Ahab Gets Girl, or Herman Melville Goes to the Movies

By Stone, Edward | Literature/Film Quarterly, Spring 1975 | Go to article overview

Ahab Gets Girl, or Herman Melville Goes to the Movies


Stone, Edward, Literature/Film Quarterly


It is understandable if today's Melvillians protest the changes that script writer Ray Bradbury and director John Huston made in Moby-Dick in 1956. when they translated it into the medium of visual animation, sound, and color. Yet seen in the light of Hollywood's now semi-centennial relationship with Melville's book, Huston's treatment of it can seem benign, even slavish. His Moby-Dick is nothing less than the pursuit of a white whale by a sea captain maddened by the loss of his leg. It begins with lshmael and Queequeg signing aboard the Pequod and ends with the drowned Ahab lashed to his murderous white antagonist, lshmael alone surviving the onslaught. Whereas even the countless alterations in substance that Bentley's editor made for English readers in Melville's galley proofs in 1851 were as nothing compared to the transformation that Moby-Dick would undergo on native soil in the next century when it was first converted from letterpress to celluloid. As even antiHustonians may not be aware, this happened twice in the space of five years. Long, long ago.

Although it is aging badly as it approaches its fiftieth birthday. The Sea Beast (1925), a silent film and the first of three Warner Brothers motion picture productions of Moby-Dick, is still available to viewers. Equally available to the equally dogged student of this first attempt to adapt Melville's drama to popular taste is a companion document: a three-page "Appreciation" by one S. R. Buchman that prefaces a reissue of Melville's book (Moby-Dick or The White Whale, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1925) "Illustrated With Scenes From the Photoplay/A Warner Brothers Screen Classic Starring John Barrymore."

Evidently called forth as a defense of the drastic changes the scenarists had made in producing the film based on the text that follows it. this Appreciation is of great importance to students of the history of Melville's story; the more so because it can be said to serve the same function for the second Warner Brothers production of Moby-Dick, Moby-Dick or The White Whale (1930). a spoken film that, despite the authenticity of its title, is largely a copy of the 1925 production.

The departures from' Moby-Dick in this first "photoplay" and its 1930 copy provide an insight into the requirements of the screen and the problems the raw materials required the film makers to solve; a reminder of the chasm between intellectual and popular art. If a witty scholar (and, it happens, a Melvillian) has written a version of Huckleberry Finn to satisfy modern critics, Hollywood long years ago fashioned from Herman Melville's multi-volumed extravaganza, his undefinable picaresque novel-treatise-allegory-epic-tragedy, a simple 110- and then 75-minute melodrama that would have outsoared the hopes of Harper's, its original American publishers, and that - I would like to propose - even Herman Melville would have had reason to find fascinating. Having access to Buchman's screen-oriented interpretation enables us to recapture the critical theory of the artist in the new artistic medium, as applied in the two motion pictures and the still photographs accompanying and advertising the first. The Buchman apologia can help us understand how such a surprising conversion resulted.

The mixture of apology and fault-finding of the Appreciation betrays an uneasiness at the magnitude of the labor that. Hollywood felt, had to be performed. "The Sea Beast," we read, "exceeds" Moby-Dick. The "discrepancy" is not "a profanely wanton alteration." The characterization of Ahab. so far from "misused," has actually been "enlarged and clarified." There has been no "aimless unprincipled desire for melodramatic heightening." The reasons for the changes are of two kinds, and they are in conflict.

First, Ahab's character, being a "psychological study," is not amenable to "the bald limitations of the camera." After all, "an absolute cause and effect of this mental type," Buchman points out, is "obviously untranslatable to the screen. …

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