Sons of Moby Dick: Melville’s White Whale has spawned a school of sea monsters

Moby Dick may seem an odd choice for inclusion in Cinefantastique. After all, if one were to categorize the novel, the obvious label would be Adventure – specifically, a high-seas adventure about whale hunting. However,  Herman Melville’s tale is awash with allegory and symbolism, much of it relevant to the horror genre. The book is too vast in its implications to be fully analyzed here; for our purposes it is enough to point out that its chief mystery is whether the White Whale is simply a dumb beast acting from instinct or, as Captain Ahab believes, an intelligent being acting from malevolence. In effect, Ahab’s quest for vengeance is propelled by the conviction that he is pursuing an evil monster, and one question raised by the book is: does evil actually exist, or do human beings mistakenly perceive evil when random events bring about misfortune? This question underlies many horror films, most notably THE EXORCIST. In that case, the debate is weighted in favor of the existence of evil because the phenomenon is preternatural; Moby-Dick, on the other hand, can be seen as the prototype for countless films wherein natural phenomena appear to act with deliberate malice (witness THE BIRDS or the opening of TWISTER, in which a tornado seems almost like an angry god plucking away a family’s helpless father for no good reason). More specifically, the White Whale has spawned a school of sea monsters that have bedeviled ocean-going humans almost since the beginning of cinema.

Unfortunately, most of these descendants occupy a low rung on the pop-culture ladder, borrowing little of Melville’s metaphysics and reducing what is borrowed to the level of a simple plot device. To wit: no matter how fearsome and threatening a large animal may be to a lone victim, an organized group with the right weapons would have no problem exterminating the beast, unless it were somehow capable of avoiding their modern firepower; therefore, tales of monstrous sharks, orcas, and even snakes almost inevitably imbue the animals with at least a rudimentary intelligence that enables them to outwit their human opponents. The philosophical implications of this are seldom explored; it is enough that intelligence makes the beasts more threatening and therefore more in need of being destroyed.


The first two on-screen descendants of Moby-Dick were loose adaptations starring John Barrymore: both THE SEA BEAST (1926) and its sound remake MOBY DICK (1930) abandoned much of the novel in favor of adding a love story. Over two decades later, John Huston directed a more faithful, though still condensed, version. His MOBY DICK (1956) is notable for trying to use the visual medium, especially color, to convey the essence of Melville; but Gregory Pecks performance as Ahab has come under fire, even from the actor, who considered himself miscast (he thought Huston should have cast him as Starbuck and played Ahab himself).

Meanwhile, the science-fiction genre was getting into the act in the early ‘50s. Prior to Huston’s adaptation, two Ray Harryhausen films featured sea monsters dredged up from the depths by atomic bomb testing. In both THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1954), complex considerations of the problem of evil are abandoned in favor of a simple metaphor: the monsters are living embodiments of the dangers of nuclear power. Still, BEAST gave credit for its inspiration to Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn,” and something about the prehistoric reptile rising from the depths was evocative enough for John Huston to have Bradbury collaborate with him on the script for MOBY DICK.

One possible (albeit a simple) interpretation of Melville’s novel is that Moby Dick is not a monster at all but simply an innocent animal relentlessly pursued by a madman projecting his own mania onto a living tabula rasa. In fact, before the Pequod encounters the White Whale, previous accounts of Moby Dick have him swimming with others of his kind, implying that his previous “attacks” on whaling vessels may have actually been attempts to defend his species against human aggressors. This sympathetic interpretation of nature, versus the wickedness of humanity, is not pushed very far in the Harryhausen films: whatever set them off in the first place, the rhedosaur and the octopus are lone beasts that inspire little or no sympathy. That changed with GORGO (1960).

The materanl sea beast rises from the waves to seek her off-spring.

In this film, the sea beast comes to represent an archetypal force guaranteed to evoke human sympathy: mother love. The point is emphasized by the fact that there are no important female characters in the story (outside of the mammoth maternal monster that destroys half of London to save her offspring). The humans, like the crew of the Pequod, are men apparently cut off from the society of women. Interestingly, the lead character (played by Bill Travers) unofficially adopts an orphaned boy, much as Ahab took Pip under his wing. Assuming this feminine role of surrogate mother ultimately redeems the character when he abandons his greedy, masculine hopes of exploiting the beast for profit and instead risks his life to rescue the boy. (The maternal instinct of prehistoric monsters was later exploited by Steven Spielberg in THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, but the effect was considerably diminished.)

