The Whale, directed by Darren Aronofksy (A24); based on the play The Whale, by Samuel D. Hunter.
Roxane Gay really didn’t like The Whale. Calling it a “cruel spectacle” and a “carnival sideshow,” she insisted that the film essentially dehumanizes fatness.
She’s not wrong. While The Whale has some merit, and seems likely to garner Brendan Fraser an Oscar nominee for his portrayal of Charlie, a 600-pound man living in a cheap apartment in Northern Idaho, it also, at moments, seems designed to gross out viewers with close-ups of Charlie’s massive girth. In fact, the character of Charlie feels like a distant relation of Fat Bastard, the farcical villain played by Mike Myers in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999).
The film’s Hollywood makeup treatment impressively and believably transforms Fraser into the hyper-obese body of Charlie. But this treatment is clearly a significant part of the film’s draw. Darren Aronofsky keeps his camera close and focused on the flesh. In Samuel D. Hunter’s original play, which premiered in Denver in 2012, the audience would be less intimately acquainted with the superficial details of Charlie’s skin. Instead—as with the October 2015 performances of The Whale, directed by Aaron Oetting, at Las Vegas’s Cockroach Theatre—Charlie has an unignorable stage presence. The viewer is always drawn toward his enormity. Both the stage and the film productions are, undeniably, spectacles.
Reading the play, however, is a very different experience. Without any visuals, the reader is never distracted by Charlie’s appearance and must focus on his voice instead. The spectacle is eliminated, and the drama becomes much more compelling. Charlie, a gay college instructor in his forties, makes a living teaching American literature courses online, but he’s too sick to leave his apartment. His friend Liz, a nurse, drops by regularly to care for him. As he approaches death, he reaches out to his estranged teenage daughter to try to repair their relationship. When he realizes how troubled she is, he tries to help her, with limited success. A confused Mormon missionary, “Elder Thomas,” keeps visiting and getting in the way.
The story is basically Leaving Las Vegas with a dash of My Own Private Idaho. Suicide sits at its heart, but this a slow, gradual form of intentional self-destruction. (A “self-regarding drama of self-loathing,” in Anthony Lane’s evaluation.) Charlie, who grieves the death of his lover, is consciously, deliberately killing himself. But also at the center of the play is the theme of revision. As a teacher, Charlie keeps reminding his students that they will become better writers if and when they embrace the revising process. “The more you change, chances are the stronger these papers will be,” he tells them in the first scene.
Charlie clearly needs to listen to his own advice. Tied to it is his obsession with a book report on Moby-Dick that his daughter, Ellie, wrote for an implausible middle-school assignment. You don’t have to have read Moby-Dick to get The Whale. Everyone knows the gist—mad Captain Ahab is on a quest to kill the monster that took his leg and ruined his life. Ahab’s revenge plot is tragic because we all know that killing that white whale wouldn’t have solved any of his problems. Charlie, in Hunter’s play, is both Ahab and Whale, a tragic figure who cannot fully realize that killing the thing that hurts is no solution and brings no salvation.
Unfortunately, the spectacle of the stage production, and especially of the film, demands too much attention. Hunter clearly wants the viewer to begin by feeling disgust—disgust which will eventually turn to compassion as we learn more about Charlie’s background. This sort of narrative arc, in which a thing becomes a man, is ultimately a tasteless trick, and it overshadows the more interesting interactions between the characters of the drama.
This is to say, in part, that the film is a faithful adaptation of the play. Of two key differences, the first is that additional time is devoted to Charlie’s body, especially as he showers and gets into bed. The second is that the missionary is no longer a Mormon; instead, the film has transformed him into a member of the “New Life” church, an apocalyptic cult from Hunter’s earlier play A Bright New Boise. He’s simply “Thomas,” not “Elder Thomas.” The reason for this revision is not entirely clear.
The Whale is worth watching, and it will probably remain in the public eye as Oscar season sets in. Fraser has already won the Best Actor award from the Las Vegas Film Critics Society, and he stands a strong chance of receiving further recognition. But viewers hooked in by the spectacle would do better to take an hour and read Hunter’s story, leaving the sideshow to the screen.