Adaptations ahoy!

Yglesias laments the recent announcement of a new Moby-Dick film adaptation — directed by the guy with the unspellable last name who just directed Wanted, written by a team that has only teen comedies to their credit (including the Olsen twins vehicle New York Minute), and co-produced by the folks who’re bring us the American history adventure series National Treasure. (Recall Nicolas Cage peering at the all-seeing eye on a dollar bill: “I think the Illuminati were trying to send us secret messages!”)

Is it indulging in Ivory Tower elitism to join Matt in thinking: “Terrifying!” — and not in a good, White-Whale-crushing-your-boat way?

Part of what’s to be lamented, apparently, is that the writers are conceiving this as “an opportunity to take a timeless classic and capitalize on the
advances in visual effects to tell what at its core is an
action-adventure revenge story” — something more akin to dramatizing a graphic novel.

Actually, Melville wrote that version of the story himself. And then he spent a year rewriting it into Moby-Dick. Biographer Delbanco draws on Melville’s own words to set the scene as a vampire story:

Looking back at his labors on Moby-Dick, Melville saw “two books … being writ … the larger book, and the infinitely better, is for [his] own private shelf. That it is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink.”  Moby-Dick was Melville’s vampire book. It sapped him — but not before he had invented a new kind of writing that, we can now see, anticipated the kind of modernist prose that expresses the author’s stream of consciousness without conscious self-censorship.

So what’s lost in reducing Melville’s two-in-one grand-slam to a film adaptation of a graphic novel? Lots, I suspect, as is true with all other film versions of the book. This time they’re jettisoning the first-person narration, for one — something most of the graphic novel adaptations of the book don’t even manage, as far as I can tell.

The news of the new adaptation — and its conception in relation to graphic novels — led me to do some poking around. I quickly realized the graphic adaptation of Melville’s book had gone through many more versions than I was aware of. I grew up on the old Illustrated Classics rendition; my wife picked up one for our kids when she worked for Scholastic. We own the pop-up version, of course. What self-respecting Am Lit professor under age 50 doesn’t?

Moby Dick - preview.jpgBut I hadn’t realized until this morning that there’s a Will Eisner version, along with two others that feature major figures from my experience as a teenage comic book collector in the 1980s: Dick Giordano and Bill Sienkiewicz. And just this year Marvel published a six-installment adaptation, due for single-volume hardcover release next month (see illustration to the left). I’ve just put in orders for all of the above — of course there are many more — but I have to say that list of names here heartens me. Certainly some of these adaptations are smart? Maybe this will turn out better than the 90s version of The Scarlet Letter, before filming which Demi Moore didn’t even feel the need to read the novel.

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