Moby Dick (2011)

An interesting take on the classic novel. Of the three live action adaptations I’ve seen of “Moby Dick”, this is definitely my favourite, although it absolutely comes nowhere close to holding a candle to the book.

It takes a lot more liberty with the novel than the 1956 Gregory Peck and 1998 Patrick Stewart adaptations did, but does so in service of story rather than just to strip story out. I adore the novel, but don’t think adaptations need to be beholden to source material, especially when the unique strengths and weaknesses of literature and film are so different from each other. This adaptation does not even begin with “Call me Ishmael”! But the alternate stard, which does eventually lead into the line, is an interesting way to introduce the character, as well as to give more backstory for the character of Pip. This adaptation is full of similar moments, particular in the first act, where situations and interactions not in the book are used to establish the characters.

The unique drive of this adaptation seems to be focusing on the characters and interactions above all else. The 1956 Gregor Peck version focused on spectacle, the 1998 Patrick Stewart version focused on the conflict between Ahab and Starbuck, and this 2011 William Hurt version focuses on the various character relationships on the Pequod. Like the 1998 adaptation, Ishmael is heavily sidelined, but here Starbuck takes the lead role more than Ahab.

To the films credit, Ethan Hawke is a fantastic actor and does fantastic work as Starbuck, but sidelining the actual main character of the story leads to sidelining much of the story itself, which is what tends to lead to these adaptations missing much of the thematic depth of the novel (I’m not so arrogant as to suggest the films “miss the point”, but they certainly lack the literary ambitions of the novel).

Charlie Cox also does excellent work as Ishmael. He embodies the character very well, which is part of the reason I was disappointed by how heavily sidelined he is, and how the film completely changes his story in the second and third act. Still, the performances of Cox and Hawke alone would have me preferring this version if nothing else.

Unfortunately, I can’t sing similar praises about William Hurt’s performance as Ahab. There’s not much there. Patrick Stewart did it better, although I don’t think his performance captured the character perfectly, far from it. Hurt gives a wishy-washy performance that lacks the fervour so clear in the text.

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Other performances in the film are generally quite good, if nothing to write home about. Eddie Marsan gives a good performance as always, but the character of Stubbs is written so wildly differently to the novel (stripping out his sense of fun, and replacing it with a more generic masculine personality) that it’s baffling – Marsan is so good with comic material, the character is comic in the source material, why strip that out and make him so serious?

In some of the expanded backstory content in the first act, Gillian Anderson portrays Ahab’s wife Elizabeth. This character was only mentioned in the novel, not present, but I quite liked how the character was integrated here. Giving Ahab someone to play off helped set up his character, and Anderson gave a good performance as she always does. All this “prequel” content in the first act of the film was my favourite aspect of the adaptation, as it was a clever and original take on the source material, recontextualising some characters and their relationships, and offering a new take on the book. The second and third acts of the film, where the book was more haphazardly adapted and story beats were barrelled through instead of portrayed in a new light after reexamination, were more disappointing.

This “reimagined” adaptation of the novel doesn’t hold a candle to its source material, yet it a much better live action adaptation than previous attempts. I remain confused by what possible reasons there could be to adapt the novel while stripping out everything that made it so extraordinary, other than the commercial, but it seems there will continue to be a new live action adaptation of the novel every few years. Still, while this particular adaptation is fraught with many issues, and I remain sceptical that any adaptation of a novel so enormously depend on conventions specific to literature can ever be successful, it’s worth watching for some of the performances alone. I give it three docked oars, and a harpoon.

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