“Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth.”
— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
Moby-Dick suffers from adaptation distillation in the sense of it being condensed into a story of revenge. While admittedly rather central, the novel contains many themes besides vengeance, though these are usually disregarded in lieu of a more simplistic storyline. Ahab, in particular, receives the greatest amount of character diversion, his complex personality reduced to a static persona driven by obsessive madness.
To be fair, simplification is much more palpable for public consumption. A novel requires a certain type of audience in any case, and it costs little to wait for said audience to come around. A film or television series, however, demands immediate returns from the widest market available, and as such, adapters tend to focus on what will make the majority happy, rather than the few and far between.
Moby-Dick’s placement in popular culture largely consists of parodies and homages, either blatant or referential. Considered to be the ultimate example of revenge and obsession, the story of Captain Ahab and the White Whale is known by many, if the novel itself not actually widely read. As with many classics, the best examples of adaptations and tributes for Moby-Dick and its characters are found in cartoons. Innovative and creative cartoons draw from “adult” literature and simplify it for children, while still remaining true to the source material and often drawing attention to key symbolism or basic plot points that perhaps were hidden by complex word usage and lengthy descriptions.
A well-made cartoon’s ability to exaggerate serves to highlight the vices and virtues of a person, object, or idea, which explains why in animated shows like Fairly Oddparents, Looney Tunes, and Futurama, Ahab is depicted as a madman and the whale as a defenseless victim. A quote from The Simpsons provides a succinct summary of public perception of Moby-Dick:
Lisa: Dad, you can’t take revenge on an animal. That was the whole point of Moby-Dick.
Homer: Lisa, the point of Moby-Dick is to be yourself.
(“The Fat and the Furriest”)
Homer seems to be comically misinterpreting the novel, but possible argument can be made for that point, considering Ishmael’s defense of Queequeg’s religion, among other things. Being true to one’s nature is explored extensively with Ahab and his defense of his actions. He regards Moby Dick as both an instigator and an agent of evil, the latter providing the most justification for destruction, as evil itself cannot be destroyed, what with it being an abstract concept lacking physical form.
The Animaniacs episode, “Moby or Not Moby,” demonstrates the ridiculousness of Ahab’s attempt to attribute the world’s evils to a whale quite well. The Warner siblings could not care less about Ahab himself, their primary concern being the well-being of Moby Dick, which is a reflection of the environmentalist hype of the time. Ahab in this iteration (an obvious caricature of Gregory Peck) is driven by vengeance as per most parodies (actually referred to as a curse), but here devotes his attention toward the more practical aspects of hunting down the whale:
Ahab: Don’t ye understand? All I live for is to catch Moby Dick and destroy him for his oil! Conquer him for his blubber! Stomp on his big whale head and make perfume from his brain!
Yakko: Captain, you’ve got to go on shore leave more often.
(“Moby or Not Moby”)
Though Ahab’s design includes a peg leg, it is not mentioned as a reason for his behavior, which is only called “madness” by Ahab himself and Starbuck, who makes a very brief appearance (accompanied by a Star Trek musical leitmotif).
Viewers may point out that removing Moby Dick as the cause of Ahab’s ghastly accident also removes the reason for Ahab’s anger, when rather, it exemplifies Ahab’s multi-faceted character. Not only is he going to kill Moby Dick for no particularly good reason (a song is sung to the tune of “Drunken Sailor” about how, essentially, killing whales is stupid), but even in the book, Ahab declares that he “would strike the sun if it had insulted me” (Melville).
Ahab’s mission is not so much tied up with having Moby Dick as an archnemesis, but having a physical being upon which to place grievances and ultimately blame for all the world’s troubles. That being said, Ahab makes an ideal antagonist for the Warners, as they often cross paths with aggressive types who refuse to listen to reason. Their episodes involve the opposition being taught a valuable (and usually painful) lesson. “Moby or Not Moby” is unusual in that Moby Dick alone defeats the captain, while the Warners crack jokes on the sidelines.
A successful homage to a piece of work, therefore, is not so much being absolutely accurate, but being able to understand said work so well as to completely deconstruct it. True, the Animaniacs episode ignores most of the wonderful complexities of Ahab, and even more serious adaptations reduce his philosophizing over human nature in favor of focusing on the more relatable traits of obsession and anger. Ahab’s casual disregard for the laws of the universe, as well as faith in himself that he can overcome any obstacle, make him constantly be portrayed as mad. Pride goes before a fall, as the saying goes, and had he shown slightly more remorse during the entire adventure, he would perhaps be more well known as a tragic hero rather than a tragic villain.
- “Moby or Not Moby.” Animaniacs, Vol 2. Writ. John McCann. Dir. Michael Gerard. Warner Brothers, 2006. DVD.
- “The Fat and the Furriest.” The Simpsons: The Fifteenth Season. Writ. Joel H. Cohen. Dir. Matthew Mastuk. 20th Century Fox, 2012. DVD.
- Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick: or, the White Whale. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2011. Amazon.com. Web. April-May 2013.
More Melville! ʘ‿ʘ
This 2013 essay was on a topic that was pretty personal for me, since I have many thoughts and feelings about literary adaptations and I love cartoons. And as such, it was very difficult to write about. XD Also, as you can see, I tried moving away from the long, meandering paragraphs and tried to break it up a bit. As detailed in the professor’s feedback below (or rather, his TA’s), this wasn’t the best idea. So here’s a tip: basically, if you’re writing a book, even a non-fiction one, it’s usually okay to make the paragraphs as short or as long as you like. But in an essay, every single paragraph needs to make a point and have its own topic sentence.
Hayley, this is a very interesting essay about the nature of adaptation. You make convincing claims, and offer humorous, yet illuminating, scenes from popular adaptations of Moby Dick. Though some close reading is apparent, especially your treatment of how Ahab’s leg is overlooked as a cause for his “madness,” more close reading and analysis of imagery and language from both the novel and the adaptation(s) is needed. Though I appreciate both the Animaniacs and The Simpsons, perhaps this essay would be stronger if you focused on one show and really dig into how that adaptation reveals underlying themes in the novel. Also, group similar ideas together. The short paragraphs create a choppy rhythm to the essay. Continue using the strong topic sentences that you have, but find a way to integrate similar ideas. Grade: 85