BOSTON — Only two other film versions of Herman Melville's masterpiece, "Moby Dick," have ever been made: The first starred John Barrymore (1930) and had a happy ending; the second (1956) was directed by John Huston and starred Gregory Peck.
Now there is a third. In the first made-for-TV movie (USA, March 15 and 16), the four-hour miniseries stars Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab, and Gregory Peck returns to play the small but significant role of Father Mapple.
The exciting high-seas adventure tale in which Captain Ahab, mad with rage and bent on revenge, pursues the great white whale that deprived him of a leg, is really a complex moral tragedy worthy of the ancient Greeks. And the elements that make it so significant demand an expansive and intense artistic imagination in the role of Ahab to fulfill its promise.
Patrick Stewart is just the man. Classical training with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London helped fit him for this challenging role, he says.
But it was another actor who urged Mr. Stewart to seek the role. On the set of "Star Trek: First Contact" in which Stewart played Captain Picard (prophetically, as a raging Ahab-like figure), friend and colleague Brent Spiner read about the coming Hallmark Entertainment production and told him, "Patrick, here is something you should do - that's your role."
"And of course, there were lots of jokes in the trailer about how good a whale I would make," laughs Stewart.
"I believe in storytelling," he continues. "It's one of the reasons I do what I do."
"During those months in Australia [where it was filmed]," he says, "I would think about how extraordinary the story is, and then I would think, 'Let's not lose sight of the yarn we have to tell, the once-upon-a-time aspect. The story is great, the setting is exciting and huge.' "
Asked what "Moby Dick" has to say to us in the late 20th century from the depths of the 19th, Stewart replies, "It's about passion. It's about the power and strength we do have as individuals to attempt something. But it is also about how that attempt can be corrupted and distorted by irrationality and rage."
Stewart points out that Ahab is, to begin with, an admirable man. "It's one of the tragedies of the story that he is a great man who has lost his way," he says. "This is a man who has intellectual size to him. He has a fine mind, but one twisted by pain. He is filled with murderous rage."
"Why 'Moby Dick' is a tragedy and not just a story about a bloodthirsty psychotic sea captain," continues Stewart, "is because Ahab always has a choice. He can turn the ship around and take the men home. He can listen to the heart of what Starbuck is saying to him. He can put behind him his rage and his pain. He has insight, he knows what he's doing. When he comes to the great [self-reflective] moment, 'Is Ahab no longer Ahab?' he knows, but he chooses destruction instead of life."
The world on board the Pequod is a very male world. It would have been a different story, however, if Mrs. Ahab or Mrs. Starbuck had been on board, Stewart says.
"When you remove the female element from a society like this, something happens, something changes. I do know that it was not uncommon for captains to take their wives and families with them. I held in my hand the diary of a whaling captain's wife, and it was very moving ... what the effect of having a woman on board must have been. Ahab has erased this side of his nature because it would deflect him from his course.
"And it is Starbuck's job to stand in for that female element, which Ted Levine ["Silence of the Lambs"] does so brilliantly."
Stewart did plenty of research for the role, reading a biography of Melville, along with his writings, and investigating Nantucket Island, among other sites of whaling history. "When you are doing a story like this, you don't just turn up in the makeup trailer in the morning. You turn up with huge concepts and grand ideas and philosophies walking around in your head."
And in many ways, he says, Ahab is the role of a lifetime. "I mean, how many Hamlets have we seen in the last 10 years? How many Ahabs have you heard of since Greg Peck's? It was time to reinvestigate this role. And the world has changed, and our understanding of men like Ahab, Starbuck, and Ishmael has somewhat deepened."