Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Not your grandfather's Moby-Dick"

Ahab. Illustration by Rockwell Kent for the 1930 Random House edition of Moby-Dick. Now: to see a film of Moby-Dick that looked like these illustrations . . .

"It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me." So says Ishmael of the titular character in Moby-Dick. But I can't say the following exactly puts roses on my cheeks:

Universal Pictures has made a splashy preemptive buy of "Moby Dick," a reimagining of the Herman Melville whale tale that Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted") will direct.

Studio paid high six figures to Adam Cooper and Bill Collage to pen the screenplay.

The writers revere Melville’s original text, but their graphic novel-style version will change the structure. Gone is the first-person narration by the young seaman Ishmael, who observes how Ahab’s obsession with killing the great white whale overwhelms his good judgment as captain.

This change will allow them to depict the whale’s decimation of other ships prior to its encounter with Ahab’s Pequod, and Ahab will be depicted more as a charismatic leader than a brooding obsessive.

"Our vision isn’t your grandfather’s ‘Moby Dick,’" Cooper said. "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."
Sigh. I guess I see a different core.

Like anyone asked me about this. But if they had, I'd tell them they need Cormac McCarthy involved on this project (Moby-Dick is his favorite novel, and one way of beginning to think about Blood Meridian is to read it as a re-writing of Melville's novel. But what concerns me more is the shift in narrative structure. I do have to say that the addition of a sort of prequel showing Moby-Dick's destroying ships makes a certain kind of sense for American audiences: hours of showing a bunch of sailors introspectively staring off at the ocean while pondering the nature of whiteness might be fine for those dilettante European cineastes, but we Americans want blood! Wooden ships sinking! Iron men drowning! As little dialogue as possible (gotta think about the foreign markets)! So, probably, not a lot, if any, of the establishing of Ishmael's relationship with Queequeg; no processing of a whale; no Pip; and--it goes without saying--no lengthy meditation on the nature of whales. I mean, how would you CGI that stuff? Might as well go and film it in a coffee shop.

And that last leads me to say this: I think it would be a serious mistake to not convey Ahab's grand madness/mad grandeur. To make him merely "charismatic"--that is nuts. Otherwise, his desire to hunt Moby-Dick acquires a different spin: a simple ego trip, just as Starbuck senses, that it will be hard to feel much sympathy for. Perversely, it's precisely in Ahab's madness that we feel a connection to him. Who among us has not known suffering or seen others suffer for no reason that, God or no God, we can make sense of and felt either anger or despair or both because of that utter lack of an answer?:
All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event--in the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principle, I will wreak that hate upon him.

Ahab is us. He's nuts, and we know it, but he is us. Most "charismatic" people, though, are not us--we're boring, dull--nor are most of them nuts. We kinda sorta wonder what it would be like to be them for a day or so. I have no desire to be Ahab, because I already am him in a very basic, fundamental way (minus, I think, the madness).

I wish these folks well. I certainly don't want them to make a hash of Moby-Dick, but I can't say as the description in Variety bodes well.

What say you?

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