Whale-watching: Forthcoming Moby Dicks

[The image above (like the one at the bottom of this post) is from a design by Paul Lasaine for an abandoned version of Moby Dick developed by Dreamworks, directed by the Brizzi brothers. You can see several more images at his blog. The plan was to tell the story from the whale’s point of view; a fascinating idea that the studio didn’t want to follow up. My whale fixation continues in a post about Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies.]

I’m planning to post updates here on Spectacular Attractions about the two forthcoming adaptations of Moby Dick, along with notes about earlier versions. It’s something I’m distracted by at the moment, so this is an outlet. If anyone has further information than I can gather from the Web, please add comments below.

Here’s some of what we know so far. Timur Bekmambetov, director of Wanted is signed to direct a massive-budget version for Universal Pictures, which will begin shooting once he’s finished making Wanted II. From what I can tell, it sounds like they’re inspired by the graphic-novel aesthetic of 300, which preserved the pictorialism of Frank Miller’s original text but, for my money, made it too pristine and over-designed to be emotionally engaging. The script has been written by Adam Cooper and Bill Collage. You may find Cooper’s statement enticing: I find it kind of ominous:

Our vision isn’t your grandfather’s ‘Moby Dick’. This is an opportunity to take a timeless classic and capitalize on the advances in visual effects to tell what at its core is an action-adventure revenge story.

To that end, they’ve removed Ishmael’s first-person narration. This means that we can see lots more scenes of Moby Dick trashing other ships, without being limited to one character’s perspective. But Ishmael’s narration is always subjective, questionable – part of the drama of reading Moby Dick is feeling the distance between literature and experience. You can feel the narrator’s urge to communicate every detail of what he sees, but you can also feel the mystique of folklore, the tingle of secondhand reports of a sea monster. Seeing more of Moby Dick undermines some of the mythic structure of the novel, in the same way that remaking Jaws with lots of close-up views of a CGI shark would throw away what made it frightening in the first place. But obviously, it’s too early to judge. Certainly, Melville’s book provides plenty of opportunity for awesome spectacle, but it would be a shame if that came at the expense of its ability to create a detailed picture of life on a whaling ship, or the complex psychology of its narrator.

First up, though, Mike Barker is directing another adaptation for TV (produced by Germany’s Tele Munchen Group) with a budget of over $25,000,000, with William Hurt as Ahab, Charlie Cox as Ishmael, Gillian Anderson as Elizabeth, Ethan Hawke as Starbuck, Apocalypto‘s Raoul Trujillo as Queequeg, plus Eddie Marsan and Donald Sutherland.  It’s written by Nigel Williams, who scribbled a damn fine script for HBO’s Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren, and used to write episodes for Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: let’s hope he’s still got some of that knack for tale-spinning. There’s quite a bit of teasing info, and lots of photos from the set, at the website of  Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, where the film finished shooting last month: it was dressed to look like 19th-century Nantucket. I’m afraid you’ve already missed it, but there was an auction of props used in the film: see here for pictures.

On her blog, Gillian Anderson hints at a harmonious set with good relations amongst the cast, but also that it was “cursed”:

Anyhoo so here is LAX and on my way to the welcome drizzle of London before the welcome sunshine of somewhere else and time just flies and flies and I wish I could tell you what I’m doing next but I can’t and Oh there was Moby Dick which was so much fun and such a great group of people not least of which was the director Michael Barker who is an angel of a man and Ethan (Hawke) and Charlie (Cox) and then William (Hurt) and oh my Donald Sutherland who I would give my left anything to properly work with again. It was blessed. Well, and cursed but I won’t go into that.

I think we would want an adaptation of one of the most monumental literary expressions of reckless obsession to require similar levels of anguish to recreate. That’s probably a silly superstitious belief, but there’s a strong mythos that surrounds the big productions that run into difficulties. It would seem cheeky to remake Moby Dick with too much ease, when it took Melville so much effort to drag out of his mind, condensing his arduous seafaring experiences into a gargantuan statement of the awe and danger of nature. It is scheduled for completion early in 2010.

How odd that we’ll get two adaptations in such a short space of time. The differences between them will, I hope, prove interesting and illuminating on the topic of transitions from literary to screen media.

