Why Can’t Hollywood Make a Decent Movie Version of Moby-Dick?

Why has it been so difficult to make a film version of “Moby-Dick” that comes anywhere close to matching the sublime brilliance of the novel? Of course, that’s a stupid question that could be applied to many works of literature. Still, it would be difficult to choose a literary masterpiece that has been cinematically adapted so many times with such disappointing results. “Moby Dick” seems to defy adaptability more than any other equivalent book in the canon of Greatest Novels of All Time.

“Moby Dick” (1956)

John Huston’s first mistake was casting Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. Peck created a legendary status for himself specifically by presenting himself as embodying human decency. Peck’s Atticus Finch was named by the American Film Institute as the number one movie hero to date. Captain Ahab is, while complex, mostly viewed in malevolent terms, ranging from pure evil to monomaniacal.

Peck was, quite simply, one of the worst choices to play Ahab that Huston could have made. “Moby-Dick” goes downhill from the miscasting of Peck to include ridiculously awful special effects, lackluster direction of action scenes, and a maddening rejection of all the symbolism and psychology that makes Melville’s novel worth reading.

“Moby Dick” (2010)

This two-part TV movie features William Hurt as a more acceptable Ahab than Peck and Gillian Anderson as Mrs. Ahab. What!! There is no Mrs. Ahab in the book, and this is her first movie appearance since a really dreadful John Barrymore movie.

Once you get out to sea and away from the invention of characters, this “Moby-Dick” is not that bad. The whale scenes have not improved over Huston’s movie from a special effects perspective, but at least this Ahab has some bite. The extended length allows for greater development of minor characters. Eddie Marsin as Stubbs and Ethan Hawke as Starbuck become the most interesting seamen on the Pequod. Which, of course, is not as it should be. Ahab and Moby-Dick are the stars of this story, but they fade into the background.

“2010: Moby Dick” (2010)

The great white whale breached through the surface of the water big time in 2010. In addition to the conventional adaptation mentioned above, this version of Melville’s masterpiece was released directly to video. The lack of a budget is hardly the thing that sinks this updated reimagining of the novel.

First there is the title: “2010: Moby Dick,” which is apparently supposed to alert you to the fact that the story takes place in a more contemporary setting. The lack of a budget cannot be blamed for cheesy special effects since every single movie version has featured lousy special effects. The lack of money is also no excuse for bad acting and atrocious dialogue. The ever-changing size and power of the whale is also subject to quizzical expressions while watching this candidate for Rifftrax.

Orson Welles and What Might Have Been

John Huston had the chance to hire Orson Welles as Ahab, but chose to cast him in a minor role instead. Welles staged an infamous and inventive version of “Moby-Dick” on the London stage. The result was a thoroughly theatrical performance likely incapable of being replicated on the screen. The stage version did apparently reveal a deeper understanding and appreciation of the symbolic properties that make “Moby-Dick” the leading candidate for Great American Novel, however.

Such an understanding coupled with Orson Welles’s proven talent as a film director holds out the forever unrealized hope that he was the one Hollywood figure capable of creating a film version of the story of Ahab’s obsession with the white whale that could have matched the power of the literary version.