Note: this article has been updated since it was first published.
Happy Birthday, Moby-Dick!
Not the whale, but the book. 165 years ago today, Herman Melville’s epic novel was published in America for the first time. (A different version of it had come out in England one month earlier, but today is accepted as the anniversary of the version the world knows).
In honor of this anniversary, I think it’s worth taking a moment to look at the books, movies, music, and more that we have as a result of Moby-Dick‘s legacy.
Leviathan ’99 by Ray Bradbury
“The doomed crew of a starship follows their blind, mad captain on a quest into deepest space to joust with destiny, eternity, and God Himself . . .”
Sound familiar? This novella—collected alongside “Somewhere a Band is Playing” in Bradbury’s Now and Forever—is an unapologetic retelling of Moby-Dick. It’s also sci-fi, set in space, like one or two other works on this list.
Note that this isn’t only a book, but has also been a radio production and a play.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
It didn’t occur to me until a few months ago that Wes Anderson’s fourth film is a retelling of Moby-Dick. A man hates a giant fish and travels across the planet to kill it. Things don’t go to plan. Lessons are learned and metaphors are present.
The Whites by Richard Price
This is more of an homage than a straight re-telling, like a lot of works that reference or celebrate Melville’s work. Rather than one White that haunts the narrative, every character in The Whites has their own White Whale, their own escaped enemy awaiting to be destroyed.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time Richard Price has built a narrative around a Moby-Dick homage. His novel Clockers also features recurring references to the classic novel, with the novel’s action catalyzed by a murder behind a seafood fast food restaurant named Ahab’s, known for a sandwich with a familiar name.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
I should clarify that I did not like this novel, but I did like the presence of Melville that filled its pages, from a baseball team named The Scriveners to a college obsessed with the mythology of the great American novelist and their own supposed role in his past.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
The word astronaut is derived from the Greek words for star and sailor, and it seems that all space operas owe something to tales of the Seven Seas.
The second Star Trek film (and its recent reimagining Star Trek Into Darkness) might be one of the best examples of this, although it reverses Melville’s tale: Kirk and his crew are the whale, hunted by an Ahab from their past.
The Leviathan by Ruairi Robinson
I’m not sure of the status of this project, but it looks to be amazing. There isn’t much to say about it beyond Moby-Dick in Space:
Moby-Dick Big Read
There are lots of reasons not to have read Moby-Dick yet. It’s too long. It’s too boring. You can’t make it past the cetology chapters.
But one excuse that you don’t have is that there isn’t a good audiobook version. If your struggle is that you want a good reading of it to consume, then try the version where every chapter is read by a different narrator, beginning with Tilda Swinton.
The Moby-Dick Card Games
I haven’t played either of these, but I need to. Moby-Dick; or, The Card Game and Dick: A Card Game Based on the Novel by Herman Melville. Both look intriguing; both are locked in an SEO battle for “moby dick card game.”
One of the best moments in Parks and Recreation
Ron Swanson has a million good moments, but what’s better than his stubborn interpretation of his ostensible favorite novel?
Leviathan by Mastadon
Like The Art of Fielding, I don’t care for this, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t mention it. A prog-rock album dedicated to Moby-Dick? Someone had to do it.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
“Call me Jonah” is how this novel opens. And it’s no coincidence that Melville’s Ishmael was obsessed with the Biblical Jonah.
So it goes.
The Whale (2022)
Another one I didn’t much care for, especially when you consider the outlandish concept of a junior high student writing an immature essay about Moby-Dick. Who is required to read Moby-Dick at that age?
Honorable Mention: Office Space by Mike Judge
Okay, while not Moby-Dick, this might be one of the best tributes to Melville’s work. Ron Livingston’s Peter Gibbons channels Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” in a glorious way.
In Office Space, we have this exchange:
Joanna: So you’re gonna quit?
Peter Gibbons: Nuh-uh. Not really. Uh… I’m just gonna stop going.
Bartleby, meanwhile, repeatedly gives us the classic “I would prefer not to.”
What did I forget?
Everything. What piece of Americana doesn’t, on some level, owe a debt to Moby-Dick? Hemingway “wrote his publisher that he considered Melville one of the handful of writers he was still trying to beat.” Starbuck’s is named after it. Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue has the exact same opening sentence as Moby-Dick.
And while I haven’t given it a spot on the list above, take a moment to consider reading my own retelling of Melville’s classic: The Moonborn: or, Moby-Dick on the Moon.