Saturday, April 27, 2013

Lessons in Filmmaking #2: The White Whale

Phew, been a while since a serious post from me, sorry y'all. Been a bit busy, but I'm back. What follows might make a good companion piece to my essay about what it means to adapt the life of Abraham Lincoln.

Lessons in Filmmaking #2:
The White Whale

I've been thinking a lot about adaptation lately. It's a tricky process to shepherd a piece of art across mediums, often a very personal and mutative one. What happens when a filmmaker adapts a literary work at its worst can resemble a child's timid book report, and at its best it can ennoble and strengthen the original work.

My mind's on this for a few reasons, but mostly because I just watched the 1930 John Barrymore version of Moby Dick. This film is a bit notorious in the annals of adaptation because it's about as far removed from Herman Melville's original characters, themes, and content as possible.

The story of the movie is a bit complicated, so best to start with the beginning - in 1926, John Barrymore, at the height of his career, four years after playing Hamlet and the same year as Don Juan, starred in a silent loose adaptation of Moby Dick called The Sea Beast. Really all they took from Melville's work was the concept of a big whale taking a man's leg - the bulk of it is a land-bound love triangle playing on Barrymore's reputation as a great romantic leading man. It's most famous for The Big Kiss when Barrymore's Ahab kisses the leading lady Dolores Costello so intensely she briefly passes out.

The Sea Beast was a smash - how could it not be? Barrymore macking like a pro, and all. With the rise of sound cinema, by the early 1930s there was a bit of a land rush to remake sound era hits, particularly those a literary pedigree since, hey, the actors could talk now! Barrymore's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example, got an update in the classic 1931 Rouben Mamoulian version, and Greta Garbo's 1927 Anna Karenina adaptation Love was remade in 1935 under the original title Anna Karenina.

The Sea Beast has a similar progeny - its 1930 remake Moby Dick, like Love/Karenina, reverted to the original novel's title and retained the leading actor John Barrymore. The director, however, changed from 1926's Millard Webb to 1930's Lloyd Bacon, a solid workingman director with a strong sense of pacing and an aptitude for all genres.

I find the very existence of 1930's Moby Dick fascinating and kind of revealing. It's not actually Moby Dick at all. Like the '26 version, it famously changes the ending of the story to allow Ahab to kill Moby Dick and return to his love1. This is the most famous and obvious change, but far from the only or even most egregious one. We spend a firm forty minutes on land before taking to whaling, and the actual hunt for Moby Dick that constitutes the novel is less than twenty minutes, almost exactly one quarter of the film's 80 minute running time. That means that a firm 75% of this film is an original work. It's sort of an alternate Moby Dick, one which takes some character sketches and plot mechanics and weaves its own story from that. There's a pretty clear tip-off that we're in for a kind of mutant alternate Moby Dick in the opening credits.

The first shot is that hoary shot that opened so many classic-era Hollywood adaptations, a close up of the source novel being opened:

And we take a peek inside Herman Melville's book:

But what is this? Look, if Moby Dick is famous for anything, it's famous for the opening sentence. "Call me Ishmael," everybody knows it. Children know it, for god's sake, even the comic book version knows enough to include that:

Instead we have some boy's adventure story opening with no relation at all to Melville. And as it turns out, Ishmael - the protagonist and narrator of the novel - never appears in this film. The background is dotted with recognizable figures from the original - first mate Starbuck, the gruff Stubb (name altered to Stubbs), Father Mapple, and a surprisingly faithful version of Elijah all pop their heads in. Queequeg's role grows - he takes over much of Starbuck's duties as Ahab's confidante, and the religious customs we get a sense of in the novel became a source of complex concern in the film.

But Ishmael, our Ishmael, never arrives. His life and personality are stolen, in fact, by Ahab. Ahab, not Ishmael, grows close with the cannibal/prince/harpooner Queequeg. Ahab, not Ishmael, wanders Nantucket as a young and spirited man. Lloyd Bacon has condensed and muddled things. We no longer have old intractable Ahab and young poetic Ishmael, we have a whole new character, one with the light heart of Ishmael and the thunderous rage of Ahab. Ish-hab.

