should we assume that one director, for example Huston has said everything that needs to be said about “Moby Dick”? If one has nothing new to say about a novel, Orson Welles once suggested, why adapt it at all? Simply adapting a novel without changing it, suggested Alain Resnais, is like reheating a meal.[13].

- The meetings of the “Pequod” with other vessels play an important role in the novel, when the reader gets additional information, e.g. about French and German/Dutch or sick crews. The meetings with the “Jeroboam”[14], the “Jungfrau”[15], the “Bouton de Rose”[16], the “Bachelor”[17] and the “Delight”[18] were left out completely by Huston. Those meetings are necessary for the novel to maintain the mood of the story, to show the reader, especially the reader of the mid-19th century the diversity of ships and sailors and their stories. For the movie they are not that important, because a director has to shorten parts of the book to keep the story going without being boring and not produce a movie of more than five or six hours or a television series. Only the meetings with the “Samuel Enderby”[19] and the “Rachel”[20] made it into the movie, because they fulfill their purposes and deliver vital information, not only additional information, for the story of the movie, although those meetings happen very much earlier in the movie than they do in the novel.

- The character of Fedallah does not appear in Huston´s film. In the novel, Fedallah was brought aboard by Ahab himself, he is some kind of prophet to Ahab and an excellent harpooner. With leaving out Fedallah Huston decided to leave out an exotic and mysterious feature. One has to keep in mind that in these days the McCarthy-era and the communist hysteria was over only a few years ago and most Americans were still afraid of Asian-looking people, who could be communists and a threat to the USA[21].

- The message of the meaning of the whale to people in general is not brought to the audience, whaling itself and the whole cetology[22] parts take only a few minutes in the movie, while these explanations take a big part in the novel. But if Huston had brought this into his movie with Melville´s accuracy, he could have produced a documentary show. Melville himself was criticized for this accuracy by contemporary critics[23].

Critics of the movie mentioned the music is too dominant in Huston´s film. The orchestral score may be composed and played very well, but it is too omnipresent, which disturbs the mood of the audience.

Many people did not like the movie, because no attractive women and no love story were a part of “Moby Dick”, even there is no such love story in the novel, but movie-watchers in the 1950s expected it to like a movie and they did not care, if a director like Huston had to flip the story of Melville´s novel upside-down.

The audience often found “Moby Dick” too unspectacular, since two years earlier “20.000 Leagues under the Sea”, the adaptation of Jules Verne´s classic novel with topstars like Kirk Douglas as harpooner Ned Land and James Mason as Ahabs counterpart (regarding his search for revenge) Captain Nemo hit the cinemas with spectacular effects, gigantic water- and underwater scenes in brilliant and bright color and became one of the major blockbusters of 1954. Since the people who watched “20.000 Leagues under the Sea” were the same target group for the Warner bosses for “Moby Dick”, Huston´s film was not able to fulfill this task for Warner Bros., but that was not Huston´s goal. He wanted to tell the story as good as he could.

IV. Important characters and their actors in Huston´s picture:

- Captain Ahab, played by Gregory Peck:

Ahab, the “Pequod’s” obsessed captain suffers from a single fatal flaw, one he shares with such legendary characters as Othello and Hamlet. He considers Moby Dick the embodiment of evil in the world and fanatically tries to take revenge for the leg he lost to the white whale. As mentioned above, the bosses at Warner Bros. insisted on a topstar actor to play the role of Ahab. Gregory Peck was an excellent actor, but the role of Captain Ahab, who is furious with revenge, did not fit Peck´s kind of roles he used to play. He looked more like a father to his crew than an egomaniac. Peck tried his best to convince the audience and showed a good performance, when he looked with sparkling eyes and showed some fury[24], but in the end some tougher actors like James Stewart or Gary Cooper would have fit Ahab´s role better.

