Nota bene!

Attention all Wadpaw readers!  

‘ s long-aborning book, Masterpiece Comics, is now in stores and at your favorite online retailers.  Purchase of this volume is mandatory.  Do not go back to school without it, it will mark you with the badge of cool.  It is a collection of comics/literature mash-ups that illuminate both the comics and the literature in the process.  Sikoryak finds striking parallels between high culture and low, and you will never look at Crime and Punishment again, assuming of course that you’ve looked at Crime and Punishment at least once in the first place.

Moby-Dick, the movie, sort of

As any sentient English-reading American knows, Moby-Dick is the greatest novel ever written.  It begs to be made into a great feature film.

It, so far, has not.

In 1930, they shot a version with John Barrymore where Ahab kills the whale and is happily re-united with his patient, long-suffering wife.  In 1956, John Huston shot the most famous version with considerable cinematic flair but with Gregory Peck tragically miscast as Ahab.  By 1998, there was a TV-movie version with Patrick Stewart as Ahab, which I have not seen, but which was made for TV.

As I’ve noted before, there’s something about great literature that resists film, no matter how “cinematic” the literature seems to be.  The Godfather is a great movie from a pulpy page-turner.  So are Jaws and Silence of the Lambs and Gone With the WindThe Great Gatsy, however, I think is doomed to ever-diminishing returns.

Moby-Dick is doomed, I think, for four reasons.

1. It’s period, which makes it expensive
2. It’s about whaling, and 19th-century whaling at that, which no one cares about
3. It’s based on a work of “famous literature,” which makes people want to go see Pirates of the Carribean 2: Dead Man’s Chest instead
4. It’s called Moby-Dick

Now then.  What does make Moby-Dick a great idea for a movie?

1. Deathless, universal themes of leadership, manhood, adventure, madness, obsession
2. A terrific, flawless, inexorable plot
3. Indelible, time-tested characters

So, to make Moby-Dick into a movie, the thought occurs to me, as it does to any screenwriter, “Well, let’s just stick with the stuff that works and throw out the rest.”

That is to say, keep those themes, keep those characters, keep that plot, but throw out the title, the reputation, the period setting, and most important, the whaling.

What is the plot of Moby-Dick?  The plot of Moby-Dick is that a crazy, obsessive leader goes “off the res” and gets the men in his care tangled up in a dangerous mission of revenge that can only end in death and ruin.

The first person who springs to mind, of course, is George W. Bush.  But no one is going to develop that movie any time soon.

It could be almost anything.  It could be thieves, it could be spies, it could be an office, it could be a school, it could be merceneries.

So here’s the question: what is the 21st-century equivalent to 19th-century whaling?

Ahab is a crazy captain, but his employers let him be crazy because he produces results.  Christ, isn’t that the protagonist of every police drama made in the past 40 years?  And that would make Ishmael the rookie cop who gets drawn into the shady side of undercover work.  The cliches write themselves!

But Ahab is not in the employ of the government, he is in the employ of the investors of The Pequod.  Part of the drama of Moby-Dick is that Ahab isn’t just fulfilling a personal vendetta, it’s that he’s doing it with someone else’s ship and with men who don’t share his sense of outrage and vengeance.  The voyage of the Pequod is a commercial venture.  Ahab is not only asking his men to give up their lives, he’s asking them to give up their stake in a lucrative commercial venture.

Whaling, as Melville describes it, is a hugely profitable but also derided profession.  Even in 1851, apparently, whaling was seen as a necessary but ugly economic truth.  One might use whaling products every day, but one did not wish to hang out with whalers.  Whaling was seen as an adventurous, dangerous but low-class thing to do with one’s life.

So who are today’s whalers?  Our mercenaries in Iraq seem to be a good point of comparison.  But maybe it’s someone in the drilling or mining profession instead.  Maybe it’s drug-runners, maybe its firefighters, maybe it’s paramedics, maybe it’s cops after all.

Or maybe it’s a heist movie.  If Danny Ocean took Elliott Gould’s money for the casino job and then said to Matt Damon and his crew, “You know, I’ve got a better idea, let’s rob Fort Knox instead,” is that Moby-Dick?

But the gold in Fort Knox is dead.  It’s a metal, it’s not alive.  Moby-Dick, the great white whale, is alive, natural, unplaceable and unknowable.  Ahab is asking his crew to join him in a mission to know the unknowable.  And that makes it tricky.
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