Moby Dick
directed by Franc Roddam
(USA, 1998)

Moby Dick is one of the greatest works of American literature that few people these days will actually read. Let's face it, the language of Herman Melville's day is tedious today, and so the great story itself is often disregarded or ignored.

While I am not one to argue that movies and television are a suitable substitute for books, there are times when the visual power of acting -- combined with the simplifying hand of the screenwriter's hand -- can make a difficult novel palatable to a modern audience. The 1998 version of Moby Dick, filmed for television, is just such a work.

First broadcast as a three-part miniseries, this three-hour work condenses the story while retaining the dramatic pulse of the tale. Patrick Stewart is splendid as peg-legged Ahab, the architect of all the misery suffered aboard the Pequod; he suffers doubts and experiences rare moments of joy and tenderness, but at the root of soul he is possessed by thoughts of hate and revenge. And when he rails with passion against the demon whale, you can feel it in your bones.

Ahab, like the whale, is a force of nature, driven by demons, and Stewart compels us to believe every inch of the man's obsession. While Stewart's fame is built largely on the Star Trek and X-Men franchises, it is performances such as this and his one-man Broadway performance of A Christmas Carol that truly measures his genius as an actor. Perhaps the most moving moment is the scene when Ahab, hailed by a passing vessel in search of a lost crewman, refuses his aid in full recognition of his own selfish need to sail on.

As for the crew, they are the mixed lot one would expect on a whaling cruise. Whether driven by personal greed, superstition or some contagious aspect of Ahab's madness, one can see clearly why they would put their own lives on the line to kill the great whale. The exceptions, of course, are Ishmael (Henry Thomas), the narrator, for whom this voyage is more lark than livelihood, and Starbuck (Ted Levine), the first mate, who knows in his heart that Ahab's madness dooms them all. Piripi Waretini, an indigenous New Zealander, makes a highly believable harpooner Queequeg.

The cinematography is gorgeous and feels very much like it was shot at sea; I was surprised to learn how much of this movie was not.

The DVD includes a "making of" feature narrated by Gregory Peck. Not only did Peck play the role of the tempestuous Father Mapple in this film, he also was Ahab in the 1956 version filmed by John Huston. His comparison of the two films provides valuable insights -- he rightly points out the multicultural makeup of the '98 crew, which accurately reflects Melville's vision, as opposed to the mostly white crew in 1956. Likewise, he lauds the modern use of special effects and computer graphics to simulate the whales; in 1956, he says, it was perfectly acceptable to kill real whales for the purpose of filming.

This made-for-TV movie may not stand as a cinematic classic -- in part, because the artificial breaks in action to accommodate commercials are sometimes jarring -- but it's an incredible rendition of the literary classic. It pains my soul to admit, but as much as I love to read, I'd recommend this movie over the novel any day.

by Tom Knapp
12 August 2006

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