Character arcs in the Heart of the Sea

We hear a lot about character arcs in screenwriting/novel/creative writing – the idea is, of course, that a character changes based on what happens to them over the course of the plot, that they decisions they make at the beginning are necessarily different than the ones they make at the end.

Examples are always helpful, right? Well, here’s one, from In the Heart of the Sea, the recent-ish Ron Howard whaling adventure that didn’t do so well at the box office.

The film, you may recall, essentially recounts two events that inspired the writer Herman Melville as he penned his great novel Moby-Dick.

First, the film – which is based on the book of the same name – tells the true story of the whaling ship Essex, which was sunk in 1820 after being attacked by a large, but not white, sperm whale. The crew was set adrift and struggled to survive (many of them, in fact, didn’t).

But the Essex incident wasn’t the only inspiration for Moby-Dick. Another was the 1838 killing of a legendary, notorious, cunning and feared white whale known as Mocha Dick, which had become known for surviving many encounters with whalers and their harpoons over the course of its life.

The film, then, takes the story of the Essex and attempts to merge it with the story of the legendary white whale Mocha Dick. The merging of the two works to varying degrees – in my humble opinion, as a monster movie lover, I would’ve liked to have seen more Moby-Dick in how the film handles its unnamed white whale, but I digress.

What it does pretty well, though, is give its main character, a whaleman named Owen Chase, a good, solid arc (the script also gives him clear motivations for his actions, which will be highlighted as we go).

Also – there are spoilers head, of course.

Would-be captain of the Essex

As the film opens, Chase is readying to set out on the deep blue sea to do some more whaling. He expects, in fact, to be given his first commission as captain on this voyage – captain of the Essex, no less.

We learn a few things about him in his introductory scene – his wife is about to have a child, and he braves the inherent dangers of the whaling industry to earn enough money to make sure his growing family will be provided for.

On meeting with the owners of the Essex, however, he’s told his turn as captain will have to wait – the post is instead going to a bloke named Pollard, an inexperienced sailor who happens to be a member of a very prominent whaling family. Chase is relegated to first mate.

The problem is, Pollard is in over his head, and seeing how good a sailor Chase is causes the rookie captain to succumb to jealousy – he becomes determined to assert his authority, the resulting bad decisions resulting in heavy damage to the ship during a squall.

Pollard decides to return to port for both repairs; it’s also, Pollard says, an opportunity to send Chase packing (the two really don’t like each other at this point).

But Chase convinces him otherwise – going back to port with an empty hold would just plain look bad. The better course would be to press on, and fill the ship with as many barrels of whale oil as possible as quickly as possible. In doing so, they can make sure the voyage is as short as can be, they’ll return to port as whaling heroes. Then, they can go their separate ways.

So, good setup. There’s well-established tension between the ship’s two senior officers. We learn about motivation (Owen to provide for his family, Pollard to do good by his father and family). We see some flaws. And we’re reminded just how dangerous the high seas are, to boot.

Finally, Chase is still eager to harpoon whales here, even going so far as to continue sailing under a captain he doesn’t like, whose incompetence has already put him in considerable danger.

Shortly after the squall scene, the Essex encounters its first pod of whales. The crew sets out on the whaling boats, and Chase successfully harpoons a bull that’s swimming with its mate and calf. As the whale rolls over and dies, we’re treated to a close-up of Chase as he watches with a look of remorse.

This scene is important. As mentioned, Chase is a soon-to-be family man. And here, he’s killed a whale – which he’s done, presumably, many many times before – and has second thoughts. This makes sense, as he’s killed a bull whale as it swam with its own family. That didn’t stop him from killing it, though.

Moving on:

The white whale

They butcher the whale on deck and continue their voyage, which is proving light on the whole harpoonable-whales thing. The Essex sails farther and farther in search of them.

Chase and Pollard, stopping in at a port in Ecuador, encounter a Spanish captain who has returned from a voyage to an area of the Pacific that’s positively teeming with whales. Among them, though, is an enormous white one, which killed six members of his crew, and took his arm.

The Essex sets out for the whaling grounds, and sure enough, they find what the Spanish captain said is true – whales everywhere! Among them is a white whale – the Spanish captain was right. And that whale is protective of its pod. It damages Chase’s whaling boat, and then attacks the Essex, sinking her and setting the crew adrift.

Chase is, of course, determined to get home. Again, he’s about to be a father – this, too, is important, because every decision he makes is driven by that.

Tensions among the crew are rising, and supplies are limited. They drift for days, until they finally see land looming distant on the horizon. Chase sees something else, however: the white whale, which he claims has been following them. It attacks again, and the crew and their damaged boats wash up on shore.

The whale returns

The mull around the island for a while, but the chances of rescue are slim, if the corpses of the previously-marooned sailors they find are any indication.

Most of the survivors, led by Chase, decide they’re better off on the ocean and set off again in repaired boats (some accept their fate, choosing to stay behind and make a go of it). Here’s motivation coming into play again: Chase is willing to risk drifting at sea for who-knows-how-long rather than stay on the island – with all its food and firewood and caves for shelter – simply because it increases his chances of getting rescued by a passing ship.

