The 1956 film adaptation of the famous novel Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck, is considered one of the most iconic Hollywood movies of the era and the best novel-to-screen adaptation of this story to date. The film was one of the first theatrical releases that took on the huge novel with its extraordinary symbolism and metaphysical expressions. Moby Dick (1956) is a classic Hollywood production that was able to capture the essence of the novel while adding artistic and symbolic flair to it in order to tell a deeply disturbing story.
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The screenplay, which was written in partnership with Ray Bradbury, covers the general plot points of the novel’s story. In 19th century America, the protagonist, Ishmael, signs up to work on a whaling ship Pequod sailing out of Connecticut to seek adventure. He befriends a harpooner, Queequeg, and learns the secrets of the maritime trade working on a ship that chases sperm whales. The ship is headed by an isolated peg-legged Captain Ahab, who has an obsession with tracking down a legendary whale named Moby Dick that led to an accident that took his leg years ago. Eventually, the whole crew joins him in the quest for revenge, which leads to a damning encounter with the gigantic whale destroying Pequod and several other ships, killing everyone but Ishmael (Moby Dick).
The plot storyline of Moby Dick has various religious themes. I believe it represents the struggle of man versus God, particularly the attempt to understand the divine and its power. There are a number of biblical references and allusions in the plot. The hunt for the whale represents the extremity of religion, while, at the same time, the character traits of some crew members are symbolic of the tolerance of other faiths. Overall, the religious themes in Moby Dick demonstrate a quest for wholeness, although, to various characters, this may mean different things.
The novel on which the film’s plot is based is highly symbolic, and each character is inherently complex and represents a deep aspect of human nature. While the movie does not go as in-depth, its characters are dynamic and demonstrate the natures and character traits that they are meant to. These are the key characters:
- Ishmael – the protagonist and narrator of the story. He symbolizes the goodness of the heart, hard work, and responsibility. To some extent, he is the philosophical mind of the story and, due to his survival, a representation of a miracle. He is the speculative consciousness that contrasts with Ahab’s monomania.
- Captain Ahab – the captain of the Pequod who has the blind ambition to hunt down the white whale for revenge. His character is a representation of the blindness of human emotions such as rage and desire for revenge leading to self-destruction. While Ahab sees the whale as evil, it is instead he who symbolizes evil, attempting to achieve power and control over the creature.
- Queequeg – an African native who is a harpooner on a ship, becoming Ishmael’s close friend. He is very exotic but resourceful and a loyal friend. His character represents themes such as open-mindedness, acceptance, honesty, and awareness of the importance of life and death.
- Mr. Starbuck – is a ship crew member who is the most rational of all and attempts to directly oppose Ahab in his quest. However, Starbuck has no support from other crew members and still demonstrates loyalty to the captain. He represents perhaps the aspect of peer pressure and how easily rationality can succumb to emotion.
- The Whale (Moby Dick) – the whale being hunted and is one of the most symbolic archetypes in fiction. It represents a great number of things, depending on the perspective. It is often viewed as a symbol of God, a divine creature that has the power to destroy but chooses not to unless someone decides to intervene. The whale is often symbolized as nature, once again a concept unimaginable to comprehend and difficult to grasp that destroys anything with its great force which chooses to come after it. Moby Dick is both a well-known threat and an enigmatic mystery.
- Captain Boomer – a fellow captain of another whaling vessel they encounter at sea. Similar to Captain Ahab, Boomer has lost an arm to Moby Dick and also seeks revenge, although not obsessed with it. His character represents a duality to Ahab, a more rational counterpart who understands the dangers of the endeavor.
The climactic event which occurs in the plot and is brilliantly portrayed in the film is when the Pequod finally encounters Moby Dick. It was first very emotionally foreshadowed as Queequeg orders his coffin to be made, and the characters have their final moments of peace before their deaths. The film demonstrates very good editing and shows the scene as almost a great battle. As Ahab attempts to kill the whale, the great force of Moby Dick destroys the vessel, leaving everyone dead until Ishmael is left adrift upon Queequeg’s wooden coffin. It is both a symbolic and artistic scene depicting the annihilation of the crew.
The 1956 film Moby Dick captures the classic essence of Hollywood filmmaking of the era while encompassing the symbolic nature of the novel and its characters. Undoubtedly, numerous symbolisms and metaphors were difficult to portray through the camera, but the film manages to relay the inherently deep emotions and philosophy of the story through its plot while managing to remain interesting through dialogue and special effects, even to a modern-day viewer. The movie’s iconic but underrated status places it at the top of the best film adaptations of all time.
Moby Dick. Directed by John Huston, performances by Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, Leo Genn, and Orson Welles, Warner Bros., 1956.
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