But real ride-or-die Melville fans will have raised their eyebrow even before seeing Ishmael's opening line gone, because "Moby Dick or The White Whale" is not the full title of Melville's work, it's really "Moby-Dick; or, The Whale." I can accept the loss of the hyphen and punctuation as the streamlined 20th century's tamping down of the talky 19th century2, but the film's addition of the word "White" strikes me. Moby Dick is famously white, so there's pretty unassailable logic in referring to him as such in the title - it's not simply The Man in the Flannel Suit, after all - but! and this is a big but: 

The Moby Dick of Lloyd Bacon's film is not a white whale.

It kind of blew my mind when I realized it. I think they only verbally refer to him as "white" once, but it's a distant yell from a watchman, easy to miss. The whiteness of the whale is very much de-emphasized from the novel.  In this opening sequence we leaf a bit through the pages of the book, and in a chunk of garbled Reader's Digest Melville we're told that the whale has only a "white forehead" and "white hump."

One of the great debates of the text is whether Moby Dick is pure white or mottled white, and to that end one of the amazing proto-modernist touches of the text is that the animal seems only to grow whiter the more Ahab thinks and speaks of it. By the novel's end, Moby Dick is a burning, all-pervading, impossible white. But it's the opposite in this film. We start out with "the white whale" in the first paragraph of the prologue, get to patches of white in the second, and by the time we actually meet the thing... well, see for yourself:

I suspect there's a practical reason for this alteration. Moby Dick is often called unadaptable, and I want all y'all to remember that word because I'm going to return to it. One reason for its supposed unadaptability is the technical hassle of creating a giant white whale thrashing about the ocean. Just watch the making of Jaws to get a sense of the problems of working with models in water. Jaws could barely get made in 1975 with a 25 foot shark, the sheer magnitude of the task of creating a boat-sized whale in 1930 is staggering.

So when the white whale shows up a somewhat prosaic gray, I shook it off with the assumption that they had surrendered the coloring to match the prop whale with stock footage of real live sperm whales. But that didn't happen. There's a brief shot of a real whale's tail as it dives, but that's it, and that's hardly worth the change.

But then Ahab kills Moby Dick, and in the film's final minute we're shown a shocking, anatomical montage of the whale's shorn skin hauled on deck and sliced up. We linger in particular on this shot:

Was Moby Dick turned grey to match this shot? It seems like the only logical answer - even if they were working with old models from another production, there's no reason they couldn't repaint them. This shot is the only unmalleable element in the entire whale hunt sequence.

In the novel, the whale's color is a powerful and constant metaphor for Ahab's all-consuming vengeance, but Ahab is not really consumed by vengeance in this film. His great anguish comes not from the act of losing his leg to the whale but from his fiance's supposed rejection of him (long story involving a sinister brother trying to get in it). So therefore, the act of killing Moby Dick is about reestablishing his masculinity in this film, as opposed to the all consuming "for hate's sake" suicide spiral it is in the novel. Cutting up the whale, conquering it totally to the very flesh, is supremely important. Lloyd Bacon's whale hunt was a bullfight, and John Barrymore's Ahab (often showing off his raw athleticism) was the matador.

It ain't Melville, but really - what is? The Sea Beast was a swooning melodrama, this 1930 update is sort of an Alexander Korda-ish historical comedy romance (it reminds me a lot of Korda's Rembrandt, which also had a habit of fudging the source). 

Elsewhere, Moby Dick has been adapted with more care paid to the framework of the text. The 1956 John Huston-directed, Ray Bradbury-scripted version was the first "respectful" crack at the story. Ishmael is back in place, there are no added romantic entanglements, and the whale is both white and alive at the end. It's as it should be, but it just doesn't work. It captures the mechanics of the plot and the whale boat scenes are well done, but there's none of the grandeur, camaraderie, or beauty of the text. It's literal, like a high school Macbeth. Even moments like this:

which for the most part retain the text verbatim, lack all lyricism because it's treated with stilted precision. My favorite part of the film is one of the few original touches, when Ahab's dead body gets tangled and lashed to the whale's. That lone digression from the text revealed a lot of potential that the film failed to capitalize on. 

