The Whale: A Thought-Provoking Film on Weight in the Modern World

When great stories about whales are told, three narratives usually come to mind: Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the fable of Jonah and the Whale from the Christian Bible (the inspiration behind Pinocchio’s denouement), and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (Or, The Whale). Each one approaches the topic of the enormous sea creature(s) with slightly different themes. Jules Verne’s novel explores the vast wonders of the oceanic depths. The Biblical story (Jonah: Chapters 1-4) explores destiny, responsibility, and redemption, and Melville’s classic explores obsession and the futility of seeking vengeance against nature.

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 play, The Whale– which derives its title from Melville’s novel, was recently adapted to the big screen—with Darron Aronofsky as director. Brendan Fraser stars as Charlie, The Whale’s morbidly obese main character. An English professor who teaches virtual classes, Charlie is a home-bound recluse. He keeps his webcam off when he is teaching, and he moves around everywhere with a walker (later, a wheelchair). Only a few people visit him.

These people include Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse and good friend of Charlie, who occasionally stops by, takes his blood pressure, and encourages him to visit the hospital (to no avail); Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a local missionary; and his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink from “Stranger Things”). Charlie had left her and her mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), when Ellie was eight for one of his (Charlie’s) male students. His partner later committed suicide and Charlie suffered a mental breakdown, and then began overeating until he was over 600 pounds. Throughout the story, Charlie stubbornly refuses medical treatment as he cycles through regret, reminiscence, and a desperate desire to reconnect with and encourage the best in his daughter.

Aronofsky is no stranger to stories about personal, bodily struggles. “Black Swan” (2010) delved into a young ballerina’s unhealthy desire for perfection, even at the risk of her own sanity. “Requiem For a Dream” approached the issue of drug/substance abuse. And “mother!” (2017) …well, “mother!” is an extraordinarily gruesome biblical and environmental allegory! Along those lines, Brendan Fraser has had his own real-life struggles. Not with obesity but his situation in Hollywood. Fraser was a household name in the later 1990s and early 2000s. Movies like “Blast from the Past” (1998), “The Mummy” (1999), and “Bedazzled” (2000) all featured him. Then, as is often the case with many Hollywood stars, he virtually dropped off the map. What happened? Did he lose his acting chops? Did he grow weary of show-business and find another vocation?

According to a 2018 interview Fraser gave, Philip Berk, once the president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), a nonprofit organization that votes for the Golden Globe Awards, allegedly, sexually assaulted the actor. Shortly after, Fraser and his wife divorced, and his mother passed away. Hollywood allegedly blacklisted the actor, and he experienced a prolonged stint of depression and health problems.1, 2 Then, in the early 2020s, he re-emerged and took on many new and exciting roles, including The Whale (for which he has received numerous award nominations). Life imitates art, as the old saying goes. In the Biblical story, Jonah is divinely instructed to preach against the city of Nineveh. He declines the mission and sets out to sea. A violent storm nearly destroys his ship and the sailors onboard. Jonah takes responsibility and plunges overboard. A giant whale swallows him whole, and he remains in its belly for three days. Eventually, he comes back out- a new man- ready to complete his mission in Nineveh. All spirituality aside, this is quite the common archetypal story (especially in Hollywood). Someone’s doing well. Then tragedy strikes (drug abuse, disease, divorce, financial collapse). They disappear for a long time. But then they come back…a new person, reborn, rejuvenated and refreshed, and we love that they do!

Brendan Fraser stars as Charlie, The Whale‘s morbidly obese protagonist. Image courtesy of A24 Films.

Of course, in the case of this film, Melville’s whale becomes a central theme. Charlie may easily remind many of Bonnie Grape, the obese mother from “What’s Eating Gilbert Great?” (1993), or Homer Simpson in “King-Sized Homer”, the 7th episode from the 7th season of “The Simpsons”, in which Homer deliberately gains hundreds of pounds to get on disability and work from home. However, another closer comparison to draw would be Ben Sanderson (Nicholas Cage) from “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995), an alcoholic who deliberately drinks himself to death. Charlie eats himself to death, proceeding head-long to his own grave with an unwavering attitude of resignation that parallels Captain Ahab’s mission to kill the eponymous “white whale.”

Charlie’s self-destructive path, however, is more one of actions he refuses to take instead of ones that he does. Charlie wishes to save his own daughter but doesn’t wish the same for himself. As an English professor, though, he encourages authentic writing, and despises dishonest motivations in other people, including Thomas (whom he believes is driven by a disgust of both his weight and his homosexuality rather than a desire to save his soul).

The theme of authenticity is very important, though, as authenticity and truth frequently go hand in hand with humility. Humility is one of the primary attitudes a person must embrace when confronting a personal struggle such as overeating, alcoholism, or drug abuse. There’s a reason Alcoholics Anonymous’ first step is to “accept a higher power.” Not necessarily God, per se, but forces operating beyond us that transcend our understanding of them. What, for instance, drives people to overeat (or to eat unhealthily)? According to the CDC, the top three leading causes of the death in the United States are heart disease, cancer, and Covid-19,3 and morbid obesity (the natural consequence of unhealthy overeating) is a frequent precursor to said maladies (as well as diabetes type 2, strokes, and high blood pressure).

The answer may be genetics or poor self-control, but habit-building is usually at the core of it, and the longer we maintain a habit (good or bad) the deeper it digs its roots into us. “Old habits die hard” as the old expression goes. In Charlie’s case, grief, self-hatred, and trauma fuel his eating addiction. Those may be the same reasons for a lot of us, or it may just be boredom…or we just love the taste of foods we know we shouldn’t eat a lot of. Brownies, cookies, French fries, tater tots, potato chips, pizza…you name it. Anything high in sugar, salt, or fat; all extremely precious and rare in our early, tree-climbing days on the veldt, but now they’re everywhere (and, unfortunately for us, our “ancient software” hasn’t been updated that much)! So, what is the solution?