12 thoughts on “Whale-watching: Forthcoming Moby Dicks

  1. My initial impression is that the Bekmambetov adaptation will be a dumb F/X romp. Looking forward to the film directed by Mike Barker. He managed to assemble an amazing cast and it seems to me the producers understand what the whole “Moby Dick” business is about. The presence of Gillian Anderson, a perpetually underused and underrated actress, is a great bonus.

    • Thanks, LT. Given Bekmambetov’s previous form, I don’t think we could assume anything else except that he plans to stress the story’s action over its crises of character. I’ll also be interested to see how they handle the issue of whaling. It’s a far more sensitive subject these days, for wholly valid reasons (e.g. the whaling industry has brought whales too close to extinction for comfort), so stories which take a less than condemnatory attitude (Melville’s book comes close to romanticising whaling as a monumental struggle between man and beast) might not be very warmly welcomed. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to see any preaching about it in an adaptation of a 19th C novel – I can imagine them having one of the minor characters spouting some anti-whaling speech as a precautionary measure against criticism. Agree about Gillian Anderson, and the presence of Eddie Marsan is encouraging, too. He’s always a welcome sight (except perhaps in Hancock, which was too big for even him to salvage.

  2. I have to admit I haven’t yet thought about those adaptations from the point of view of whaling, but completely agree that modern-day sensibilities would be offended by a too enthusiastic portrayal of this particular lifestyle. I wonder whether any attempt will be made in the script to deromaticize it. Hm, maybe the “all action” approach will make sense in this respect. ;)

    However, to me “Moby Dick” is principally a formidable character study and therefore the fact that Barker’s film will have William Hurt and Ethan Hawke, Donald Sutherland, Gillian. and a few other very solid actors makes me extremely interested in the whole project. The photos from the set confirm those guys mean business: the sets and costumes look very good, indeed. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind a new, deliberately modernized adaptation of “Benito Cereno”, either. Or an animated version of “The Bell-Tower”.

    • They might have to make Moby Dick more personally vindictive, rather than a dumb beast defending itself. I always thought the whale wasn’t vengeful at all, but just a blank slate onto which Ahab and others had projected their fears and inadequacies. But hey, I have to get it through my head that they’re making a couple of movies about Moby Dick – they’re not out to match them to my own interpretations. Damn.

      • “I always thought the whale wasn’t vengeful at all, but just a blank slate onto which Ahab and others had projected their fears and inadequacies.”

        I couldn’t have said it better myself. But I would add the whiteness of that white whale cotinues to describe the attitudes of the present-day, media-controlled societies very aptly, indeed.

        Can’t find the link, but I read somewhere that Ahab and his wife could be blaming the whale for the loss of their son. Will this perspective be taken into account in either of these adaptations?

  3. I’m guessing that the inclusion of Gillian Anderson means that the role of Ahab’s wife will be expanded – she’s barely mentioned in the book, except to say that she’s much younger than him. Do we know that that’s who she’s playing? She’s listed as Elizabeth, but I don’t remember anyone of that name in the book. I hope they haven’t added a perfunctory love interest. I can’t see how she can have a lot to do if they’re at sea for most of the story.

    Thanks for helping with my speculations, LT! I don’t normally do this kind of predictive posting, but I thought it would be interesting in this case to track the development and see how it all comes together.

    • You’re welcome, Dan, and your predictive posting is certainly attention-worthy. :) As to Gillian Anderson’s role, she is playing Ahab’s wife. During a very recent X-Files charity event she apparently said she appears only in the scenes before the guys go to hunt the whale, so we’re indeed talking about a fairly limited role. Initially I hoped she would play Starbuck (Scully in the famous series was called Starbuck by her father), but the script isn’t THAT revolutionary, I guess. :D

  4. I should point out, in case it’s necessary (!) that the phrase “not your grandfather’s Moby Dick” is most likely a sly reference to the pre-release hype for J.J. Abrams Star Trek as “not your grandfather’s Star Trek”. That particular line didn’t endear itself to loyal fans of the franchise, since it patronises the earlier versions as outdated rather than foundational, implying that they need the “upgrades” of a modern, improved aesthetic.

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