In the middle of Moby Dick, Herman Melville encapsulates the whole of his veritably epic tale: “I tell you, the sperm whale will stand no nonsense.”
This statement also, naturally, summarizes the story of Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea,” a rendering of the true story that inspired Melville’s classic. After an enraged bull sperm whale attacks the whaling ship the Essex, the crew fight for survival and revenge, learning along the way the virtue of humility and humanity (ironically the traits that Ahab never understood.)
For what it might have been lacking in screenplay and convincing time-period authenticity, the movie was a visual delight (and I’m talking about more than just Chris Hemsworth).
The light filters and cinematography made every frame a work of art. The sea was captured in its magnificence, as were the whales. And the story adequately kept my attention though, strangely enough, the intermittent scenes with Melville interviewing the Essex survivor, Thomas Nickerson, were the most interesting. The rest of the plot seemed a bit purposeless, the characters’ stories underdeveloped. (However, Rotten Tomatoes’ 42% seems a bit harsh, even by my sometimes overly critical estimations.)
Most satisfying (read, relieving) of the whole movie was how, um, tastefully Howard portrayed the horrifying measures to which the crew resorted in their final days of shipwreck.
Though details of the true story that the movie is based on were left out and others a bit exaggerated, it still makes me proud to know that filmmakers are willing to portray magnificent true stories that were first captured by master nonfiction writers (such as Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the nonfiction book In the Heart of the Sea.)
Because, of course, long before a book about the wreck of the Essex, and long before a movie about the book about the wreck of the Essex, there was a novel, which inducted the true story into literary history. And before the novel, of course, there was a whale.
At the end of the movie, Melville thanks Nickerson for sharing his difficult story and for giving him “the courage to go where one does not want to go.”
“The courage to go where one does not want to go.”
It was a good reminder that sometimes, especially as writers, the stories that need to be shared are the most difficult to tell. And for all of us, sometimes the most difficult tasks end up being the most rewarding.
After the movie, I found myself searching my bookshelves for the mammoth classic, dog-eared and marked from my journey—more like a plod, at ten pages a day—through its cumbersome prose several summers ago. I’m thankful that Melville persevered and produced the work now vastly disregarded for its antiquity and length. And I’m thankful that I persevered and read it through. Yes even chapter LXXIV, “The Sperm Whale’s Head—Contrasted View.”
Of all the books I’ve read, it was definitely the most rewarding.