Back at sea, things are tense. The crew is starving, and turn to cannibalism to survive. Just to drive it home – Chase is willing to do anything to get back to port and see his wife and child again.

There’s one more obstacle to meet, however, the white whale. It returns, and this time, Chase is poised for a kill, ready to drive his hand-made, three-pronged improvised harpoon into the beast as it passes near his boat.

But he hesitates. The whale watches him as it passes, a piece of harpoon from their earlier encounter still protruding from its skin. Chase stares into its enormous eye and lowers the harpoon.

This decision by Chase, too, is vital, especially given what’s happened before.

We know the white whale is protective of its pod – not only did the Spanish captain warn them about that, but Chase and his crew have experienced it.

It sinks their ship, but follows them, attacking a second time. It continues to follow them, appearing a third time. It tracks them until they’re no longer a threat. And then? Chase decides not to kill the whale, despite having the perfect opportunity to do so. Instead, he lowers his harpoon, and the whale swims off peacefully.

The decision here, it seems to me, stems from Chase’s aforementioned changing worldview. Here’s a whale that goes to extreme lengths to protect its pod, its family – and Chase sees that. There are parallels – Chase, like the whale, put himself at great risk to provide for his family, including staying on a ship with a lousy captain, and agreeing to sail into whaling grounds which were also home to a white whale that’s prone to attacking whaling ships.

It all hits Chase as he stands over the white whale, harpoon raised. And Chase leaves the whale alive, allowing it return to its pod.

If this were any other time in Chase’s life, he would’ve driven that harpoon into that whale. If he could’ve, he would have harpooned it back in the whaling grounds and filled the hold of the Essex with barrels of its oil. Again, whales were a means to an end – a way for Chase to make money.

When the third encounter with the white whale happens, however, we’re not seeing the same Chase that we met at the start of the film. His experiences since he set out on this voyage, in light of what’s waiting for him back home, have changed him.

The survivors are eventually rescued. Chase learns there’ll be an inquiry into the Essex incident, due to so many lives being lost.

The ship’s owners try to convince him to lie and say the ship ran aground in an attempt to protect the industry. If it gets out that the crew was killed by a whale, there would be ramifications; for example, insurers would jack up their rates.

Chase refuses.  He tells the truth. And later, we learn he’s given up whaling, now serving as captain of a merchant ship.

It should be noted that Pollard is something of the dark reflection of Chase throughout – he’s what Chase could have been.

At the start of the story, the goals of the two line up, despite not getting along. Both are willing to take risks – and subject the rest of the crew to risk – in order to find, and kill, whales.

But as the story progresses, Chase changes and Pollard doesn’t. During the third encounter with the white whale, Pollard encourages Chase to kill it, calling him a fool when he doesn’t.

Pollard, to his credit, tells the truth at the inquiry, and that’s no small decision for him: Pollard’s motivation, remember, is to do right by his father and the rest of his family, all of which are well-known in the whaling industry.

But in the end, Pollard turns obsessive. We learn late in the film that the former Essex captain has returned to the sea, attempting to find his white whale once again. He isn’t successful – in fact, his ship is wrecked, and he’s forced out of whaling.

Chase certainly could have taken a similar path. But while he’s back at sea, he’s left the whaling life behind, and it was his choice to do so.

Character arc recap

And there we have it – Chase’s character arc. A quick recap:

  • At the beginning of the film, we learn Chase, a whaleman, is married, and is about to have his first child
  • Chase embarks on another dangerous whaling voyage on the ship Essex to provide for his family
  • He’s so eager to make money via killing whales for their oil that he convinces the inexperienced captain to keep sailing, even after the captain’s bad decisions almost sunk the ship in a squall – Chase clearly sees whales as a means to make money, nothing more
  • Chase kills his first whale, a bull swimming with its cow and calf.
  • In doing so, he experiences a moment of remorse, thinking of his own soon-to-be growing family – he’s going to be a father too, right? He just killed a father (whales are social animals, remember)
  • Chase overcomes that doubt, and the ship sails to an area teeming with whales, despite being warned first-hand about a massive white whale that attacked a whaling ship not long ago
  • The Essex attacked and sunk by a massive white whale, which is protecting the rest of its pod
  • The crew is set adrift, and the white whale attacks again, and they’re marooned on a remote island
  • Realizing his chances of rescue – and seeing his family again – are slim on the island, Chase and most of the survivors set back out to see in their small boats, turning to cannibalism as their supplies dwindle
  • The starving, barely-alive crew encounters the white whale one more time
  • Here, Chase has the opportunity to kill it, noticing part of a harpoon still buried in its skin from earlier
  • He doesn’t, respecting the lengths the white whale goes to in order to protect its pod (he’s doing everything he’s doing to provide for, and later simply return to, his family, remember)
  • Chase is asked to lie about the cause of the disaster to protect the whaling industry
  • He refuses to lie, telling the truth about the white whale and the attack at an inquiry
  • Chase leaves the whaling industry, becoming captain of a merchant ship

So there you go. Chase wouldn’t have decided to let a whale live at the start of the story. Likewise, due to everything that happened to him over the course of the film, he couldn’t have decided to kill one at the end.

Simple, right?

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