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Huston’s film “Moby Dick” inspired future block­busters like “Jaws.” | Courtesy Wikipedia

Only a maniac would adapt “Moby Dick” for the screen — so it’s a good thing John Huston was crazy.

The American director best known for “The African Queen” (1951), “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), and “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) almost always cap­tained movies based on novels. But his 1956 adap­tation of Herman Melville’s whale tale aimed for some­thing greater than these. It was to be the defin­itive film version of the great American novel.

Huston pulled out all the stops: Ray Bradbury on the screenplay. Gregory Peck as Ahab. Orson Welles as the fiery sea preacher Father Mapple. And running beneath them all, a giant ani­ma­tronic Moby Dick.

Huston shot most of the film in Ireland and Wales, swapping over-developed New England loca­tions for these more rural coast­lines. The ani­ma­tronic whale drifted out to sea early in the pro­duction. Huston made up for the loss grandly by filling in a number of the whaling scenes with real footage of Por­tuguese whalers he fol­lowed to the Madeira Islands.

If only the rest of the film had been as grand. Bradbury worked largely on his impres­sions of what the novel was about because — as he admitted to Huston early on — he had “never been able to read the damned thing.”

For his own part, Huston read himself too much into the novel. In Bradbury’s semi-fic­tion­alized account of the pro­duction, “Green Shadows, White Whale” (1992), the author describes how Huston forced his crew to indulge in his every obsession — until he became much like the mono­ma­niacal Ahab himself.

And yet the movie holds up. Although it couldn’t carry water for the original novel, Huston’s film conveys the same high-energy brooding that made Melville’s Ahab so mag­netic. The camera angles rock with a seasick reg­u­larity and the film’s washed-out color palette drifts into a strange fever dream.

But most impor­tantly, without “Moby Dick,” there would be no “Jaws” (1975). Steven Spielberg admired the film so much — par­tic­u­larly Peck’s por­trayal of Ahab — that he wanted to include a nod to the char­acter in his breakout film. The young director envi­sioned a smoky scene intro­ducing the shark-obsessed char­acter Quint where he watches “Moby Dick” and laughs at the inac­curate por­trayals of human suf­fering.

Peck, however, refused to allow it, as he was ashamed of Ahab and didn’t want to res­urrect the per­for­mance.