When’s the last time YOU read “Moby-Dick?” You know, one that Khan paraphrased from in “Star Trek II” when he was going nuts about getting even with Captain Kirk. “I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom and round perdition’s flames before I give him up!” he bellowed. He lifted that from Captain Ahab ranting about the white whale, shouting, “I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up!” That’s how much a part of popular culture Melville’s great novel is.
But do you know where Melville got the idea? It can be read about in Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction book “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” and it can be seen in Ron Howard’s new film of the same name.
Set initially on early-19th century Nantucket, then moving its action and resulting harrowing story out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it’s about how the Essex, a whaleship with a tough crew, an excellent first mate, and an inexperienced captain, was attacked and destroyed by a huge sperm whale (Melville heard or read about this, then fashioned a novel that would use a similar event for its climax), and how some members of its crew managed to survive the sun, the sea, dehydration and starvation.
Fans of the book need to know that “Hollywood” liberties have been. The film invents an 1850 meeting between Melville (Ben Wishaw) and the now-adult Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) who, years before, was the young Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland), the ship’s cabin boy, who has never told his harrowing story.
“It’s really the story of Chase and Pollard,” he tells Melville, as the film flashes back and catches the flavor of bustling Nantucket, a place filled with Quakers and whaling men.
Chase (Chris Hemsworth) is an experienced whaler, self-assured and brimming with confidence, who has been promised a captaincy. But it’s the tactless and untested Pollard (Benjamin Walker) who’s given that position by the Essex’s owners due to pulled strings. Chase is unhappily relegated to first mate position. But he’s a pro, and he accepts his position and, featuring another great performance by Hemsworth (after working with Howard in “Rush”), the ship and the film set to sea in an exciting segment of close-ups and fast cutting.
Howard soon gives us the giddiness of a Nantucket sleigh ride, as the men in a small whale boat harpoon and are dragged along at high speed by a big sperm whale. But he also presents the tediousness of those long days, and months, when no whales are to be found. But all it takes is for someone to spot one of the behemoths at a distance, and for the captain to shout, “Lower away!” for any memory of boredom to vanish instantly.
It’s at one of those moments that Howard again goes forward to the Melville-Nickerson discussion, when Nickerson quietly says, “We were headed towards the edge of sanity.”
They’re attacked, repeatedly and with vengeance, by a 100-foot sperm whale (which, though well crafted, looks too much like a big fake whale). There’s a different shout: “Prepare to abandon ship!” Provisions, equipment and weapons are grabbed, and the men stuff themselves into three small whale boats and, some 2,000 nautical miles west of South America, the film’s real story begins.
Howard keeps shifting back to Gleeson and Wishaw, which at first seems intrusive, but eventually becomes a welcome part of the film, as it features the best pieces of acting. And he and scripter Charles Leavitt lay out a convincing, constantly changing relationship between Chase and Pollard. But the whale gets too much screen time (much more than in the book), which makes less time to get to know the other men in the boats and better understand their desperate situation.
At the end, Melville thanks Nickerson and tells him, “My book will be a work of fiction, inspired by the truth.” Howard’s film is an adventure story inspired by a book about survival.

Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
Written by Charles Leavitt; directed by Ron Howard
With Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Wishaw
Rated PG-13