It requires considerable audacity to adapt such a masterpiece of world literature, all the more so that the novel's quality greatly relies on its inimitable style: how can one transpose this on screen? John Huston succeeds by creating a distinctive visual style, cinematographically compensating what he loses on the literary side.
Also, he builds a forceful story from beginning to end. The scenario was written by famous author Ray Bradbury together with Huston: a successful synergy between literature and cinema creators, despite tensions between the two men.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS (INCLUDING OF THE ORIGINAL NOVEL) ***
The first quality of the movie is its efficient selection of scenes and dialogues. This is a real challenge: the novel is long, even after disregarding its "documentary" parts about whales, whaling, sea, etc. (cumulated, as many as 40 chapters out of 135). Hence the scenario had to make drastic selections. For instance, in the novel the Pequod comes across nine other ships (of which four encountered Moby Dick), while in the movie there are only two. Yet these represent the most striking meetings, with captains who respectively lost an arm and a son to the White Whale.
Essential scenes are almost all present, without feeling like a "reader's digest" of the novel: the movie perfectly holds together, with a balanced pace.
Also, the movie follows its own logic, which sometimes triggers a change in plot structure. Notably, Moby Dick first appears after 75 minutes (out of 110), which is early compared to the novel where he only appears in the last three chapters. This highlights the different internal logics of literature and cinema: in the novel, the late appearance is powerful because the White Whale remains a mystery until the very end. Herman Melville could compensate this delay with other scenes: encounters with ships who came across Moby Dick, dialogues and considerations about him, documentary-like descriptions of whales in general and that one in particular, etc. However, since the movie had to disregard most of these scenes, showing Moby Dick at the end only would have been anti-climatic.
Conversely, the movie transfers the tempest to the penultimate scene while in the novel it is slightly before: cinematographically, it typically is a highly climatic scene, while literarily it is less so, especially considering that Melville uses the tempest as a counterpoint to other scenes.
Last, the movie operates pertinent changes to the story, notably:
- Queequeg rallies from dying to save Ishmael from a dangerous fight (novel: rallies by his only willpower): it is visually more dramatic and credible;
- Ahab gives the gold coin to a shipmate (novel: first keeps it for himself): since the movie is shorter than the novel, it cannot emphasise Ahab's negative aspects, which are offset elsewhere in the novel;
- Starbuck wants to kill an awaken Ahab (novel: while he is sleeping): it is visually more dramatic and allows a following dialogue between the two men;
- Ahab's body is tied to Moby Dick at the end (novel: it is Fedallah's): visually, it is compelling since Ahab is a major character and his arm seems to incite his men to continue attacking the whale;
- After Ahab dies, Starbuck urges the men to continue attacking (novel: stays on the ship): it seems Ahab's lust for revenge has spread like a disease, even to rebellious Starbuck.
First, image has a special texture close to pastel, produced by adding black-and-white and silver layers on the usual colours. This has multiple impacts: it creates a unique tone, fit for adapting a masterpiece; it gives an "antique" feeling on line with the diegetic period; it looks like a painting, similar to the ones shown during the opening credits. All this has a purpose: "Moby Dick", amongst other things, is a tale where narrative distance is essential ("Once upon a time
"), which Melville masterly rendered by his unique style. Hence the movie re-activates the exceptional sensation generated by the novel: narration sublimes the fable; it creates a legend by itself.
Additionally, shots are frequently saturated: close-ups, frame filled with faces, sails, ropes, etc. It is a paradox since most of the action occurs outside: broad shots are rare; we seldom see the sky. The movie opens in a forest and closes with a shot on a floating coffin. This saturation has multiple impacts:
- It aligns to the novel theme that the ship is a world in itself, with different ethnic origins and professions: we are immerged in the sailors' environment;
- It reinforces the fable-like feeling, since tales unfold at individual level ("They lived (un)happily ever after"). For instance the close shot on Moby Dick's eye echoes the one on Ahab's;
- It provides a baroque "thickness" to the opus, comparable to Melville's dense, ornate style.
Last, acting perfectly illustrates the story. It is emphatic, on line with the novel's tone and themes. Most actors' physique and approach completely fit characters: we feel Ishmael, Queequeg, Stubb, Flask, etc. could not be different. Gregory Peck as Ahab is convincing, but probably not as much as Orson Welles would have been, who was initially envisaged for the role and eventually gave a memorable performance of Father Mapple.
The novel "Moby Dick" altogether encompasses adventure, epic, documentary, tale, parable, myth. The movie takes all these aspects on board, bar the documentary parts. Yet, it is not a masterpiece: it could have been a longer, full-scale epic three- or four-hour long, to better render the sheer magnitude of the novel and include some revealing scenes (for instance, other ship encounters or when sailors erotically wade in the oil). Also, the dated special effects somewhat reduce awesomeness: Moby Dick is not quite impressive and the ship sinking at the end looks like a model siphoned into a bathtub. Nonetheless, the movie remains a rare successful adaptation of an eminent classic.