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Herman Melville book 'Moby-Dick' on screen stretches from Gregory Peck to 'Futurama'

The Herman Melville book 'Moby-Dick' has been parodied on TV and several directors have tried to capture the classic novel on film, though no movie version has quite attained classic status.

By Staff Writer / October 18, 2012

The Herman Melville book 'Moby-Dick' was adapted by director John Huston and writer Ray Bradbury for a 1956 film version starring 'Roman Holiday' actor Gregory Peck.

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You doubtless know the classic beginning line, "Call me Ishmael," and the Herman Melville book details that follow: the main character, sailor Ishmael; the ship he travels on, the boat known as the Pequod; the mysterious Captain Ahab and his obsession with capturing a whale known as Moby Dick.

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Staff writer

Molly Driscoll is a Books and the Culture staff writer.

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With much of the story taking place on the ocean, a massive whale serving as one of the main characters and a whirlpool featuring as part of the story's dramatic conclusion, "Moby-Dick" doesn't exactly scream "movie adaptation," but that hasn't stopped Hollywood directors from trying.

The story's first appearance in theaters came in 1926 with the silent movie "The Sea Beast," a story which bore similarities to Herman Melville's tale but was in fact a loose adaptation. In "Beast," Ahab, played by Shakespeare legend John Barrymore, falls in love with a girl named Esther who is later repulsed by his peg leg when Ahab's right leg is lost after he falls into the ocean with Moby-Dick. To those familiar with the novel, "Beast" would feature a surprise twist ending – unlike Melville's story, Ahab returns safe from his quest. Barrymore returned for a 1930 version of the story titled "Moby Dick," which remade the story with sound but follows the same plot as "Beast."

A 1956 version of the story appeared next, starring "To Kill a Mockingbird" actor Gregory Peck as the vengeful Ahab and directed by John Huston, who was also behind the movies "The Maltese Falcon and the African Queen." Huston collaborated on the screenplay with legendary sci-fi author Ray Bradbury and the relationship between the two during production was apparently not good. According to an interview Bradbury did with the Paris Review, Bradbury told Huston that  he had "never been able to read the... thing" – meaning Melville's novel. And, Bradbury apparently felt that Huston bossed him around too much.

A massive prop whale was built for the production, clocking in at 85-feet long and weighing 12 tons. However, during production, it drifted away on the ocean, breaking free of its line, and was lost in the fog covering the sea at the time. The prop was substituted by attaching whale body parts such as a tail to a barge and filming miniatures of a whale as well as using a life-size version of the whale's head, complete with moving eyes, for close-ups, according to a Turner Classic Movies feature.

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