In Honor of Moby-Dick’s 165th Birthday, the 10 Best Moby-Dick Homages, Adaptations, and Celebrations

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 . . .”

leviathan-99

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

life-aquatic.jpeg

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.

whites

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.

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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.

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.

office-space.jpg
This arguably means that this guy is in the role of Melville’s narrator in Bartleby.

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.

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5 thoughts on “In Honor of Moby-Dick’s 165th Birthday, the 10 Best Moby-Dick Homages, Adaptations, and Celebrations

    1. Thank you! I have heard the same thing, but I’m one of the people who thinks there may be even fewer than 36! (Although perhaps I’ve been reading too much Joseph Campbell recently.)

  1. Anonymous

    I have a few video game examples of plots that could draw similarities to Moby Dick.

    First of which is Final Fantasy X where the main plot is hunting a massive whale-like beast named Sin that appears every 10 years. It wreaks havoc on the world until a summoner travels to every temple and learns how to summon every Aeon (mythical beasts). This is the only known way to defeat sin and bring a 10 year peace called the Calm before Sin returns and the cycle repeats.

    Another example that comes to mind is Shadow of the Colossus. Not much is told in the way of story besides there are 16 massive colossi that you must kill to save an unconscious princess. You don’t know why you have to do this but you can’t progress through the game until you do. Every Colossi you kill takes a little bite out of your soul because they’re just ancient beings minding their own business and some God-like being is willing you to destroy them. Ok so maybe this one isn’t like Moby Dick but I think it’s worth mentioning.

    Lastly is God Of War III where you play as Kratos, former Spartan mortal turned God turned mortal again after Zeus feared your power and took it from you. In the second game after Zeus tricks you into taking your Godlike Power’s you find out that he also destroyed Sparta. The focus of the games switch to killing Zeus no matter the cost. Fast-forward to 3 where the game is you riding on the back of a titan climbing mount Olympus and killing gods left and right. Each God you kill plummets the world into Chaos; kill Poseidon and the oceans rise, kill Helios and the world goes dark etc. This is the story of a man blind with rage inadvertently punishing those around him to achieve his end goal.

    That’s all I can think of right now.

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