For weeks, it’s been hard to turn on the TV without seeing a trailer for Ron Howard’s new movie, In the Heart of the Sea, which opens tomorrow. But what is it really about? Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000), the film tells the tale of that ship and its unfortunate run-in in 1820 with an angry whale that tore their ship to pieces. It’s almost hard to see what Hollywood can add, because the real-life story has it all: high seas adventure, cannibalism, a killer whale (literally), historical intrigue, and horror. Of course, these elements have fascinated authors long before Howard came on board (or, for that matter, leading man Chris Hemsworth was even born). Here are eight very different works of fiction that share themes with In the Heart of the Sea.
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville
Melville was heavily inspired by the events of the Essex as well as his own time at sea. Though he never delved into the cannibalistic third act of the Essex‘s tale, no one can deny that Moby Dick’s gripping story still holds up more than 150 years later.
The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, by Hergé
Tintin has done it all, including searching for mythical sunken ships. These two comics spin a yarn about Tintin and friend Captain Haddock’s search for a long lost, ancestral treasure. Compared to In the Heart of the Sea it’s lighthearted and lightweight—but a perfect pick to share your enjoyment of “shiplit” with younger readers.
The Beast of Cretacea, by Todd Strasser
Knowledge of Moby-Dick isn’t required to enjoy this sf take on Melville’s classic, but it certainly enhances the experience. Here, the good ship Pequod harvests marine life on a pristine, alien planet, returning the resources to a ravaged earth. It’s an old-timey maritime adventure with time travel, evil corporations, and a dystopian twist.
His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik
The Essex wouldn’t have had a whale problem if their ship was a dragon. Unfortunately, such live, winged vessels only exist in Novik’s alternate history series Temeraire. Imagine if the Napoleonic Wars had dragons instead of ships in their naval corps and you get the gist. Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan Trilogy is a good companion series to Novik’s world.
The Terror, by Dan Simmons
If you thought being lost at sea was terrifying, imagine being stranded in the Arctic with a shadowy monster stalking you and your crew. Simmons uses Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition to the Arctic as inspiration for this thrilling tale.
The Scar, by China Miéville
Mieville’s pulpy pirate novel has a fantastic ship-city called Armada, a veritable floating flotilla. Not quite fantasy, not quite sf, The Scar lives up to its “weird” genre. Readers won’t have to read the first book in this loose series to enjoy the intricate web of deceit and discovery. If you enjoy the futuristic ships and neo-nautical themes in The Scar, the epic space operas within Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga may be a good read-alike. (Miéville also wrote the Melvillean Railsea: imagine the Pequod as a train.)
Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi.
Bacigalupi has employed post-apocalyptic, waterlogged scenery in many of his books. Ship Breaker takes place in the same universe as his adult novel The Windup Girl (2009), but is geared toward younger readers. When everything around you is slowly being consumed by the sea, jumping on a ship seems like a good idea.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Though this is part of the Assassin’s Creed series, naval exploration is the main objective here. The game play and story are nothing special and are very much in line with the rest of the franchise. The best part is being a pirate—sailing your ship, capturing others, diving for treasure, all the best pirate-like things. You can feel the thrill of sailing the high seas, even whaling, without the threat of drowning (or having your ship rammed by a whale). The game also blends some historical characters into the narrative as well, such as Blackbeard and Anne Bonny.