The theme of the giant sea beast that represents nature’s revenge was developed further in the Godzilla films. The series started off fairly closely modeled after BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, before mutating into juvenile camp. However, when the franchise re-booted in 1985, the sequels re-imagined the conception, changing Godzilla from a malevolent monster (as in his 1954 debut) to something resembling an implacable natural disaster. There was a twist, however, because Godzilla, unlike Moby Dick, is not a force of nature per se; rather, he once was a natural animal, but now he has been mutated by human science. Therefore,  it makes little sense to adopt an Ahab-like vendetta against the creature, who is, ultimately, a living embodiment of man-made catastrophe, like the Exxon Valdez or Chernobyl.

Beginning with GODZILLA 1985, several films delt with this theme, featuring revenge-crazed characters seeking retribution against the radioactive reptile in response to the death of a friend or a comrade in arms: GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA (1994), GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRAS (2001), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (2002). Like Ahab, the humans tended to fail in their attempts to destroy the beast, but they sometimes learned the error of their ways, realizing that personal vengeance was pointless when mankind was ultimately to blame for Godzilla. As interesting as the concept is, it was seldom if ever developed to its full potential. Godzilla is certain awesome and mysterious enough to fill in for Moby Dick, but none of the human characters attained anything close to the stature of a Captain Ahab.

Sticking a little closer to Melville, Peter Benchley launched a whole subgenre with the publication of Jaws, which led to the blockbuster film and countless rip-offs (TENTACLES, CLAWS, GREAT WHITE, etc). Steven Spielberg’s JAWS (1975) is clearly intended as a pop riff on Moby Dick (with a little of An Enemy of the People thrown in). The Melville connection is even clearer in the book, wherein shark hunter Quint is dragged to his death, like Ahab, by a harpoon line attached to the swimming menace, but in both book and film the shark’s predations defy the instinctive behavior expected from the species, leaving one to wonder if something more than an unconscious killing machine is at work.

The White Shark rises from the depths.

This idea is taken a step further (to amusing but ridiculous extremes) in JAWS IV: THE REVENGE (1987), in which a new Great White seems to be taking personal revenge against the family of the man who killed the sharks in the first two films. The revenge theme was also present in ORCA (1977), although here the implication is that the Richard Harris character may deserve to be persecuted by the mate of a killer whale he harpooned. It is interesting to note that both JAWS IV and ORCA reverse the MOBY DICK formula, casting the sea creature as the instrument of vengeance.

A rather silly but well-photographed TV movie emerged in 1978, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS. The telefilm bares a passing resemblance to Moby Dick, in its tale of a humongous sea turtle responsible for the mysterious shipwrecks in the so-called “Bermuda Triangle.” The whole thing is boring as hell, but the Gamera-wannabe is a hoot, and Carl Weathers winds up dragged to his death, tangled in a harpoon line, just like Ahab and Quint before him. (This seems to be the only film to use the death described by Melville: Quint is swallowed by the shark in the JAWS film; and both Huston’s adaptation and the recent USA Cable mini-series of MOBY DICK have Ahab meeting his demise while lashed to the side of the whale.)

From turtles to snakes: SPASMS (1983) and ANACONDA (1997) may not seem related to Moby Dick, but there is a connection. Both feature serpents that are big, but neither one is so unnaturally large as to be a “monster.” So the question is: why cannot the characters just capture the damned thing and put it in a zoo? This is where the Moby-Dick syndrome comes in: to make them more threatening, the snakes are portrayed as if capable of strategizing, and there is a lot of supernatural hooey about their serpent gods. In the end both are dispatched by conventional means such as guns and explosives (although that was not enough to prevent a sequel title ANACONDAS, which seemed to overlook that the first film had already contained more than one anaconda).

Benchley returned to sea monsters with Beast and White Shark, which were adapted into mini-series entitled THE BEAST (1996) and CREATURE (1998). Interestingly, these works refute the apparent evil of the shark in JAWS, which is dismissed as an inaccurate piece of Hollywood nonsense. In THE BEAST, Will Dalton (William Petersen) argues that people have no right to hunt the giant squid, because it is the fishing industry’s depopulation of the seas that has driven the Beast from its usual hunting grounds and into contact with humans. White Shark, meanwhile, contains a Great White that is presented as a dangerous but endangered species that out to be preserved, not hunted to extinction.

This sub-genre came full circle with the 1998 TV version of MOBY DICK. What perhaps is most interesting about this mini-series is how easy it is to view the White Whale sympathetically today. Metaphysical implications take a backseat to the very real slaughter perpetrated against these animals; in this context, Moby Dick is less a symbol of a random universe that may only appear malevolent, than of poetic (perhaps even divine) vengeance against heartless harpooners pursuing a magnificent species nearly to extinction – an interpretation emphasized by Patrick Stewart’s public service announcements, at the end of each episode, on behalf of saving the whale. It’s less deeply disturbing than the ideas conjured up by the novel, but it does follow the course swum by many of Moby Dick’s descendants.

RELATED ARTICLES: Science-Fiction Author Ray Bradbury on Adapting “Moby Dick.”

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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