“To give the truth of the thing”

After months of anticipation, I finally got to see Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea on Thursday night.  The great age of Yankee whaling has always fascinated me, and the 1820 tragedy of the whaleship Essex is the stuff of which great movies are made, so I was really looking forward to this one.  Unfortunately, I left the theater feeling a little let down.

Part of the problem is the fact that the filmmakers fumble the ball when it comes to the very aspects of the story that have the most dramatic potential.  It’s almost as if Howard and company lose interest in their own movie once that malevolent sperm whale rams the Essex and sends it to the bottom of the Pacific.

It was that event which inspired the climax of Melville’s Moby-Dick, but what was the ending of Ishmael’s fictional adventure was only the beginning of the Essex crew’s months-long ordeal of exposure, starvation, despair, cannibalism, and (for nearly two-thirds of them) eventual death.  Curiously, though, the film gives the crew’s experiences after the sinking an almost cursory treatment.  It’s like reading a CliffsNotes version of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book: the story’s highlights are there, but there’s no heart.

But the main thing that irked me about the film is its treatment of the relationship between history and myth.  Putting this into words requires dropping quite a few spoilers, so read what follows at your own risk if you’re planning on seeing the movie (which I still recommend, despite my disappointment with it).

The marketing for the movie really hammered the connection between the Essex tragedy and Melville’s novel.  BASED ON THE INCREDIBLE TRUE STORY THAT INSPIRED MOBY-DICK, the posters proclaimed.  It’s not a bad PR move to link the film with such an instantly recognizable title.

And anybody who glanced at the cast list on IMDB before the movie’s release would’ve known that the Moby-Dick angle would come up in the film, since Melville is one of the characters (portrayed by Ben Whishaw, the same actor who plays Q in the new Bond movies).

The historical Melville did indeed cross paths with a few people who had close ties to the Essex tragedy.  While at sea as a crew member of the whaler Acushnet, he met the son of Owen Chase, first mate on the Essex‘s final voyage and the main character in Howard’s movie.  William Chase loaned Melville a copy of his father’s published account of the disaster; Melville recalled that reading it “had a surprising effect upon me,” and he included a quote from it in the “Extracts” at the beginning of Moby-Dick.   Years later, after his novel’s publication, Melville visited the Essex‘s home port of Nantucket and met the ill-fated ship’s captain, George Pollard.

Thomas Nickerson’s sketch of the whale’s attack on the Essex. Nantucket Historical Association via Wikimedia Commons

These incidents apparently weren’t sufficient for the makers of In the Heart of the Sea.  Rather than having Melville meet Chase’s son during a gam or Captain Pollard after Moby-Dick‘s publication, the movie has a fictional framing device in which Melville travels to Nantucket while working on his book to interview Thomas Nickerson, the Essex‘s former cabin boy.  In the film, the aged Nickerson has refused to speak of the tragedy to anyone.  He reluctantly agrees to tell his story to Melville only because his wife persuades him that they need the money.

As I’ve said before, I don’t mind dramatic license in historical movies when it’s used to good effect, but it irks me when filmmakers substitute a fictional episode for the truth when the truth would serve just as well.  I think that’s the case with the movie’s fictional meeting between Melville and Nickerson.

Is the notion of Melville hearing the tale from Nickerson any more dramatic than what actually happened, when the young would-be writer read a copy of Chase’s account given to him by the first mate’s own son, aboard a whaler, and (as Melville himself recalled) “so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck” itself?  I don’t see how the movie’s fictional framing device is an improvement.  In fact, since Chase is the film’s protagonist, it makes more sense to tell the story from his perspective rather than Nickerson’s, although the former cabin boy later wrote his own account of the disaster.