- Ishmael, played by Richard Basehart:

Ishmael is the narrator and sole survivor of “Moby Dick”, but the reader does not get much information about him. He has the first line in the book, which is one of the most famous lines in literature overall: “Call me Ishmael”[25], in which one could interpret, that Ishmael is not his real name. This line, by the way is also the first line of Huson´s movie as well as of Franc Roddam´s remake of 1998. Ishmael is probably the most intelligent and best educated man on the “Pequod” and in the novel he appears to be a young man. In Huston´s movie he was played by Richard Basehart and Basehart did a very good job, earning him the NBR Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1956[26], but at the time of the shooting of “Moby Dick” he was already 42 years old. So in my opinion he was too old by far to play a young adventurous man like Ishmael. A younger actor like Farley Granger, who starred terrifically in Alfred Hitchcock´s “Strangers on a Train” in 1951, would have been a much better choice.

- Starbuck, played by Leo Genn:

Starbuck is the “Pequod´s” first mate, who is a deeply religious man. Sober and conservative, he relies on his Christian faith to determine his actions and interpretations of events. Thus he often collides with Ahab´s attitudes and is the first one to question Ahab´s judgment in private, then in public. The relationship between Ahab and Starbuck is a classic situation in Hollywood movies, no matter if there is blind fellowship or mutiny, it ends deadly[27]. Leo Genn played Starbuck very convincingly, even though he sometimes seemed too frightful for a man fighting with mighty Ahab.

- Father Mapple, played by Orson Welles:

Father Mapple is a former whaler himself who is now a preacher in the chapel of New Bedford, the place where the voyage of the “Pequod” begins. He is the opposite of Ahab and preaches, that revenge cannot be good. Mapple was played by the second big star of the movie, Orson Welles, who became immortal, as he played Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane” 1941 and Harry Lime in “The Third Man” 1949. Welles overwhelmed the crew on the set with his magnificent acting and became the silent star of the movie[28].

- Queequeg, played by Friedrich Ledebur:

Queequeg is a very skilled harpooner and becomes Ishmael´s best friend. He was a Polynesian prince from the fictitious island of Kokovoko and is a man of fine character, played by the Austrian actor Friedrich Ledebur, whose full name is Count Friedrich Maria von Ledebur-Wicheln, which indicates the problem. Even if Ledebur played his part quite well, he could not play a Polynesian very convincingly due to his European origin. A real Polynesian actor would have been the better choice.

- Pip, played by Tamba Allenby:

Pip is a young black boy who serves as a cabin boy and gets a special relationship to Ahab as the novel goes on. Unfortunately the character of Pip was almost eliminated in Huston´s movie and Pip is not much more than the ship´s mascot. His special relationship to Ahab is virtually non-existent in the movie and his struggle for life, when he gets lost on sea and gets rescued is missing completely[29]. So actor Tamba Allenby did not have a chance to fill his character with life.

V. “Moby Dick” by Franc Roddam (1998):

When Franc Roddam´s remake of “Moby Dick” was announced by Paramount Pictures in 1998, it caused mixed emotions, because at this time the movie “Moby Dick” by John Huston was eventually considered a classic movie. When Roddam´s television movie was finally released, it sparked an outrage between fans of the 1956 version and critics, who stated, that the production had been done very well, especially Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab gained a lot of credit for his performance. It took over 20 million US Dollars, one of the most expensive television movies of all time. Even though many fans of Huston´s film refused to even watch it, it became a success, being more successful at several awards, having won many smaller awards, being nominated for five Emmys and two Golden Globes in 1999 (Patrick Stewart as Actor in a Leading Role in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV and Gregory Peck for Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture). Gregory Peck finally won the Golden Globe for his last role up to his death in 2003[30].

Several minor and major differences to the novel can be found:

- The chronological order of the book, that is maintained in Huston´s film, is mixed up several times in Roddam´s film. For instance chapters seven “The Chapel”[31] and 16 “The Ship”[32] were switched by the director as well as chapters 110 “Queequeg in his coffin”[33] and 128 “The Pequod meets the Rachel”[34]. In the movie Queequeg orders his coffin as a reaction to Ahab´s behavior towards Captain Gardiner of the “Rachel”.

