PrintE-mail Written by Jack Bottomley


Moby Dick by Herman Melville is a legendary text, though at the time (as is often an ironic twist of fate) it was considered a failure. It charts a story of nature and man’s conflict; and this story- even to those unfamiliar with the text- is well known. Since the novel was published in 1851, it has gone on to inspire numerous film and TV adaptations, as vast as John Huston’s 1956 film and The Asylum’s cheapo TV film modern day update 2010: Moby Dick (don’t ask). The story’s conclusion is inevitable but the journey is what many are most taken by when Melville’s tale is constantly retold. However what many versions miss are the true depths of the novel’s comments about this age of American industry and this (now rightfully frowned upon) business of dispatching the sea’s biggest mammal. And while this star-crammed 2011 miniseries cannot match the best versions of the story, in its own right it is a watchably righteous tale of man’s obsession with conquering the biggest titan of nature.

Across 3 hours the story may have its lesser stretches and the alterations to the source text will infuriate lovers of the literature but Moby Dick does capture the grand, overpowering, essence of this tragic tale. From the rather doom-laden tones of the Chaigley Symphony Orchestra score to the impressive set design, this as much condensed disaster movie, as it is literary adaptation. From the offset it is clear that liberties are taken, with the altered story of young black character Pip (played here by Daniyah Ysrayl) being one of many various tweaks. In fact this version of the story skips over the intricacy of the whaling industry exploits and the full depth of this American era covered. Yet it does not quite exclude the religious, social and prejudicial themes- even if there is more action than contemplation.

Moby Dick is slightly overlong at moments but ultimately builds to a fittingly grand climax and while there is no denying how much has been extracted and condensed, the fundamentals are there to enjoy. Certain characters do not quite get the chance to shine, for instance many of the crew with the notable exceptions of Eddie Marsan’s Mr Stubb and Raoul Trujillo’s Queequeg are reduced to little more than regular faces and voices, chiming in on the conflicts of the ship’s upper management. There is no doubt that there was a wealth of material to translate and sadly this miniseries has not evaluated as many characters as it could have- Donald Sutherland’s Father Mapple and Gillian Anderson’s Elizabeth especially. That said credit must be given to the impressive cast, who really give meat to their parts and this classic story.

The series’ main flaw is that Ishmael (the book’s narrator and main character) is less interesting than some of the other lead characters; still Charlie Cox gives a respectable performance. Though the bellowing William Hurt as the obsessed-come-insane Captain Ahab is perhaps most notable and Ethan Hawke delivers an equally memorable turn as perhaps (come the end) the only right minded crew member, Mr Starbuck. Moby Dick has its share of strange decisions and alterations but there is no doubt that some of the intensity of the material being adapted is on display. Despite the usual TV Flaw of jarring special effects and visuals, the series has some keen visual graces. It also creates an imposing and effective Moby Dick for the characters to face and like Honda’s Godzilla or Wallace/Cooper’s King Kong; Moby Dick is treated as a cultural icon of nature’s prowess. Indeed more depth and less source material trimming may have made for a better adaptation, and this may sour the experience for those with an adoration of the text. That said, and for all the flaws, there is a highly watchable two-part Drama here. One that unfolds and tells a story that may be familiar and condensed but still retains a powerful and emotional edge, even if this is more “Call me Ahab” than “Call me Ishmael”.

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