I know this isn’t a book, but it is a movie based on a book and also indirectly concerns a writer. The first half of this post is a basic summary of the movie’s plot in case you’re interested in seeing it, and the second half is my thoughts on a couple ideas this movie provoked. Although many people didn’t care for the movie, I loved it due to the inspiration it gave me as a writer. In the heart of the Sea made me consider two things: the need for a story’s purpose/writer’s passion and the self-belief in one’s own ability.
“The tragedy of the Essex is the story of men. And a Demon.”
-Old man Dickerson
The movie opens with the writer Herman Melville visiting an old man named Thomas Dickerson, the last living survivor of the Essex. His purpose: to hear the truth behind what took the ship down in the middle of the sea and to write a book based on the events. Legend told of a white demon whale that had killed most of the crew. The only man still alive to know the truth was Dickerson, who had been a young boy on the ship but had yet to speak of a single detail of his experience on board the Essex, excluding the truth from even his wife. Not that he could be blamed. Dickerson had survived physically but was mentally scarred by the horrors he had been forced to face in order to survive. Only with the urging of his wife and the need for money did he agree to tell Melville his story, along with the promise that telling his secrets would release him from the demon tormenting his soul.
“The devil loves unspoken secrets. Especially those that fester in a man’s soul.”
Dickerson tells the story of the Essex by focusing on the life of Owen Chase, a man longing to become captain of his own ship. Chase has been promised captaincy of his next ship, but the men who promised him this go back on their word, appointing a less experienced man as captain simply because of his family name. This inexperience of the new captain and rivalry between him and Chase are likely the root causes of why the Essex was destroyed. Each man thought he knew better than the other and wanted to prove so by taking unnecessary risks.
The goal of the Essex is to gather barrels of oil by killing whales. They succeed in killing one whale but need more before they return to land. When they hear of a place rumored to be highly populated by whales, the captain directs them to investigate despite the warnings they receive about a demon whale that also inhabits the area. They do find the whales but quickly discover the demon whale to be all but legend. In truth, this beast is the largest creature on earth and acts as protector of all the other whales.
While the captain takes a rowboat out to sea with a few crew members to catch one of the regular whales, Owen sees the demon whale as a personal challenge. Again, he had been promised captaincy on the basis that he collect a certain number of barrels of oil. This massive creature alone would likely provide that number. With hopes of securing his captaincy, he manages to spear the white whale but underestimates its power. First, the line connected to the whale takes down the ship’s sails. Then, the whale smashes into the side of the ship. With the Essex completely destroyed and sinking fast, the surviving crew are forced to abandon ship and hope to find land before they die of either starvation or dehydration.
The rest of the movie consists of these three rowboats full of men trying to survive long enough to either be rescued or find land. All the while, the white whale follows close behind to make sure they don’t bother any more whales. It is this part of the story that Dickerson struggles to tell and wishes he could forget. He fears people would judge him for what they had to do to survive. When the first man dies, Owen points out that no man should waste what will save him, implying that they would have to eat their fallen sailor. As the days keep passing, they begin to draw straws to decide which man to kill and eat next. And all these horrors happened due to two men’s pride to add glory and honor to their name: the captain ignored the warnings of the legendary monster, and Owen attacked the monster he knew to be out of his league.
This is the true story that Herman Melville used to write his book Moby Dick. And it is Melville’s part of the story that the rest of this post will concern.
Need for passion and purpose
The first idea this movie made me consider was a story’s need for purpose and a writer’s need for passion. Whether or not Herman Melville truly felt this way, according to the movie he was entirely consumed with the need to write about the Essex and the legend of the demon whale. He had a passion for this story and knew he had to get it out. He said he was afraid he would never be able to write again if he didn’t write this story. And if he did write the story, he feared he would never write it well enough.
I think what I’ve been missing with my own stories is finding my stories’ purpose. Sure, I want to get the story out to people, but it’s never been a burning need. Entertainment isn’t enough. Stories should educate people. They should inspire. Those lessons and information are what make a story demand to be told.
“I’m not a great writer. I’m not Hawthorne. But from my first hearing of it, this tale has haunted me. It consumes me. I fear if I do not write it, I shall never write again.”
Ever since watching this movie, I have come to a standstill with my writing to take a step back and reflect on a story’s purpose. I mentioned this on Facebook a little last week and got some great responses on what great stories all have in common. They all typically have a happily ever after ending, but the process to get there is not easy. Also, the perfect ending comes at a price and isn’t always the happy ending one might imagine for the characters. It is is a good ending only in comparison to the hardships the character has faced throughout their journey.
In the case of In the Heart of the Sea, the ideal happy ending might be that the main character Owen was able to collect barrels of oil and become a whaling captain. Instead, the audience is happy just to see that he is alive at the end of the story. Regardless of the ending, the important aspect of a story is that it takes you through a journey and teaches you along the way. It should inspire and move a person’s mind to take action in their own lives.
Avoid comparing yourself to others
You just might be your idol’s idol.
In the movie, Melville compares himself to Hawthorne, saying he is no great writer like Hawthorne. Yet today, we know Melville’s name to be as popular as Hawthorne’s. Melville was so afraid of coming short to another writer, when in the end Hawthorne himself praises Melville’s book. This made me realize that the people we look up to just might be looking up to us as well. You never know whose hero you are or will end up being.
It’s easy to look at great writers and feel we can never come close to their greatness. But everyone has to start somewhere. And that somewhere is the bottom. If you haven’t published a book yet, of course you aren’t as famous as J. K. Rowling. Of course you don’t have your own movie series or theme park yet. Maybe you never will get those things, but everyone has equal opportunity to do so. You just have to give it time and keep working at getting published. Never doubt your own ability, because one day the person you look up to might be looking up to you in return.
“It is an epic worthy of Homer. It will be America’s epic.”
-Nathaniel Hawthorne concerning Moby Dick
I hope you enjoyed today’s post. Feel free to start a discussion in the comment section below. Great topics to discuss could include: In the heart of the Sea, what great books have in common, why you think writing is so important to do, or anything else concerning books or writing.
Please come back next Tuesday to read my interview with J’nell Ciesielski, who will discuss what she’s doing now to get published and tell us a little about her thoughts on the process. See you then and keep up the reading and writing!