Tuesday, January 5, 2016

In the Heart of the Sea Adoption Movie Review

In 1850, Herman Melville seeks out Thomas Nickerson. Thirty years earlier, Nickerson was a young man aboard a ship that met tragedy, and which is the subject of many rumors. Nickerson is the last surviving member of the crew of the Essex, and he has been holding the ship’s secrets in his heart for three decades. Aided by Nickerson’s wife, Melville finally gets him to tell the story, which ultimately frees Nickerson from the guilt he’s carried, and inspires Melville to write Moby-Dick. The tale Nickerson tells is one of conflict between the high-born but inexperienced captain, George Pollard, and the very skillful Owen Chase, who was more or less adopted by a whaling family, but not born into the lineage. Chase is passed over for command in favor of Pollard, and this is because of lineage.

The Adoption Connection

Nickerson has held a dreadful secret for many years, and it gravely impacts his life. His wife tells Melville, “His soul is in torment and in need of confession,” and although she does need the money that Melville has offered for her husband’s story, her belief that he needs to talk through his experiences also seems genuine. The danger of secrecy and the value of open communication is a very real concept with regard to adoption, although the secret Nickerson keeps has nothing to do with adoption.

Owen was brought into a whaling family after he was (in the words of another character), “effectively orphaned by his father’s incarceration.” Since his adoption by that family, Owen has often been told that he is not part of his family or of his community, but he has found a way to thrive in spite of this. His captain also tries to belittle Owen by saying that he is “nothing more than the son of a farmer.” This might not be reflective of the captain’s beliefs – he also humiliates one of his relatives – but the words were still intended to be hurtful. Later, the captain acknowledges that one can be “born to do” something while another can be merely “born into” it.

The sailors are a long way from home, and he to accomplish a certain amount of tasks before they are allowed to return home. People who have been in foster care – or parents whose kids have been in foster care - might relate to the feeling of being separated from loved ones with a variable task list between them and reunification with their loved ones.

Strong Points

One character says that the devil “loves unspoken secrets – especially those that fester in a man’s soul.” Nickerson does find healing in sharing his story, even though he thought it was unmentionable. Mister Rogers said that “anything mentionable is manageable,” and Nickerson shows that to be true. 
Other characters also choose to tell the truth, even when the truth is painful. The film captures the cathartic effect in addressing even the most painful tragedies. Melville is also a trustworthy confidant, and promises that, although Nickerson’s story has inspired him, the forthcoming book will a work of fiction.

Many characters show loyalty, bravery and the ability to grow.

There is a lot of beautiful scenery in this one.


In a realistic, but stomach-turning scene, a character has to climb into a whale’s corpse.

Several scenes are driven by the theme of scarcity of resources, which could be an unexpected trigger for viewers who have known starvation, neglect, or who have experienced the unpredictable availability of food. One character argues to deprive a sick person of water, suggesting that resources shouldn’t be wasted on someone who is dying.

The characters resort to drawing straws to determine who will live and who will die; one character kills himself in the place of a family member. Nickerson relates that, as a teenager, his fear was that everyone else would die and he would be the last one left.
Upon his return home, Nickerson wondered if everyone must already know the secret that he’s been carrying around.

**SPOILER ALERT – SPOILER ALERT --  The secret that Nickerson has been keeping is discussed in detail, although the most gruesome parts are not shown on screen. In an effort to survive, Nickerson and the fellow survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism. I’ve left this in the “Challenges” section rather than the “Weak Points” section – The story is very horrific, but it’s that very horror that Nickerson had to confront in order to tell his story, and he had to tell his story in order to move on, even three decades later. Still, many viewers might find this story very disturbing to hear. Nickerson quickly asks if Melville judges him, and Melville says that he does not. Nickerson asks Melville whether his wife might still love him if she knew his story – she has overheard it, though, and quickly affirms that she does still love her husband. She notes that, even though he had to endure horrors to survive, it shows the strength that he had has a boy, and still has a man. END SPOILER -- END SPOILER ****

Weak Points

The spoiler alert in the section above refers to some aspects of the film which will be disturbing to many viewers, but which may be profoundly disturbing to some.


This film is too long – and too bloody – to appeal to younger viewers – and I think even teens might be put off by some of the content. Adults who watch it can reflect on the metatheme of the freedom that comes when secrecy’s shameful hold is broken. This one seems to be best-suited to adults.  

Questions for Discussion

If you were stranded on a deserted island, would you take on the risks inherent in staying put, or would you take on the risks that come with trying to sail back home? How would you decide?

How much of your life is due to where you’ve come from? How much is because of your own influence on the course of your life?

Nickerson had to do some very traumatizing things in order to survive. Why did he keep secrets? How did keeping it a secret impact him? Why did sharing what happened to him come as a relief?

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