The high-concept casting of Starship Enterprise skipper Patrick Stewart as Ahab in the USA Network's new two-part Moby Dick is so obviously perfect it hardly matters that it's perfectly obvious. For, beyond the basic "captain plays captain" angle, which might equally open the role to Gavin McLeod or Daryl Dragon, Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard - as is made explicit not only in Star Trek: First Contact but in the press kit for this film - has battled his own White Whale in the form of the implacable, amoral, race-consuming Borg. So there you go.
The executive producer of this Television Event is Robert Halmi Sr., whose Hallmark Entertainment (no relation to the card people and their "Hall of Fame") has become the Classics Illustrated of the tube, with recent versions of The Odyssey, Gulliver's Travels, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Call of the Wild, Captains Courageous, In Cold Blood and A Christmas Memory made under its aegis. (Francis Ford Coppola is also listed as an executive producer, as he was on The Odyssey. This means, I am pretty sure, not much.) Halmi's productions are distinguished by more than usual fealty to the text and some actual regard for its meaning; they are respectful, even dryly dutiful, adaptations, which generally look as if somebody did his homework and got most of the answers mostly right.
So it is with Moby D.: The major passages are all in place; the characters are more or less colored within the author's lines; the dialogue is perhaps 87.5 percent drawn from the book, though not always from dialogue (my favorite line: "They call me Ishmael"); and while page after page after page after page after page of scientific, historical, philosophical, political and religious digression has been, not surprisingly, dispensed with, there has been an attempt at least to intimate - at times to rather broadly insist - that this is a story with scientific, historical, philosophical, political and religious dimensions. And since, as Stewart notes in the promotional companion show, Thar She Blows! The Making of Moby Dick (currently running on both USA and the Sci-Fi Channel), most of the audience will probably not have read the novel - the magnificence of which this film in no way approaches but does now and then, in certain fleeting images and well-delivered lines, manage to suggest - any stab at getting it close to right ought to be saluted.
And yet, and yet . . . this is, after all, only TV, and even the best good will must buckle finally before constraints of time and money and the scientifically estimated average tastes, intellectual capabilities and attention span of the target audience. The text has therefore been tweaked to make characters more conventionally protagonistic, the pathos more sentimentally pathetic; events have been shifted in order to get the big finny fella, who does not appear in person until Chapter 133 of a 135-chapter book, onscreen before the end of Episode 1; and there has been interpolated a fairly lengthy, wholly invented detour to Antarctica, apparently as a relief from all that damn sailing around, and because it looks really good, all frost and icicles and fields of snow. And may I point out, for the dear sake of Am. Lit., that the image of Ahab lashed fatally, famously to his prey is taken not from Melville (who reserves that end for the harpooner Fedallah) but from John Huston, whose 1956 film of Moby Dick, though more severely abridged than this and just as altered, was also more deeply felt, atmospheric, daring and - though no hit - artistically successful. Because it's not enough merely to Bring an American Classic to the Screen, as if the augustness of the book itself justified the film. It does no service to culture to remake a masterpiece even as intelligent entertainment, unless the new work is driven by a vision, or ambition, halfway commensurate with that of the original. As this is not.
To be sure, Moby Dick isn't an easy fit for the TV screen (no more than was The Odyssey - you can't accuse Halmi of thinking small), though I suspect there's a way to make it work, an approach that employs the limits and language of the medium as effectively and cleverly as do Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Homicide: Life on the Streets or The X-Files - itself, of course, totally a Moby Dick tale ("Mulder, it's just a whale." "Is it, Scully?"). The present filmmakers, however, have opted instead to reach for as much authenticity and sweep as they can afford, which by contemporary standards of epic is not nearly enough; as a result, their film looks not so much like first-rate television as it does a cheap version of a big movie. Franc Roddam, who long ago helmed the excellent Quadrophenia (a cheap movie more artful than this), gets the job done, but apart from some big set pieces (nice typhoon) and the uniformly keen visual effects, his picture too often looks flat and matter-of-fact, blandly staged and ineffectively framed. The production works against the performances - the actors look like actors, acting - and too often misses the mystery, madness and poetry that make the original great literature and not merely a logbook.
Still, there are things to see. Along with a substantial stunt cameo by Gregory Peck - Huston's Ahab, hirsute and venerable here as the harpooner-priest Father Mapple - the primary delights of the film are Stewart and Moby Dick himself. Given that Moby Dick the Book is, in a sense, the prototype for every special-effects film in which an outsize force of nature is mistaken for or represented as malevolent - the daddy of King Kong, Earthquake, Jurassic Park and Twister alike - it's perfectly appropriate that the whale is here embodied as a state-of-the-art computer animation, quite unreal but invariably magical. (The giant mechanical tail fin is rather less persuasive, though never as hilarious as Huston's worst model shots.) The rest of the movie belongs mainly to Stewart, whose supporting cast - which includes Henry Thomas (grown big since E.T.) as an overly innocent Ishmael, Ted Levine (the killer in The Silence of the Lambs) as a not-inappropriately insubstantial Starbuck, and a host of half-corny jolly tars - can't quite keep up with him. Stewart's particular mix of strict classical training and almost Shatneresque show-biz gusto are made to order for Ahab, who must be as big, in his way, as the whale, to balance the drama, and a kind of Master Thespian to sway his crew to his mad purpose. This is just his meat - he's the only one aboard who can convincingly get his mouth around Melville's Yankee-Shakespearean cadences - and he makes a feast of it.
Talk and the talent to talk it also inspirit The McCourts of Limerick, a video documentary on the family portrayed in Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela's Ashes, coming to Cinemax by no accident of programming this St. Patrick's Day. (Remember to wear green.) In fact, talk is nearly the whole of it, as technically the piece rarely rises above the level of a fancy home video - which indeed it is, having been made by Frank's nephew Conor McCourt, who is by trade a policeman. The camera shakes, voices fight with the wind, unfortunate reflections flash across the faces of speakers unfavorably lit - none of which matters much, as every one of the four brothers McCourt (including actor Malachy, of She's the One and The Devil's Own) has something interesting to say and a memorable, moving, musical way of saying it. I haven't read Frank's book, which has achieved international cult status - if such an oxymoron may be allowed - and commemorates a drunkard father, a depressed mother and a life of extreme poverty in midcentury Ireland and New York; nor do I know if it's any good. But on its own this little scrapbook movie, in spite of its being somewhat factually confusing, paints perfectly well, with angry humor and witty rue, the portrait of a family that managed to survive its class, its culture and itself. If you can watch it with a dry eye, you've no soul at all.
© Robert Lloyd 1998 and 2011