How Ray Bradbury Wrote the Script for John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956)


Ray Brad­bury, unlike many nov­el­ists who choose to reside in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, did­n’t sup­port his fic­tion-writ­ing career by tak­ing screen­play work. With the likes of The Mar­t­ian Chron­i­cles and Fahren­heit 451 to his name, he did­n’t need to, not that it stopped him from adapt­ing cer­tain sto­ries of his own for tele­vi­sion and the movies. Only once did the pro­lif­ic Brad­bury under­take to write a screen­play based upon a book he did­n’t write. But oh, what a book: Her­man Melville’s Moby-Dick, turned into the John Hus­ton-direct­ed 1956 film of almost the same name. Though ulti­mate­ly stormy — work­ing with Hus­ton, even in the best of times and for the bright­est of writ­ers, tend­ed to become an ordeal — the col­lab­o­ra­tion began aus­pi­cious­ly, with the writer an avowed fan of the film­mak­er, and the film­mak­er an avowed fan of the writer. Yet nei­ther, iron­i­cal­ly, had much time for the Melville nov­el to which they had ded­i­cat­ed their efforts.

“Have you tried to read that nov­el?” Brad­bury asks his audi­ence in the clip just above. “Oh my god! John Hus­ton did­n’t know any more about it than I did. He want­ed to play Ahab. Give him a har­poon, and he would’ve done it.” Work­ing on the script in Ire­land, Brad­bury spent “eight long months of ago­niz­ing work, sub­con­scious work,” all of which pre­pared him for the next deci­sive moment in this par­tic­u­lar writ­ing process: “I got out of bed one morn­ing in Lon­don, looked in the mir­ror, and said, ‘I am Her­man Melville!’ I sat down at the type­writer, and in eight hours of pas­sion­ate, red-hot writ­ing, I fin­ished the screen­play of Moby Dick, and I ran across Lon­don, I threw the script in John Hus­ton’s lap, and said, ‘There! It’s done!’ He read it and said, ‘My god, what hap­pened?’ I said, ‘Behold: Her­man Melville.’ ”

bradbury huston

You can now read the fruits of this act of artis­tic chan­nel­ing in a new edi­tion from Sub­ter­ranean Press fea­tur­ing an essay by William Touponce, direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Ray Brad­bury Stud­ies at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty-Pur­due Uni­ver­si­ty Indi­anapo­lis. Cinephil­ia and Beyond has more, includ­ing a link to a PDF of Brad­bury’s orig­i­nal final script.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Moby Dick Big Read: Celebri­ties and Every­day Folk Read a Chap­ter a Day from the Great Amer­i­can Nov­el

Jean-Paul Sartre Writes a Script for John Huston’s Film on Freud (1958)

Ray Brad­bury Gives 12 Pieces of Writ­ing Advice to Young Authors (2001)

Ray Brad­bury: Lit­er­a­ture is the Safe­ty Valve of Civ­i­liza­tion

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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Comments (8)
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  • Hu00e9lu00e8ne Collon says:

    Hello,nRay Brad­bury wrote about these painful months in a col­lec­tion of sto­ries enti­tled “Green Shad­ows, White Whale.” Just thought i’d let you knowu2026 ;-)

  • John Conolley says:

    After I saw this movie, I read the book. I loved the book, but I was a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ed. All the best lines weren’t in it. All the best lines were Brad­bury.

  • Rob Babu00e1 says:

    mas­ter. Ray Brad­bury. — Babu00e1.

  • Mikey c says:

    For Brad­bury to insult the great­est Amer­i­can nov­el when all he pro­duced is pulp read by high-school er only under­scores Melville’s achieve­ment

  • JOHN T SHEA says:

    Brad­bury and Hus­ton both lived in Ire­land for a time and filmed MOBY DICK most­ly in Youghal, a fish­ing port about fifty miles east of where I live. Brad­bury wrote a whole col­lec­tion of Irish sto­ries, my favorite being THE ANTHEM SPRINTERS, about the night­ly race by Irish movie patrons to get out of the Movie the­ater before the nation­al anthem was played! Not very patri­ot­ic…

  • Brad Dunn says:

    Yes it’s a great nov­el but there’s way too many pas­sages about the whales and whal­ing. Who­ev­er crit­i­cized Brad­bury — you’re an idiot! He dis­tilled the book and kept all the good stuff… Duh!!

  • Perry Otherly says:

    O Mick­ey, poor lil Mick­ey. My copy of Moby Dick is dogeared, notat­ed, curled and unfurled. All Brad­bury was say­ing was that he final­ly got the spir­it of the thing and did the tru­ly impos­si­ble by writ­ing a damned fine film script from the huge mas­ter­work of a genius. Father Map­ple’s ser­mon alone, ship­mate, is worth the watch­ing. You’re tak­ing it all too seri­ous­ly, you sound like a snob and a peabrain of a lit­er­ay crit­ic. You belong on the dock with that lit­tle old beard­ed lady in a bon­net wav­ing good bye to the real men aboard the Pequod. Blast ye and your fool notions. And Brad­bury him­self wrote some won­der­ful sci fi fan­ta­sy in his day. Run along now lil boy and eat your sog­gy corn­flakes. You don’t know shit for brains.

  • Perry Otherly says:

    Regard­ing your com­plaint, Brad, “there’s way too many pas­sages about the whales and whal­ing”: there exists a long­stand­ing acknowl­edg­ment that Melville’s sev­er­al chap­ters about the busi­ness of whal­ing and esp cetol­ogy, much of which is faulty sci­ence, are not nec­es­sary to the main, imag­i­na­tive nar­ra­tive of Ahab, Moby Dick and the Pequod. We get it. So it’s fine to skip these chap­ters and read the sto­ry.

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