First of all, they didn’t change the ending. This may not seem much to be relieved about, but after what Roland Joffé did a couple of years ago to The Scarlet Letter – throwing in all that stuff Nathaniel Hawthorne so carelessly omitted, like comely slave girls, truculent Algonquins, lynchings, witch hunts, and a pony-cart trip to a Carolina Disneyland for Hester and Dimmesdale and their demon-child; not to mention, if impossible to forget, Demi Moore and Gary Oldman burrowing in a grain bin like a pair of randy moles while being chirped at by a dirty bird – we are entitled to worry about what a bunch of Australians might do to another classic of American literature in a cable-TV mini-series rendition of Moby Dick (Sunday and Monday, March 15 and 16; 8 to 10 p.m.; USA). I am happy to report that Ahab goes down with the white whale, and so does everyone else on the luckless Pequod except, of course, Ishmael, who uses a coffin as a canoe.
Secondly, Patrick Stewart actually improves on Gregory Peck, the Ahab in John Huston’s 1956 film. I sometimes wonder if Stewart’s Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation wasn’t overpraised simply because William Shatner couldn’t act at all. But here, baptizing harpoons with blood and rum, Stewart embodies the mystique and madness of command. His craziness – “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me!” – is Greco-Elizabethan. Whereas Peck was too nice a guy for either a peg leg or demonic possession. As a sort of homage, Peck shows up here, too, this time playing Father Mapple. And he’s still too nice, understating the Jonah business that Orson Welles so shamelessly hamboned as Mapple in the Huston film.
Henry Thomas’s Ishmael is as eager and callow as Richard Basehart’s. Piripi Waretini’s Queequeg, scrimshawed with lurid tattoos, will remind you of one of those Sumo-size Samoans who ends up playing defensive tackle on a pro football team. Ted Levine, in the impossible role of Starbuck, is a slice of Hamlet on wry toast, or Adlai Stevenson at Masada. The rest of the doomed crew, excluding little Norman Golden as mad Pip, veer from ribaldry to cannibalism before they are grossly weathered. It’s as if the populace of Heaven’s Gate had booked the Titanic. Instead of Hale-Bopp or icebergs, they get a Moby who, between Sunday and Monday, ups his fearful aspect from a huge cube of albino sausage to an apocalypse with flippers. Jaws may have permanently stretched our synapses out of shape for any more cinematic seafaring suspense. But it’s still a thrill to see Stewart crucified on a cross of blubber. And in Antarctica we’ll find, if not God or Leslie Fiedler, at least Prometheus.
Finally, in this Franc Roddam picture there seems to be more of Melville’s poetry – that King James Bible-King Lear Shakespeare diction, those ghostly echoes of Homer, Milton, and Dante – than screenwriters Huston and Ray Bradbury managed. From pulpit and bridge, in low parody and wild eloquence, the unstable characters – old Ahab hounding absolutes, young America embarking on an empire – strut, fret, and howl. Not that we get everything. That’s what the book’s for – the most idiosyncratic in our literature until Faulkner, as well as a template for road novels from Huck Finn to On the Road and maybe even Lolita. Why is it that when men in American novels feel despondent about manhood, they invariably abandon wives and kids for some sort of Aboriginal walkabout to kill other men or fish, bag a unicorn, waste a hippogriff? Where are the novels with heroes like Walt Whitman, or Charles Kuralt? Instead of Spanish bull, Quaker oats? In fact, Ahab was a Quaker.