I would say that they got the marketing for In the Heart of the Sea all wrong. Besides the fact that the movie was rightfully panned (its delayed release from March of this year did nothing to improve it), the tagline should be: “See Ron Howard tell the story of Nantucket Quaker cannibals. Oh and there’s a big whale, too.” Save yourself the fifteen bucks and read the book that inspired it instead. Allow Nathaniel Philbrick to unfold the story of the crew of the Essex properly, and the story of Owen Chase, the first mate at the core of the story, and you can skip the warping of Chase’s moral complexity by the flat Chris Hemsworth and his horrendous New England accent.
To be honest, I picked it this summer because Moby Dick was dragging on for me (an inert ballast that endures on my nightstand, nearly finished, as of this writing). The book which Ron Howard ruined on screen chronicles the story of the Essex, a Nantucket whaleship whose crew of 27 find themselves floating far off the coast of South America near the Society Islands in damaged whale boats after an eighty-five foot bull sperm whale has rammed the ship in multiple attempts to be rid of them. It’s speculated that it was the hammering of Owen Chase, as he was working to repair a whale boat, that sparked the whale to attack, but I prefer to think that the whale was just fucking sick of this murderous Society of Friends.
They end up drifting across more than 6000 miles of ocean, victims of karma, tradewinds, currents and bad navigation, and then comes the moment that every reader who has an inkling of the story’s trajectory has been waiting for: One of the crew members dies in the life boat and his body is lying there, drying out in the sun.
The power of cannibalism stories of this kind, and Philbrick’s telling is particularly crisp and riveting, is that a reader reflexively asks. “What would I do? Am I invested enough in the mores of modern civility that I could resist slicing and cooking a piece of flesh from a man who I have known for weeks, months, decades?” The human ability to usurp the reptilian compulsion toward self preservation in order to service the greater good is one of the hallmark intellectual traits of our ascendency as masters of this blue ball, but I am doubtful that I would be any different then these men of the Essex. Biology doesn’t have much use for ethics when the living function of one’s biomass is threatened. And, helpfully, the Catholic Church has declared that cannibalism in survival situations is an acceptable practice as long as no one is slaughtered by anyone but God’s great nature to provide the meal. So rest easy.
But casting lots to convert one of the living into one of the dead? That’s something else. It was accepted practice that men of faith could leave it up to random chance (or maybe they reasoned that lots were an outflowing of Holy Spirit, the invisible hand that guides all gambles) to decide who among them, their own family in some cases, would lie their head down on the prow of the ship, close his eyes and allow his fellow man to put a bullet into his temple so he might become food for them. The escape velocity that religion provides us to combat the urges of the reptilian brain has here found its ultimate limit.
The object lesson is that survival is a gritty business. For whales and men. And despite my strong objections that self-preservation and procreation is the singular purpose of our existence, I doubt I would sheath my knife or my fork.