In all candor, though Huston's Moby Dick is better Melville, Lloyd Bacon's is better cinema. It's a good showcase for Barrymore's stuntwork and natural charm. It recasts the story as one of man's triumph over nature, which sort of an arrogant 1930s thing to do, but it's honest with itself and it's not hard to latch onto. 

The same complaint I have with Huston's film can be leveled at the 1998 Franc Roddam Moby Dick minseries, which hosts great performances from the likes of Patrick Stewart and Bruce Spence but fails to find its own rhythm and heart.

The standout of Huston's film is Father Mapple as played by Orson Welles, who himself adapted the play to the stage with 1955's two-act play Moby Dick - Rehearsed. The play documents a theater company's rehearsal of a Moby Dick show, improvising props and slowly getting into character. It's a solid piece. I adapted it myself in college, but I was dissatisfied with the pacing and rewrote much of the first act. The result was credited as "John D'Amico's revision of Orson Welles's adaptation of Herman Melville's novel." Melville's text was the center of the show, but there was another story overlaid on it. It was not Moby Dick, it was something else entirely. It was the chronicle of my love for Moby Dick and for Orson Welles, and of Orson Welles's love for theater and for Melville. There was a lot at work in it. 

But Moby Dick - Rehearsed is great Moby Dick, despite how far it flies from the text. Welles has a knack for adapting the core of a story rather than the simple dull machinations of its plot. Watch his take on one of the more lyrical passages. In one minute he pierces farther into the sad, proud heart of Ahab than any take I've ever seen:

Closer at least to my Ahab, that is.

To my eyes, the truest film adaptation of Moby Dick is an adaptation of another novel: Jaws. That sounds glib, but I'm being serious. Quint's complicated pride, skill, anger, and magnetism reach deep into Ahab, much deeper than the mannered unapproachability of Huston's film or the entirely different Ish-hab of Lloyd Bacon's. Chief Brody's lovable straight man is also the best take on Ishmael I could imagine. It's hardly a cinematic role, but with the skill of Spielberg and Scheider, his idiosyncrasies rise to the surface and he never feels like a mere cypher for the author. Peter Benchley's novel is pretty bad, Spielberg elevates it by paring it down to its best elements and marrying it with Melville, Hitchcock and a host of other influences, turning all that ore into something new and fresh, something deeply beautiful and irreducibly cinematic.

Actually there's a pretty sizable tradition of almost-Moby Dick cinema, with some heavy hitters like The Wrath of Khan and The Bedford Incident. I've always thought the best movie never made was Moby Dick as a crime thriller with Klaus Kinski as Ahab and Toshiro Mifune as the whale. Even Wagon Train took a crack at the story in its season two opener "Around the Horn." In a weird turn of events, there's even a 2007 French film called Capitaine Achab about the life of Ahab that can probably be called a remake of The Sea Beast instead of an adaptation of Moby Dick.

For an unadaptable story, this one gets adapted a lot. And yet, unlike Melville's novella Billy Budd which received a definitive and traditional3 adaptation in 1962 that every version hence has emulated, each Moby Dick is different from the last.

But, then, it is unadaptable! We're talking about Star Trek and killer sharks and love triangles and just about everything except what's contained in Melville's book. Why is that? It can't be length. Gone with the Wind got a definitive home-run of an adaptation, and at 418,053 words to Moby Dick's 206,052, you could theoretically fit two great Moby Dick movies inside Gone with the Wind. 

So what it is about Moby Dick?

There are no women in it, first of all. And it's all set on a boat about the size of a city bus. Our heroes are traveling the globe stabbing and hacking the most majestic creature on earth. They speak in odd slang. The racial politics are complex and uncomfortable. You have to shoot at sea. Everybody dies at the end. Yet it is one of the most enduring works of art in the world, with arguably the most compelling male role except for Hamlet, and a name that to this day commands instant attention and enduring awe and admiration. A complicated state of affairs has made Moby Dick both an attractive and terrifying prospect for a filmmaker, so each film is something of a minefield run, dodging the perils and trying to land surefooted in the triumphs of the text. Each film, therefore, takes a different path, and a good many of them blow up somewhere along the way.