- Even though the 1998 movie features almost three hours and is more than an hour longer than the 1956 version, it also contains only the meetings with the same ships as the old movie does.
- The cetology part is also very short, only in the sequence, when Pip is overboard, a shark can be seen.
- Roddam changes the ending of “Moby Dick”, since in his movie the white whale survives the attack and swims by Ahab to destroy the “Pequod” after having killed Ahab, with the carpenter dying with the doubloon in his hands. In the novel the “Pequod” sinks before Ahab dies.

Of course there are not only differences to the novel, but also to Huston´s film, since almost half a century lies between both pictures, like different attitudes and characteristics the actors bring into their roles, the different use of special effects, mostly computer generated images (CGIs) in the new film.

- The whale itself looks much more realistic than the one in Huston´s film, be it a model or a CGI. Especially the scene when Moby Dick kills Fedallah looks much more spectacular than all special effects in 1956 together.
- The crew sails near Antarctica, a part in the new movie, that is not seen in the old film.
- Fedallah appears in the new movie.
- Slight differences are present, like Ishmael being the first to spot Moby Dick, Starbuck dies on the “Pequod”, not while hunting Moby Dick.

VI. Important characters and their actors in Roddam´s picture:

- Captain Ahab, played by Patrick Stewart:

Patrick Stewart is one of Hollywood´s greatest character actors, even if he is probably best known as Captain Jean-Luc Picard from “Star Trek – The Next Generation”. He became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966 and with his magnificent voice and perfect Oxford-English he was predestined to play a character like Captain Ahab[35]. Even though Gregory Peck was the bigger star overall in 1956 than Stewart now, Patrick Stewart played Ahab more realistic, impassioned and a little more maniac than Peck did in 1956.

- Ishmael, played by Henry Thomas:

Henry Thomas was only 26 years old, when he played Ishmael in 1998 and was a much better choice only because of this than Richard Basehart in 1956, when Basehart was already 42 years old. Thomas played Ishmael more vulnerable and inexperienced, since one got the feeling in the old movie, that Ishmael was sold to the audience as a true American hero, which was typical for this period, but did not match the novel very much.

- Starbuck, played by Ted Levine:

Ted Levine played Starbuck different to Leo Genn in 1956. Levine is a stronger character and played his part very convincingly. His sparkling eyes showed deep passion for the role. Levine has had his strongest performances in television productions like “Moby Dick” or Tom Hanks´ Golden Globe winning TV mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon”, unfortunately he does not get so many chances to show his ability for character roles in big Hollywood cinema productions.

- Father Mapple, played by Gregory Peck:

Very well known as Captain Ahab in Huston´s movie Peck returned to “Moby Dick” in the last days of his career. Like Orson Welles decades before Peck performed brilliantly as Father Mapple, which was the last role of his life and won him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a supporting Role in 1999[36].

- Queequeg, played by Piripi Waretini:

Unlike Friedrich Ledebur in Huston´s film Piripi Waretini is a real Maori and thus per se a much better choice for Queequeg than the Austrian Ledebur could have ever been. Waretini performed very well and showed the audience exactly, what a character like Queequeg should look like.

- Pip, played by Norman D. Golden II:

Pip is a character, which was not developed much in the old movie. In Roddam´s version his part is much bigger, especially when Pip plays Ahab and he gets lost in the waves, a chapter[37], which was missing completely in Huston´s film. After his rescue he showed a very frightened behavior and Norman Golden performed quite convincingly.

- Fedallah, played by Kee Chan:

Fedallah was left out completely by John Huston. In the 1998 version this character is in the movie, but Kee Chan is miscast, since he is Chinese and the character of Fedallah is a Parsee, some sort of Persian person. Chan played the character more like a dark ninja, which did not fit the role very well.

VII. Conclusion:

“Moby Dick” is an excellent novel, but like “The Lord of the Rings” it is hard to make a perfect movie of it due to the mass of information given and character-building within.