We all know we should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, sleep at least eight hours a night, and exercise more. We should consume more iron, fiber, protein, and vitamins & minerals. According to WebMD, here are some other practical recommendations: make sure you consume plenty of foods rich Omega-3 fatty acids—ALA (alpha linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).4 Omega-3 fatty acids are known to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke, and dieticians generally recommend the following- 1600 milligrams a day for men, 1100 milligrams a day for women.4  Roughly 450 mg of omega-3s can be found in a 6-ounce can of tuna and 600 mg in 3 ounces of salmon.4 Other foods rich in omega-3 include (but are not limited to) anchovies, halibut, herring, mackerel, trout, oysters, yogurt, oatmeal, walnuts, canola oil, broccoli, and cereal.4 According to dieticians, DHA and EPA omega-3s can also be found in OTC supplements.4  

Phytonutrients are another recommendation, and foods like whole grains, beans, nuts, and teas contain them. “Phyto” is Greek for “plant.” Many nutrients of this variety help protect plants from germs, fungi, bugs, and other threats. For us, though, phytonutrients- while not essential for our survival– can stave off serious illnesses.5 Phytonutrients like carotenoids contain antioxidants, which inhibit harmful “free radicals” from oxidizing and damaging human tissues.5 Alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin are all other forms of carotenoids that can be converted into vitamin A (which helps the immune system and maintains eye health).5 Both pumpkins and carrots contain alpha and beta-carotene, while sweet red peppers contain beta-cryptoxanthin.5 The phytonutrient lycopene (found in tomatoes, watermelons, and pink grapefruits) helps lower the risk of prostate cancer, while lutein and zeaxanthin (found in spinach, kale, collards, and other greens) help protect people from cataracts and macular degeneration.5 Ellagic Acid (found in strawberries, raspberries, and pomegranates) help slow the growth of cancer cells.5 Other phytonutrients include flavonoids, resveratrol, glucosinolates, and phytoestrogens.5

A third recommendation is “America’s favorite (new) fruit,” the avocado. Avocados are packed full of vitamins and minerals, and they contain lutein, zeaxanthin, and the type of unsaturated fat that helps lower triglycerides (the “bad” cholesterol) and high blood pressure.6 Avocadoes slow the decline of memory and protect against Alzheimer’s, strengthen bones, keep skin looking more youthful, and help fight cancer.6 A few green slices contain at least 118 micrograms of folate, which can help assist those suffering from depression, and a half a cup of guacamole contains 6 grams (1/4 the RDA) of fiber, which helps those trying to lose weight.6  

There are countless nutritional and lifestyle tips you can find if you are trying to lose weight and/or curb over-or-unhealthy eating. WebMD is one source. The CDC is another. You can easily find different apps and different diets. And then there are of course plenty of bookstores and nutritionists who themselves have plenty of expert advice. I have a strong sweet tooth and a proclivity for all things fatty, sugary, and salty. In my own experience, carbonated water and peanuts can sometimes do the trick. A lot of people really excel during the Christian “Lent” period- giving up temptations like chocolate or alcohol for 40 days. But if you can’t do 40, then 4 is a good start. This “optimal deprivation” method can be useful; that is until you cave during a moment of stress. However, experts recommend you not beat yourself up over situations like that. It’s okay to develop a healthy lifestyle incrementally if that’s the most realistic approach.

The one lingering issue that The Whale addresses is the dangerous dichotomy between “safe/healthy” and “beautiful”. “Body positivity” is a movement that has gained lots of traction over the past few years. This has included encouragement by celebrities like the popstar Lizzo. Now, to give credit where credit is due, she’s not incorrect. Human beings throughout history have had widely different interpretations of beauty (or “standards of beauty”). These standards have integrated everything from hair style and skin color to clothing and weight. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” though. Whether people find those who are light-skinned, dark-skinned, plus-sized, slender, straight-or-curly-haired, or whatever else attractive is all subjective. Science and health, though, are not. High blood pressure, cancer, diabetes, strokes, Covid-19, and congestive heart failure are all objective, non-aesthetic concerns. Charlie’s problem wasn’t that he was “ugly” or “disgusting.” His problem was that he was dying. He could barely breathe or walk, his blood pressure was through the roof, and his heart was in rapid decline!

Fraser’s performance of a man who has abandoned hope and obsessively traveled down a path of self-destruction is a proper, cautionary tale for the modern era. As much as many (if not all) of us would love to believe we can drink beer and eat pizza and ice cream all day every day, unfortunately we cannot. Those bad habits will eventually catch up to us, and those habits are especially difficult to break when they are spurned on by stressful or negative emotions. That is why films like The Whale and the conversations it produces are so important. If we can see the dark, self-destructive paths people potentially fall into, we can help effectively prevent people from doing so.

SOURCES

[1] Baron, Zach (February 22, 2018). “What Ever Happened To Brendan Fraser?”GQ. Retrieved February 22, 2018, [2] Vojtech, Jim; Messer, Lesley (February 22, 2018). “Brendan Fraser says he has his own #MeToo story”. ABC News. Retrieved May 27, 2018.^ “Texar Rising – About”. History.com. History. Retrieved March 4, 2018, [3] FastStats – Leading Causes of Death (cdc.gov), [4] Your Omega-3 Family Shopping List (webmd.com), [5] What Are Phytonutrients? Types and Food Sources (webmd.com), [6] Health Benefits of Avocados (webmd.com)

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