I will admit that my harsh reaction to this miniseries stems from my love of the Melville's novel. I recently read the novel for the first time and immediately read it for a second time upon finishing it. And I was in the middle of my third read through when I watched this adaptation. I cannot get passed some of the bizarre choices the screenwriters made with the text.
The novel is un-filmable in large part because of Ishmael's commentary on whales, whaling and the like form about 40% of the text. The plot that people know of-i.e. Mad Ahab tracking down the white whale to his own destruction-only composes about 40% of the novel. (Another ~20% concerns Ishmael's subjective experiences, i.e. How it feels to work spermaceti.) A lot of the novel's impact is in the commentary chapters, i.e. Chapter 42 On the Whiteness of the Whale is a *critical* chapter or Chapter 89 Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish greatly focuses the meaning of the various characters in the drama. These chapters are also deeply uncinematic because they are Ishmael the narrator telling the reader about x, y and z. I expected the miniseries to simply cut them outright.
What the miniseries did instead is mangle Ishmael the character-turned him into a flat land lubber and utter greenhorn (in the novel, the character explicitly states while he hasn't been whaling he has had several trips as a merchant sailor, indeed the wanderlust Ishmael feels is periodic)-to inject a few tidbits of information from the commentary chapters by having stuff explained to him. But not enough of the commentary made it in the series to justify wrecking Ishmael the character. This is the choice that bothered me the most as it reduces a sly mischievous unreliable narrator down into a fish-out-of-water trope. But it wasn't the only choice that left me puzzled.
The miniseries doesn't even attempt to adapt the novel's more comedic bits; everything is played dreadfully earnest and dramatic; especially of note is the strange bedfellows sequence with Queequeg is robbed of its whimsey and joy. The novel is subversive in multiple ways-parts of it read like an ecofable, other parts of it are overtly multiracial, multicultural. The miniseries doesn't even bother trying to hint at the more subversive material. (The crew of The Pequod is too white-only the harpooners remain being characters of color.)
But most puzzling of all is the miniseries idiotically plays around with timeline of the plot for no apparent reason-I don't mean that the timeline is condensed, I mean it is shuffled around. Of note, the Rachel sequence is moved to the start of the second episode (i.e. The middle of the story) which not only makes the ending harder to believe but wrecks the point of the sequence. The Rachel was Ahab's last chance to turn away from his obsession-it is why his choice there was the most cruel and heartless one he makes. For reasons I cannot fathom Ishmael makes his will just prior to the final chase. The miniseries even screws up Ahab's final speech by the exact timing of the fates of the boats. The key line-from hell's heart...-is rendered petulant and rash, not defiant and indominable.
Now it is true that lousy adaptations can make for compelling films but I don't think that is the case here. Maybe if I watch this again I could get into it more but apart from Patrick Stewart (who is a really good Ahab) I didn't like the cast. They don't have good chemistry-especially the blokes who played Ishmael and Queequeg. Thomas is too everyman and indistinct to be Ishmael as well.
The TV production values also hamper the series a great deal. The whaling scenes are not very convincing and there's no point making Moby Dick more of adventure film if the whaling scenes are bad. I found much of the production values, and cinematography garish and cheap. Worst of all, because the script decides to be so dreadfully earnest much of the miniseries moves at a glacial pace. The first part is like watching paint dry.
Moby Dick the novel deserves better than this.