My friend, I give you perhaps the world’s first movie tie-in: a 1925 edition of Moby-Dick illustrated with stills from the John Barrymore silent-movie version, The Sea Beast. Slight problem—the film takes dazzling liberties with Herman Melville’s novel, giving young Ahab an evil half-brother, Derek, who pushes him into the jaws of the white whale that shears off his leg. Ahab also gets a love interest, Esther, but after said shearing, Derek convinces Ahab that she could never truly love a one-legged man. (One photo bears the caption, “Sensitive of his crippled condition, Ahab interprets her love as pity and self-sacrifice.”) Ahab ends things with Esther, sets off in search of the whale he blames for ruining his life … and kills it.
“In story, the screen version of Moby-Dick exceeds the book,” writes S.R. Buchman in an “Appreciation” that precedes Melville’s Derek- and Esther-free text. “The discrepancy between the two must not be considered as a profanely wanton alteration. The episode of the book has not been misused; it has been enlarged and clarified.” And Melville’s ending provides an “unreasonably cruel fate” for Ahab, Buchman complains. “In all justice, Ahab had suffered enough to be granted expiation and its rewards, but Melville killed him.” What a blunder! “It is a relief and satisfaction that the picture version allows Ahab to live,” Buchman concludes. I can think of at least one whale who might take issue with that.
Margaret Guroff is editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.