By George Cotkin
Moby-Dick draws readers into it. And many of its more creative readers have sought to capture its grandeur on film and stage. From the first film in 1926 to the present, these attempts have taken liberties with the novel, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. But that is the challenge that Moby-Dick offers its readers, a text that is deep and wide, an ocean of issues and concerns that we must all, in some fashion, navigate.
The Sea Beast (1926 film)
Forget about the whale vanquishing Ahab. In this silent film, John Barrymore stars as Ahab. Although he is dismasted, he kills the whale and an evil half-brother and gets the girl.
Moby Dick—Rehearsed (1955 play)
Orson Welles, who might have made a superior Ahab, wrote this two-act play about an acting troupe told they are going to perform Moby Dick. Welles had hoped to make this into a film but the results were disappointing. This play within a play, however, has some moments that Melville would have appreciated.
Moby Dick (1956 film)
Directed by John Huston, co-written by Huston and Ray Bradbury, and starring Gregory Peck as Ahab. Although Peck hardly sizzled with Ahab’s philosophical gravitas, the film did challenge polite 1950s codes about racial relations and hinted at blasphemy. And the final scene, with Ahab forever joined to the White Whale is powerful.
Hakugei: Legend of the Moby Dick (1997-1999 Japanese animated tv series)
Ahab commands a spaceship against Moby-Dick, a beast that is terrorizing a planet. Lucky Luck, like Ishmael, signs on for duty, finding perhaps more than he had anticipated.
Moby Dick (1998 tv mini-series)
Famous as Captain Picard on Star-Trek, Stewart showed his acting chops as Ahab in this immensely popular made for television film. Ahab’s obsession, said Stewart, is what rendered him a tragic figure. Because he is cognizant of his obsession, he is a man in agony. And that is how Stewart sort to portray Ahab.
Songs and Stories from Moby-Dick (1999 performance art)
Performance and techno-artist Anderson had been drawn to Moby-Dick in high school. She realized her vision of the saga with an electric violin and a “talking stick” that resembled nothing so much as a harpoon.
Moby-Dick: Then and Now (2007 play)
This is a clever staging of the novel by Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. Except this time around, the protagonists are kids from the ghetto and their quarry is the white whale of cocaine.
2010: Moby Dick (2010 film)
Here Moby has destroyed a submarine and dismasted its Captain, named Ahab. Ahab wants revenge. Ishmael is played by Renee O’Connor (formerly sidekick to Xenia, the Warrior Woman). Her name in the film is Michelle Herman (M.H. - get it? Herman Melville, in reverse).
Moby-Dick (2010 Dallas Opera)
Ahab is an operatic figure, if ever there was one. Jake Heggie wrote the score, with Gene Sheer doing the libretto. Among the challenges were whittling down the book into something manageable for the stage. Spoiler alert: the opera does not open with the famous first line of the novel. But that line is heard – eventually. Photo by Karen Almond/Dallas Opera.
Moby-Dick Big Read (2012 radio series)
The daily online release of chapters from Moby-Dick, recorded by a host of international and national celebrities.
George Cotkin is Professor of History at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and author of the forthcoming book, Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick.