“Call me Ishmael.”
These three words begin ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘The Whale,’ the 1851 masterpiece of American author Herman Melville. The epic work tells the story of a sailor (Ishmael) who joins the crew of the whaling ship ‘Pequod.’ The ship’s Captain Ahab is dead-set on finding and killing Moby Dick—the great white whale that caused him to lose one of his legs long ago. In the end, Moby Dick capsizes Pequod, leaving Ishmael as the sole survivor while dragging Ahab down into the depths by the rope of his own harpoon.
A staple of school curricula around the world, the 930-page novel has a reputation for being as formidable as its eponymous monster. When you attend a top liberal arts college, iconic books like these will not only be included in your curriculum, but they’ll comprise the curriculum itself. Passionate professors will guide you through writings like Melville’s that have shaped our modern literary and cultural world.
Read on for our guide to modern works inspired by Melville’s most famous great book:
Centuries of Moby Dick Surfacing on the Silver Screen
There have been quite a few film adaptations of Moby Dick made since the age of Hollywood began, with varying degrees of fidelity to the book. The classic tale of revenge has also inspired a few unconventional homages.
A 1929 silent movie called The Sea Beast was loosely based off the novel, and featured Ahab as a fiancé with an evil brother vying for his soon-to-be wife. Ahab then captures and kills Moby Dick, securing his fiancé’s affections and the film’s happy ending. The novel would wait another quarter-century before a more accurate adaptation would be released: Moby Dick, a 1956 film starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, with a screenplay by writer Ray Bradbury.
This century has seen several new takes on the novel. Age of Dragons, a 2011 movie starring actor Danny Glover turned Captain Ahab into a knight searching for the great white dragon that once burned him. Most recently, Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea tells the true story of a sinking whaling ship in Essex in 1820 said to have originally inspired Melville.
Moby Dick’s looming presence threatens the ship and its inhabitants throughout Melville’s novel
If not its plot, the novel's spirit has also made its mark on film. At this great books foundations are the famous Ahab/Moby Dick revenge dynamics that never stay away from theatres for long.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan features an old spaceship captain seeking revenge on his nemesis Captain Kirk, who once stranded him on a deserted planet. “From Hell's heart...I stab at thee! For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee,” gasps Khan as he mimics Captain Ahab's final showdown with the whale.
Moby Dick Spotted Throughout the Field of Great Books Studies
As a masterpiece and mainstay of collegiate great books studies, it would be surprising if there were not a number of written adaptations of Moby Dick. Ray Bradbury returned to the story with Leviathan '99, a written spin-off of Moby-Dick set in space in 2099, with the whale replaced by a comet.
China Miéville's novel Railsea is set on railroad tracks instead of on the ocean, and has been described as 'an affectionate parody' of the novel. Philip Jose Farmer wrote a sequel called The Wind Whales of Ishmael, in which Ishmael is transported to the far-future where flying whales are hunted from aircraft.
When you immerse yourself in great books like Melville’s Moby Dick, you too may find yourself inspired to take its themes and characters to new and even greater heights!
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