On June 27, 1956, the film of Moby Dick was released. Directed by John Huston and starring Gregory Peck and Richard Basehart as Ahab and Ishmael, the film was released by Warner Brothers Studios. The screenplay, more faithful to Melville’s novel than other early film versions, was co-written by Huston and sci-fi author Ray Bradbury. At around the same time, Orson Welles had been thinking of making his own film of Moby Dick, but he gave up the plan on hearing about his friend John Huston’s project. In recompense, Huston gave Welles the memorable part of Father Mapple. From his ship-shaped Nantuckett pulpit, Mapple gives a powerful sermon on Jonah, the biblical book so important to the story of Moby Dick.
“Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters–four yarns–is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a poignant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-handed lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God.”
For more on the influence of the King James Bible on Moby Dick, see “Literary Influences” on the Manifold Greatness website.
Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Over the weekend, British media announced that Prince Charles contributed two verses (Genesis 1:1-2) to The People’s Bible, a handwritten Bible being produced in the UK in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
Although the KJB translators probably had little idea that their text would still be used by members of the royal family centuries later, they did choose their words carefully. In some cases, the translators made adjustments to previous English versions of the Bible. For example, William Tyndale, one of the first people to translate portions of the Bible into modern English, rendered the first verses of Genesis like this:
In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water.
In the King James version, the verses appear like this:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
In fact, for many readers, the version of the verse as it appears in the King James Bible has become the standard and other translations sound odd. In the Bishops’ Bible, produced in 1568, Isaiah 60:1 reads: “Get thee up betimes, and be bright, for thy light cometh, and the glory of the Lord is risen up upon thee.”
While it may be a stretch to imagine such language resounding from a pulpit today, the Bishops’ Bible remained a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I and her personal copy is in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection. With the “Compare Translations” feature, it is easy to note differences in the language of the King James Bible and earlier translations and see how much has changed-or not-over the years.
Amy Arden is a Communications Associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library and assisted in content development for the Manifold Greatness website.