The advertising for In the Heart the Sea, Ron Howard’s maritime adventure of the Nantucket whaling vessel Essex in 1820, presses how this is the true story that inspired “the myth of Moby-Dick,” myth being an operative word, because the image of the immense sperm whale is collectively tattooed in our minds without anyone, English Majors aside (and even then I’m not sure), having read Herman Melville’s confounding 1851 novel. The book fits Mark Twain’s criteria for classic status, something that everyone’s heard about and that no one’s read, interesting because it represents—more so than Twain’s own Huckleberry Finn, which at least a majority of the public has probably skimmed through for high school homework—the ultimate American text. It’s a canonical document for Know Nothing Know It Alls (I’ll plead the Fifth presently for myself), hilariously central to Woody Allen’s parable of conformity Zelig (1982), the human chameleon lying about having read it in order to fit into intellectual circles; we’re told that at the end of Zelig’s life “the only annoying thing about dying was that he had just begun reading Moby-Dick and wanted to see how to came out.” In the Heart of the Sea purports itself as spectacular history, insinuating a raw taste more tart than imaginative fiction, and while it’s unnecessary to criticize Howard for not being quite so abrasive with a $100 million 3D production, its frame story—with Melville having the Essex story told to him by one of the survivors, 30 years later—is a launching port reducing both the novel and its contexts to an easily digestive meal, regardless of the scrumptious intimations of whale fat and cannibalism. It’s not the myth of Moby-Dick that’s generated by Howard, but the of Moby-Dick.
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