And while the fictional Nickerson-Melville interview provides many poignant moments, surely Melville’s actual encounter with Captain Pollard was just as poignant as anything the filmmakers could have contrived, if not more so.  By the time Melville met Pollard, the former whaling master was a broken man.  On his next voyage after the Essex tragedy he captained a ship that ran aground and sank off Hawaii.*  Marked as a cursed man, he never took command of a whaling ship again.  He spent his last years as Nantucket’s night watchman.  “To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville wrote of the aged captain.  “To me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”

Even more puzzling to me was another bit of dramatic license.  The filmmakers evidently decided that “the incredible true story that inspired Moby-Dick” needed to include Moby Dick himself.

In the film, the Essex hits a dry spell in which their prey is scarce; frustrated, the captain and mates stop over in South America, where they meet a group of fellow whalers who have come from an area in the southern Pacific swarming with sperm whales.  But the other crew also warns them that a malevolent white whale is also prowling those waters.  Undaunted, Pollard and his crew strike out, only to come face-to-face with the mottled white whale himself—the very whale, as it turns out, who rams the Essex and dooms her crew to their long ordeal on the open sea.  The mottled whale reappears periodically throughout the movie, apparently pursuing the stranded crew across hundreds of miles of ocean for reasons that are never clear.  The overall effect is to turn what was already a gripping story of survival into something like Jaws—or perhaps the 1977 film Orca, in which Richard Harris does battle with a killer whale out for revenge against the man who killed its mate.

There really was a historical white whale nicknamed Mocha Dick who acquired a fearsome reputation around the waters off South America in the early 1800s.  That was another source of inspiration for Melville.  But since the movie touts itself as the “incredible true story” behind Moby-Dick, why re-fictionalize the Essex tragedy by adding in the very same elements that Melville did?  The film promises us the kernel of historical truth behind a great work of fiction, only to obscure that truth behind fictional embellishments taken from the novel.  It seems like a horribly unnecessary step backward.

Surely the most compelling thing about the story behind In the Heart of the Sea is the fact that it’s a true story.  That awesome climax of Melville’s novel really did happen; an enraged leviathan really did send a whaling ship to the bottom of the sea, setting off an ordeal of death, despair, and survival that is remarkable enough on its own without any dramatic license.

I think the filmmakers’ liberties with the Essex story reflect something about the relationship between history, drama, and memory more generally.  Some historical incidents and figures acquire cultural significance when talented writers and filmmakers come along and embellish them, turning them into stories that move people in a way that only great fiction or drama can.  And because the stories move people so deeply, they often want to get at the truth behind them, if only to come as close as possible to touching those fictional characters.  Thus historic sites linked to these embellished stories play up those links in their marketing; likewise for non-fiction books that promise to tell the true stories behind some legend, novel, or popular movie.  But often, when people finally encounter the historical truth behind those stories and characters they love, that truth only disappoints them.  The reason is because great stories rarely just happen.  Great storytellers know how to glean bits of truth from the world around them and remake them into something meaningful by means of their own imaginations.

Melville had that magic touch.  The wreck of the Essex gave him the spectacular ending to the story he wanted to tell.  But the Essex tragedy is one of those rare instances where the truth is just as dramatic and compelling as what the storyteller made of it.  That, I think, is what the filmmakers lost sight of.  We’ve already got Moby-Dick; we didn’t need another fictionalized take on the Essex.  The “incredible true story” on its own would have been…well, incredible.

That’s not to say that all dramatic license is off-limits when making historical movies.  To spin a good yarn, it’s necessary to (as Melville himself put it) “throw in a little fancy.”  But even while writing his novel, he claimed that he aimed “to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.”  I had hoped the filmmakers would “give the truth of the thing” when I sat down to watch In the Heart of the Sea.  Instead, it seems they took the advice of the newsman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Melville’s legend became fact, so they filmed the legend.

*A few years ago, NOAA archaeologists found the remains of this ship, the first discovery of a sunken Nantucket whaler.

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1 Comment

Filed under History and Memory

One response to ““To give the truth of the thing”

  1. I really enjoyed In the Heart of the Sea, for all the reasons you describe. I didn’t know about this movie though – I’ll have to check it out, with eyes wide open of course.

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