In the Heart of the Sea

In 1820, the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship, was sunk by a whale while hunting in the offshore grounds of the Pacific. The survivors set out for land in three leaky boats, and only eight of the twenty men survived. In the Heart of the Sea is a new movie (based on Nathaniel Philbrick's book of the same name) about the disaster.

I read a lot of nonfiction about age-of-sail shipwrecks, so I've been looking forward to seeing this one all year. It was not what I'd been hoping for.

The Essex was one of the biggest inspirations behind Moby Dick. Both the movie and its marketing leaned heavily on that fact, so it's not surprising that many reviewers have complained about the lack of resemblance to Melville's book. I didn't go into the theater looking for Moby Dick though. All I wanted was a great retelling of the Essex disaster, but the movie was disappointing on that front, too.

A very long spoiler-filled comparison between the movie and the real events is beneath the whale tail.

The movie begins with Herman Melville traveling to Nantucket to speak with Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy of the Essex, who is now an older man still haunted by his experiences at sea. At first Nickerson refuses to talk, and we're left with the sense that there's some Terrible Secret everyone's been keeping about the voyage.

The entire scene is one massive red flag for anyone hoping for an accurate adaptation. In the name of setting up a frame story, the scene ignores the fact that the whale attack and its aftermath were widely reported at the time. The story reached Nantucket ahead of the Essex survivors themselves. The first mate, Owen Chase, immediately worked with a ghostwriter to publish his account of the tragedy, and that book includes Nickerson's deep, dark secret. Melville learned about the whale attack and its aftermath before he even became a writer, when he read a copy of Chase's book while on his own whaling voyage in the Pacific.

Next up in the film we meet that mate, Chase, who's desperate to earn the wealth and recognition that would come along with becoming a successful whaleboat captain. Movie Chase is frustrated to learn he's been passed over for command in favor of the young, inexperienced George Pollard, a member of an established whaling family.

There was a real bias towards crew members and officers from Nantucket, especially the ones with the right last names. But Pollard had sailed on the Essex for years, moving up from second mate to first before being put in command. Chase had even worked on the Essex while Pollard was one of its officers. The men were sometimes at odds as captain and first mate, but Chase would have had no reasonable expectation of being promoted ahead of Pollard. There are so many real sources of tension in the story that I'm not sure why the writers felt compelled to invent this one.

The movie skims along through storms and bloody whaling scenes with an occasional jump back to the older Nickerson still hinting at horrors to come. Then we reach the whale attack. It's very Hollywood, adding in explosions, swimming from fire, and the near death of Our Hero, Chase. After that, the stupid starts.

Despite making every attempt to set Chase and Pollard at odds, the movie skips their disagreement about which way to head in the whaleboats. Pollard originally wanted to travel west towards the closest known islands, which would have been the quickest, easiest way to reach land. None of the whalers had been to those islands though, and they worried about the possibility of cannibals or hostile natives. Chase and the second mate talked their captain into making a longer, more difficult trip to Easter Island. When the winds and currents swept them past it, their only other option was to head towards South America. Later observers, including Herman Melville, speculated that if Pollard had stuck to his original decision the entire crew might have been saved.

The movie acts as if they agreed on a destination, ignoring that human conflict in favor of making the whale chase them in some god-awful revenge trip across half the ocean. No, I'm not kidding. It tracks them, lurking mostly just out of the corner of Chase's eye. I was nearly able to convince myself he was hallucinating it until the damn thing wrecked the whaleboats again.

That was when In the Heart of the Sea went from unengaging to downright laughable. Apparently there wasn't enough dramatic potential in navigating tiny, banged-up whale boats for thousands of miles across the open sea. The hunger, exposure, and overwhelming thirst are treated as secondary dangers because the movie wants to get a little more mileage out of sweet, sweet whale vengeance.

At the film's climax, Movie Chase gets one more chance to kill the whale. He hesitates, finally feeling a moment of empathy for the creature and perhaps regretting that he's slaughtered so many of its fellows. Pollard shouts at him to strike, still wanting to destroy it, but Chase lets it go and it slips away, finally leaving them in peace. Then Chase and Pollard's whaleboats part, bearing off on different courses in a moment of heavy handed symbolism.

The third boat has disappeared by then, lost at sea. Both remaining boats face hardships before they're rescued, but the movie paints the historical difference between their experiences as a moral lesson springing from that touching moment between Chase and the whale. On Chase's boat, the survivors resort to cannibalism only after one of their own dies. On Pollard's, the men draw lots to see who will sacrifice themselves. Movie Pollard draws the short straw only to have his cousin, Owen Coffin, commit suicide in his place, because a cracked-up cousin might make for a good subplot, right? In reality, Coffin was the one who reportedly drew the short straw. Pollard was said to have argued against the choice, but Coffin insisted on following through.

The Hollywood versions of Chase, Pollard, Nickerson, and a few others eventually make it home just like their real-life inspirations did. Movie Chase repents of his whaling ways and captains a merchant ship, while Movie Pollard takes a brave stand against the whaleboat owners who would lose money if they close the beaches worry their investors. Movie Nickerson becomes an unhappy alcoholic who wants to keep anyone from learning of his survival cannibalism until he finally unburdens himself to Melville.

I guess that makes for a neatly wrapped up narrative, but real-life Chase kept right on whaling. He was good at it, eventually becoming rich enough to build his own ship. Pollard returned to sea as captain of another whaleship, but when that one sank as well, his unlucky reputation left him working on land. Nickerson went on whaling voyages again too, and he was the one who eventually became the captain of a merchant ship. Late in life he wrote his own memoir of the Essex story, intending to make a book out of it, though the manuscript was lost and never published until the 1980s.

There were a lot potential storylines the movie either left out or barely referenced. They could have based their Nantucketer/off-islander drama around the way the islanders stuck together once the men were in the boats. They could have dealt with the fact that, while they were all supposedly on strict rationing of the food and water, four out of the first five men to die were African American sailors who weren't Nantucket natives. They could have followed the path of Philbrick's book, showing that Chase's cocky behavior and Pollard's self-doubt didn't seem to mesh well with their roles. Instead we got a whale with a Jaws 4 style fixation on this particular group of people along with an awkward emphasis on Movie Nickerson's fear of owning up to his survival cannibalism (which was something that few people in a seafaring community would have held against him at that time).

I don't have a problem with the smaller changes the movie made, like saying the Essex whale was a white one, and it might have worked fine if they'd invented scenes that fleshed out the story without changing its basic facts. But the filmmakers chose to tread water back and forth between the real Essex and Moby Dick in a way that made sure their movie wouldn't do justice to either one.

I guess I've basically just spent far too many words to explain what could be summed up in a much easier way: the book was better. Go read the book.

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