Monday, August 4, 2008

In the shadows of Melville

Moby Dick, as it exists in the popular consciousness, is the first modern monster story, with an oversize albino whale trashing ships like rubber-suited kaiju stomping Tokyo. It has no major female characters, and features men doing manly things at sea long before the current "Deadliest Catch" craze. Never mind its philosophical digressions about the nature of God and man; Moby Dick may symbolize Divine Providence, but he could also swallow the shark from Jaws without chewing, and that makes him cool.

I was familiar with the film made from Ray Bradbury's script before I sat down to read it, in the new edition from Subterranean Press.

Moby Dick has consistently defeated filmmakers, who either miss the point or think (like the Hallmark Patrick-Stewart-as-Ahab version) that old-fashioned Melville needs some revisionist "tweaking." Although respectful of Melville, Director John Huston's 1956 film has three drawbacks right off the bat: special effects technology not quite up the task, an odd decision to "desaturate" the color so that the film looks faded and worn out, and nice-guy Gregory Peck just beyond his range as Captain Ahab.

If you've ever read Moby Dick, you know that Melville's novel includes passages and chapters that serve no narrative purpose, but instead immerse you in the lore of the sea and whaling. As a reading experience it's valid, but of course none of these sections can possibly work in a film. Bradbury sensibly jettisons them, sticking to a straight-ahead narrative culled from the "plotty" bits. He makes some changes and invents some transitions, but nothing that conflicts with Melville's spirit. He trusts that the actors can handle Melville's Quaker-influenced dialogue (lots of Biblical "thee's" and "thy's") and doesn't scrimp on descriptions ("The CAMERA swings on a great arc and comes to rest upon a display to rival all the man-made fountains of Versaille, a great spouting and fireworking of jets, a great sprinkling and spraying of whales on the horizon."--from p. 96).

In this volume, the script is bracketed by an introduction by editor (and head of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies) Professor William F. Toupance that places the screenplay in the context of Bradbury's career, and an essay by "textual editor" Jonathan R. Eller relating the production, including the implication that Huston insisted on a meritless co-writer credit (not unlikely, given Huston's ego). In fact, the experience of working with Huston inspired two later Bradbury works, the thinly autobiographical Green Shadows, White Whale* and the short story "The Banshee," which can easily be read as the writer's revenge on the director.

Most film scripts make pretty weak reading because, let's face it, most screenwriters are pretty weak writers. That's not the case here. The screenplay makes the reader visualize a stronger, more epic film than the one Huston eventually directed. Bradbury keeps true to his source, and that source keeps true to its story; no extraneous "love interest" is needed or wanted**. It's a fascinating blend of two strong literary voices, one clearly under the spell of the other. It's not the same as reading the actual novel, but it might serve a useful intermediary role by simply telling the story.

In the post-Harry Knowles world, everyone is familiar with the vernacular of film, so the screenplay structure is no problem. In fact, many teen readers will probably find it easier than the actual book, if only because it's a fraction of the length. The reader faced with Moby Dick as a homework subject might better be able to navigate through the shoals of Melville's digressions after sailing the clear channel of Bradbury's adaptation. I feel compelled to point out, though, that even though this is a rewarding reading experience on its own, it's no substitute for actually reading the original. I'm sure Bradbury would agree; John Huston, maybe not.

*it's worth seeking out the audiobook of Green Island, White Whale, read by Bradbury himself, to hear his spot-on impersonation of Huston's distinctive voice.

**to see what that would be like--and this isn't a recommendation--see the dire bestseller Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-gazer by Sena Jeter Nasland. Among its many literary annoyances, it turns fiction's most famous introduction, "Call me Ishmael," into a pick-up line.

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