newyorker_moby_demi.gifBryan’s reference to the mid-1990s adaptation of The Scarlet Letter starring Demi Moore reminded me of a cartoon that ran in the November 20, 1995 issue of The New Yorker. Drawn by Warren Miller and entitled “Moby Dick the Demi Moore Version,” the cartoon pictured a big, dead, white whale (with crosses for eyes) hanging from a scaffold. At the bottom left were a peg-legged man holding a harpoon in his left hand and hugging a buxom lass with his right arm. (Click the thumbnail at right to go to the cartoon’s page at

The thing is, Hollywood has already made the Demi Moore version Moby-Dick — twice.

The first was a silent adaptation called The Sea Beast (1926), adapted by Bess Meredyth and starring John Barrymore, Sr. as Ahab Ceeley (yes, they gave him a last name); George O’Hara as Ahab’s brother, Derek (yes, they gave him a brother); and Dolores Costello as as Ahab’s love interest Esther Harper (yes, they gave him a love interest!). Plus, there’s a dog.

The film was remade with sound as Moby Dick (1930), with Barrymore reprising the role of Ahab Ceeley, though the writing credits are given to Oliver H.P. Garrett (for the adaptation) and  J. Grubb Alexander (for the dialogue and screenplay). Lloyd Hughes now plays Derek, and Ahab’s love interest is renamed Faith Mapple and played by Joan Bennett.There’s still a dog.

But this time, with the Melville Revival underway, the filmmakers decide to acknowledge that Moby-Dick is a classic book, so the film opens with a book opening:

md_1930_book.jpgAnd then we get some text. If you’re expecting “Call me, Ishmael,” you’re going to be disappointed, though if you paid attention to the open credits, you’ve already realized that there can’t be a “Call me, Ishmael,” because — well, there’s no Ishmael.

md_1930_credits.jpgSo here’s the text we see. It’s not particularly Melvillean:

md_1930_words_1.jpgThe next screen is a little bit better (but not much):

md_1930_words_2.jpgI often show clips from this version to my American Lit I classes, which have read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and learned about Hawthorne’s remark about “d___d scribbling women.” I suggest to them that what Hollywood does to Moby-Dick in these two adaptations is to transform the novel so that it fits into the tradition of sentimentality against which Melville was positioning his novel. Gone, with Ishmael, are any hints of the homosocial, though Queequeg is retained — as Ahab’s buddy.


Noble Johnson as Queequeg and John Barrymore, Sr. as Ahab in Moby Dick (1930)

What happens? Well, let’s just say that the logic of domesticity and marriage prevails (sorry, Moby). Ahab goes off to seek revenge on the white whale because the whale has maimed him and thus rendered him undesirable in Faith’s eyes — or so he believes. When he returns (yes, he returns) from his successful hunt (yes, I said “successful”), he finds that Faith has, well, kept the faith.

I found a copy of the Sea Beast on DVD from It’s not a very good print. The opening credits identify it as a transfer from a
print held by the George Eastman House, originating from the Henry
A. Strong collection, and it interpolates some of the opening of the 1930 Moby Dick. Unfortunately, the later sound version does not seem to be able on any kind of video. I was lucky enough to tape a copy years ago when it was shown on TNT.

I figure if Moby-Dick can survive its sentimentalization in these two early Hollywood films, it can survive the new anime adaptation as well.

But, guess what: when I write “new anime adaptation” I mean “new anime adaptation” and not “new, anime adaptation.” You see, there’s already been an anime adaptation — and it takes even more liberties with the story than the new version promises to do.

Stay tuned for a later post in which all will be revealed.