September 17, 2013

The whaling adventure that inspired Moby-Dick heading to screens big and small


In November of 1820, the American whaling ship Essex sunk after being attacked by a gigantic sperm whale in the southern Pacific Ocean. The story of the ill-fated vessel, which many believe to have provided the inspiration for Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece Moby-Dick: or, The Whale, has been the subject of a great deal of historical interest and is set to be the topic of upcoming films by both the BBC and Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard.

While it was the account of the sinking of the Essex written by the ship’s First Mate, Owen Chase, that inspired Melville’s novel, the BBC’s adaptation will be based on the journal kept by the youngest member of the ship’s crew, a cabin boy named Thomas Nickerson. Though the BBC’s adaptation, which is set to be released under the title The Whale, will be based upon the same events as Melville’s novel, executive producer Eamon Hardy told The Guardian that, upon watching the film, “Very few people will know that Moby-Dick was directly inspired” by the same story.

Meanwhile, Ron Howard set sail for the Warner Bros. studios in Hertfordshire, UK where he will begin production on his next project, a film adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Howard’s impressive resume as a director includes historical dramas Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon. He’s already put together a strong team—including screenwriter Peter Morgan and actors Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, and Ben Whishaw—for his project.

Though the timing of the upcoming adaptations is undoubtedly somewhat interesting, there have already been numerous attempts made to bring the story of the ill-fated voyage to the silver screen, with the most notable being John Huston’s 1956 film Moby-Dick, which featured Gregory Peck and Orson Welles. It should be interesting to see whether these new adaptations will live up to the standard set by those earlier versions or sink like the Essex.


Michael Elmets is a Melville House intern.