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Film / Moby-Dick

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As one of the most famous and acclaimed American novels of all time, it is no surprise that Moby-Dick has been adapted to the screen several times. The most famous film adaptation is probably the 1956 version starring Gregory Peck as Ahab and directed by John Huston, with the screenplay written by Ray Bradbury. There have also been two acclaimed miniseries adaptations, one from 1998 starring Patrick Stewart and the other from 2011 starring William Hurt (both playing Ahab).

Tropes featured in these three versions, and common to others:

  • Accordion to Most Sailors: Early in the 1956 version, a whaler at the inn plays "Amsterdam" (aka "A-Rovin'") on a concertina, which leads to the whole room singing and dancing.
  • Adaptation Distillation: In the novel, Ishmael stays briefly in New Bedford before taking a packet ship to Nantucket, since he wants to sail aboard a whaler from the original home of the New England whaling industry. Some adaptations simplify this sequence to having Ishmael arrive in New Bedford and sign aboard the Pequod there. The 1956 film reassigns the mystique the book builds up around Nantucket to New Bedford as a result.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the 1956 version, Starbuck does an extremely abrupt about-face and urges the crew to continue the suicidal attack on Moby Dick after Ahab's death. Nothing of the sort happens in the novel.
  • Adapted Out:
    • The 1956 film leaves out several characters of various importance, most notably Fedallah (whose role of making specific predictions about Ahab's fate is handed to Elijah).
    • The 1930 film leaves out Ishmael, instead following Ahab from the start.
  • Brownface: Queequeg was played by Austrian actor Friedrich von Ledebur in 1956. The fake tattoos look okay at a glance; von Ledebur as a Pacific Islander is less convincing.
  • California Doubling: To date, none of the film versions have been shot in Massachusetts, in large part because the real New Bedford is far too developed to realistically pass for its 19th-century self.
    • The 1956 film was shot in Wales.
    • The 1998 miniseries was shot in Australia.
    • The 2011 miniseries was shot in Nova Scotia and Malta.
  • Casting Gag: In the 1998 mini-series, Gregory Peck played Father Mapple.
  • Composite Character: In the 1956 and 2011 versions, Fedallah's part is filled early on by Elijah.
  • Compressed Adaptation: The even-numbered chapters (the "whaling encyclopedia") are usually omitted.
  • Fake American:
    • The various film versions cast British actors as the mostly-American crew of the Pequod.
    • Ahab is played by Patrick Stewart in the 1998 film.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: While the earlier versions kept Ahab accidentally getting tangled in the rope of the harpoon he uses, in the 2011 version, he inexplicably wraps as much rope as he can around his own body, leaving little tension to his inevitable demise.
  • Killed By The Adaptation/Spared by the Adaptation: In the 1930 film, Ahab kills Moby Dick and returns home safely.
  • Large Ham: Ahab as played by Gregory Peck (1956) swings between Chewing the Scenery and just sounding like he's about to.
  • Locked into Strangeness: In the 1956 version, Ahab has a white line going through his hair, tracing the scar left by a lightning bolt.
  • The Mockbuster: The Asylum released their own version, with Barry Bostwick as Ahab, a Navy Captain who reappropriates his submarine to take his revenge on the white whale, here a prehistoric whale that had crippled him decades earlier. Here, his desire for revenge was his motivating factor for working his way up from ensign for the opportunity to one day take his revenge. Surprisingly contained a lot of references to the novel. Renee O'Connor played Dr. Ishmael, a marine biologistnote  whom Ahab shanghais into helping him.
  • Playing Hamlet: In the 1956 version, Richard Basehart, who played Ishmael, was actually older than Gregory Peck.
  • Politically Correct History: The 2011 version. While the Multinational Crew was not commented upon in the early versions, here there exists a new character whose sole purpose is to belittle the minorities, only to be told off by all the white characters.
  • Race Lift: In the 1998 version, Fedallah (a Persian) is portrayed by an Indonesian actor.
  • Setting Update: The Bedford Incident, a Cold War thriller, has a Soviet sub taking the place of a giant whale. The parallels to Moby Dick are even stronger in the novel.
  • The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: In the 1956 film, every time some other ship mentions that they've seen Moby Dick, Ahab anxiously asks "You didn't kill him, did you?", and is relieved to hear that the whale is still alive. Ahab wants to get revenge personally; it won't do if some other ship kills Moby Dick first.
  • The Smurfette Principle: In the 2011 version, Ahab's wife (Gillian Anderson) is given a small part early on — even though in the book, Ahab hasn't seen his family in years.