By: Kevin Jordan
Modernizing classics so your kids never have to read them in school.
Everybody past high school age can tell you their own personal horror story about trying to read a book written at least one hundred years ago. For me, it was Charles Dickens. I powered through A Tale of Two Cities, but it left a lasting mark on me as I played the worst third base of my life the week after finishing it. But that was nothing compared to Great Expectations, a book that so thoroughly defeated me that, not only was I unable to finish it, but I was only able to read Goosebumps for the better part of a year. It wasn’t until years later I had recovered enough to attempt reading another “classic,” this time The Portrait of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. While I found it mind-numbingly boring and overly descriptive of settings, I was able to finish it without wanting to drown myself in a bowl of Lucky Charms. The point I’m trying to make is that if someone ever tries to convince you to read a Jane Austen novel, run away. That person does not have your best interests in mind.
Lucky for us, it’s 2015 and we’ve gotten pretty good and taking those old “classics” and retelling them in a language that doesn’t have to be written in cursive. In other words, kids – when your teacher assigns you to read Moby Dick, head to the theaters for In the Heart of the Sea and thank your ancestors for inventing the talkies.
In the Heart of the Sea is the story of Moby Dick. Well, actually it’s the story of the story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Wait, scratch that. It’s based on a book written in 2000 (In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick) about the sinking of a whaling ship called the Essex, and tells the story of a guy who survived the ordeal telling Melville the story so Melville can write his story. Okay, here’s what really happens in the movie – Thor fights a whale. Let’s move on.
Ben Whishaw plays Melville, who is looking for a complete accounting of the sinking of the Essex to use for his next novel. He tracks down Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), a survivor of the sinking and, with the help of Nickerson’s wife (Michelle Fairly) and a stack of money, coaxes the story out of Thomas. As in Titanic, the film bounces us between the story and the storyteller and we get to watch each of them evolve simultaneously (Melville included). As Thomas’ story unfolds, it becomes clear why he never wanted to talk about it and it’s not just because of the “demon whale” as one Spanish captain puts it. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so let’s just say Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway had it easy in comparison to Thomas.
The cleverness of the film is that it tells us the story of Moby Dick without actually having to read to us Moby Dick. Yes, it still takes place in the original time period, so it’s not like it’s subtle, and there is a giant white whale attacking a ship. But the captain’s name isn’t Ahab, the first mate isn’t named Ishmael, and nobody is seeking revenge on a cetacean for taking their leg. Instead, Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) hate each other and just want to fill their ship with whale oil so they get back home and not have to look at each other’s exceptionally non-ugly faces. But many of the elements from Moby Dick are in this film, including the lessons to be learned.
In short, I enjoyed this film because the original story of Moby Dick is a very good story, but I didn’t have to slog through the writing style of the 1850’s. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the works of authors like Twain, Shelley, or Verne, but having to actually read them is sometimes just short of torture. So, let’s stop torturing our kids and maybe even spring for some popcorn. Class dismissed.
Rating: Worth more than just your money if you take your kids to it. When they inevitably are forced to read Moby Dick, they’ll be able to skim it and you will have saved them from being scarred for life.
(Editor’s note: I’m not actually condoning kids ignore their school assignments, but you have to admit – the language in those books is nearly a foreign language to today’s youth.)