But more than that, it seems to me that adapting Moby Dick is more like adapting something like The Waste Land than Gone with the Wind. Mood is often of absolute primacy. Mood is so essential that the novel (which in its way is an adaptation of Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner4") begins with ten pages of quotes about whales, sort of a scrapbook of legends, stories, and factual accounts that serve as raw material for Melville's tale. Many lines from these quotations work their way into Ishmael's story.

A filmmaker of worth has some incredible raw material to work with here. There are passages of extraordinary ferocity and horror - at one point we hear of sharks that "viciously snapped like flexible bows, bent round, and bit their own disembowelments; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound," and passages of perfect serenity: "An intense copper calm, like a universal yellow lotus, was more and more unfolding its noiseless measureless leaves upon the sea." The whole gamut of the human experience is in this text. Many have failed to capture it, some have succeeded. The ones who have succeeded most enduringly - Welles, Spielberg, Nicholas Meyer, Paul Stanley have succeeded by isolating the elements of the work that speak most profoundly to them, by nurturing the union between the novel and their heart.

I think there's a lesson in filmmaking in that.

Ahab's wife is only ever addressed obliquely in the text - most powerfully in Chapter 132 - The Symphony ("I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck"), but she seems to be a figure of constant interest. There's a novel about her travels in the 19th century which I haven't yet read and would love to get opinions on. 

2 "Moby-Dick" with a hyphen is so unconventional Melville doesn't even do it inside the text - Chapter 41 is titled "Moby Dick."

3 Traditional but, like most films based on Melville, the homoeroticism was toned down as much as possible.

4 Sole survivor of a nautical disaster recounts how a sailer's  obsession with a mystical white animal cursed and killed the crew.


  1. "Moby Dick as a crime thriller with Klaus Kinski as Ahab and Toshiro Mifune as the whale."

    Now playing in movie heaven.

  2. Was it Pauline Kael who noted that the first half of Jaws was Sinclair Lewis, the second Melville?

    Very enjoyable read here, with a lot to chew on (but then Moby Dick is itself the ultimate work of art offering much to chew on). I've always felt the reason the novel was "unadaptable" in conventional terms was that focusing on the narrative ignored the real texture of the book, in which narrative was just one element among many others: poem, essay, encyclopedia, meditation, literary experiment. It would take Terence Malick to even attempt getting it right, someone willing to abandon the story for long stretches, substituting images for words to retain the spirit rather than the letter of Melville's aura.

    On another note, your title made me think of a somewhat different topic: the idea that the much-maligned "white elephant" school of filmmaking (which Huston's Moby Dick may itself be said to belong to) could be transmuted into something more sublime and beautiful: "white whale" filmmaking, perhaps just as ambitious and doomed, yet liberated rather than weighted down by this ambition and doom. To explore such films - films which do not limit themselves to Farber's preferred termitic approach, yet don't fall prey to the trappings of pretentious, soul-dead white elephantitis - could provide a much-needed rejoinder to the contemporary tendency to go small rather than big, hone in rather than expand, and the assumptions which go with that tendency. Just a tangential thought.

  3. The hunt for the white whale tempts us all as Burt Reynold's character opines in the seriously underrated 'Hustle' (Robert Aldrich), the character, a cop, is in love with a high class call girl (Catherine Deneuve), learning that the Huston film is playing on tv every night he obsesively watches it. The character becomes a kind of amalgam of Ahab and Ishmael, gangsterist capitalism becomes the whale in much the same way that the corruption at the heart of America is drawn as the whiteness that must be hunted in the wonderful, 'Cutter's Way' (Ivan Passer) where John Heard plays a Vietnam vet with one leg and refers to the louche Jeff Bridges as Ishmael and regails a barroom with a rant about Moby Dick. In truth 'Moby Dick' runs through American culture as a type of ur-text, a novel of such universal symbolism that it seems to make America.

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