John Huston made a very good film in the mid-1950s, but not for the mid-1950s. He had great actors, but besides Orson Welles as Father Mapple none of them was really outstanding. Gregory Peck tried his best as Captain Ahab, but was miscast as mentioned above.

Franc Roddam shot his movie in the late 1990s, having a budget of 20 million Dollars, an excellent Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab and a most convincing Gregory Peck, who finally seemed to have found his perfect role in “Moby Dick”, because he played greatly. It cannot be overseen that it was a television production, since the special effects are good, but not as breathtaking as they could have been in a big cinema production.

I like both Huston´s and Roddam´s movies, but clearly prefer the version of Franc Roddam, even though he does not always keep the correct chapter order of the novel, but it transports the feeling for Melville´s novel much better, the mood is more sailor-like than in Huston´s movie, the characters are displayed better and deeper since the movie takes almost three hours, has more appropriate actors than Huston´s movie has and above all that it shows an outstanding performance by Patrick Stewart.


Davey, Michael J.

“Herman Melville´s Moby-Dick”

New York 2004

Hart, James D.

„The Oxford Companion to American Literature“

4th Edition, New York 1965

Kauffmann, Stanley

„A World on Film“

New York 1958

Kemp, Peter

„The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea”

London 1976

Melville, Herman

“Moby Dick”- A Norton Critical Edition

New York 2002

Metz, Walter C.

„Cold War´s „undigested apple-dumping“: Imaging Moby-Dick in 1956 and 2001

The Literature Film Quarterly, 2004


Müller, Jürgen

„Filme der 50er“

Cologne 2005

Sander, Ralph

„Die Star Trek Biographien“

Munich 1995

Stam, Robert / Raengo, Alessandra

“Literature and Film”

Oxford 2005

Stöver, Bernd

„Der kalte Krieg“

Munich 2003


[1] Hart, James D., „The Oxford Companion to American Literature“, 4th Edition, New York 1965, p. 554

[2] Kemp, Peter, „The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea”, London 1976, p. 538, 539

[3] Melville, Herman, “Moby Dick”- A Norton Critical Edition, New York 2002, ch. 41, p. 156

[4] Metz, Walter C., „Cold War´s „undigested apple-dumping“: Imaging Moby-Dick in 1956 and 2001, The Literature Film Quarterly, 2004, p. 3, see:

[5] Davey, Michael J., “Herman Melville´s Moby-Dick”, New York 2004, p. 66

[6] Davey, p. 70

[7] Davey, p. 74

[8] Davey, p. 75

[9] Kauffmann, Stanley, „A World on Film“, New York 1958, p. 144

[10] Müller, Jürgen, „Filme der 50er“, Cologne 2005, p. 300

[11] Müller, p. 303

[12] The Internet Movie Database:

[13] Stam, Robert/Raengo, Alessandra, “Literature and Film”, Oxford 2005, p. 16

[14] Melville, ch. 71, p. 250-254

[15] Melville, ch. 81, p. 276-284

[16] Melville, ch. 91, p. 312-317

[17] Melville, ch. 115, p. 374-375

[18] Melville, ch. 131, p. 403-404

[19] Melville, ch. 100, p. 336-340

[20] Melville, ch. 128, p. 396-399

[21] Stöver, Bernd, „Der kalte Krieg“, Munich 2003, p. 57

[22] Melville, ch. 32, p. 115-125

[23] Davey, p. 74

[24] Müller, p. 303

[25] Melville, ch. 1, p. 18

[26] The Internet Movie Database:

[27] Müller, p. 303

[28] Müller, p. 305

[29] Melville, ch. 93, p. 319-322

[30] The Internet Movie Database:

[31] Melville, ch. 7, p. 43-45

[32] Melville, ch. 16, p. 68-79

[33] Melville, ch. 110, p. 363-367

[34] Melville, ch. 128, p. 396-399

[35] Sander, Ralph, „Die Star Trek Biographien“, Munich 1995, p. 377

[36] The Internet Movie Database:

[37] Melville, ch. 93, p. 319-322

17 of 17 pages


Moby Dick - from paper to celluloid
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