I wish I could tell you that the upcoming movie about a whale that destroys a ship was going to be great. And maybe it will be, as long as you haven’t read the book.

Like most movies based on a book, the printed version will always be superior. Why? Because when you read a book you can luxuriate in the language. The images that the words evoke are pure imagination. The voice of the characters is the one you assign them. Your brain projects the movie right inside your mind. The film plays at exactly the right speed. The theater shuts down when you stop reading, but is ready for you when you turn up again.

And if a mariner should read one book about seamanship that’s become a movie, Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea should rank high on the list of possibilities. Let me be clear; he isn’t making up a romance story when he tells the tale of the whale ship Essex. He’s retelling an almost forgotten story about life on a stinky, dirty, 19th century killing machine, and the impressive, yet tragic outcome of an encounter with a large, apparently irate whale.


As a former marine biologist with firsthand experience with marine mammals, I’m interested, but not shocked that this incident could happen, but what really caught my attention was the strategy the crew of the Essex employed post attack. Philbrick’s language of the aftermath is precise and analytical, but not clinical. Then I wonder, am I really reading history?  Am I just reading a story this guy interpreted?  But wait, shouldn’t I be reading some scholarly document by a professor of history, not just a writer?

My friend and history professor, Mickey, writes, “A lot of academics put down popular histories, but I think that’s more often motivated by jealousy than a reasoned judgment about a book’s content. Nobody really reads academic history writing, and for good reason. Most of it is written in a really boring way. ”

Philbrick has carefully gone back through various accounts of the incident, news reports of the day, and first-person accounts to stitch together a tale that goes beyond a retelling. It’s an exciting and interesting synthesis that gives me pause to think more deeply about my own assumptions, nautical skills, and fears. After their ship sinks, the sailors, sitting in tiny whaleboats, have to make a decision about where they should attempt to reach land, based on what they little they know about the world. They ultimately forgo a long, but simpler route for a considerably harder, more dangerous, and lengthy one. I’ll leave you to read about the amazing seamanship and challenging decisions that need to be made to survive.

In the Heart of the Sea, originally published in 2000, took 15 years to make it to the big screen. Whether it will be a historical piece or just a story based on history, I can’t say, but if the trailer is an indication, it implies the latter. Regardless, I encourage you to read the book and metaphorically sail the route with the sailors before you go to theaters this winter. Then you will be the expert and director, not a hapless victim pulled along on a Hollywood sleigh ride.