Pop Culture and Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick is emblazoned in the canon of literature, art, opera, theater, film, and daily life. When did you first spot the white whale?

Moby-Dick flopped when it was first published in 1851, and during Melville’s lifetime, the book earned little acclaim and even less money. A new generation of readers rediscovered Moby-Dick in the early twentieth century, inspired by the madcap humor and mystical symbolism that made the novel seem modern before its time. Since then, Moby-Dick swims through popular culture, spawning adaptations in every imaginable medium.

We count 18 different versions of Moby-Dick filmed since 1930 the book is referenced in 68 other films. Here are a few of our favorites.

Down to the Sea in Ships (1922)
An American silent romantic drama film about a 19th-century Massachusetts whaling family. The film contains semi-documentary footage of whalers at work, and was shot on historic locations in Massachusetts. The film’s title cards are notable for having quotes from Moby-Dick and Nantucketer Alexander Starbuck’s History of the American Whale Fishery. Excerpts from this movie play in Gosnell Hall.

Pinocchio (1940)
Pinocchio is swallowed by a whale. The whale (named Monstro) is also the term for a monster in Portuguese. It is portrayed as a terrible giant whale with massive jaws.

Down to the Sea in Ships (1949)
An American seafaring movie has whaling captain Bering Joy (Lionel Barrymore) takes his grandson Jed (Dean Stockwell) on an expedition in order to teach the young boy real-life values such as honesty, courage, wisdom, fairness and hard work.

Moby Dick (1956)
Arguably the most famous is this solemn 1956 John Huston’s adaptation with a screenplay by Ray Bradbury, and starring Gregory Peck as Ahab.

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
A film adaptation of Nantucketer Ray Bradbury 1953 novel, F451 was written at the height of the McCarthy era.

Platoon (1986)
In the movie Chris (Charlie Sheen) calls Staff Sargent Barnes (Tom Berenger) “our captain Ahab-the eye of our rage”. Barnes is possessed by a desire for revenge. Barnes is akin to Ahab, while Melville’s Billy Budd influenced director Oliver Stone’s treatment of Sargent Elias (Willem Dafoe) who has to die so that the killing machine can go on.

Jaws (1975)
Author Peter Benchley (1940-2006) lived on Nantucket. Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) is an obsessed Ahab-like character who is willing to sacrifice everything to kill the shark. Later, Benchley became an advocate for marine conservation as he regretted writing such sensationalist literature about sharks, which he thought led to fear and unnecessary culls.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Directed by Leonard Nimoy, set in “star date 2286” the crew of the USS Enterprise finds earth in grave danger from an alien probe attempting to contact the now-extinct humpback whales. The crew travels back in time, thwarts whalers from killing whales and transports two into the future to save the world.

Deep Impact (1998)
Astronaut Spurgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) reads Moby Dick to blind captain Mark Simon (Blair Underwood)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The coffin that bobs to the surface during the flooding scene is a reference to Queequeg’s coffin floating to the surface after the Pequod sinks

Heart of the Sea (2015)
And finally to our absolute favorite. Melville’s novel has inspired researchers to uncover new works about whaling, like Nantucketer Nathaniel Philbrick’s popular In the Heart of the Sea, which in turn inspired the 2015 blockbuster film of the same name.


The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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