The true story behind In The Heart Of The Sea was so compelling it inspired one of the best-known novels ever. Is it any good? You could read it to find out. Or read this.

An interviewer once asked Woody Allen what he would do differently if he could live his life over again. “I wouldn’t read Moby-Dick,” came the reply.

The novel is by no means a pleasurable experience for every reader, as many an American high school student will tell you.

And yet as eccentric and difficult as it is, Herman Melville’s vast whale tale still fascinates readers and writers more than 160 years after it was published.

Ron Howard’s new film retells the real-life story of the destruction by an angry whale of the ship Essex in 1820

Many people claim that it is the book that showed American writers how to escape the influence of European literature and find their own identity.

As EL Doctorow put it: “American literature … begins with Moby-Dick, the book that swallowed European civilisation whole.”

The novel starts on an irresistible note of conspiratorial intimacy, as the narrator invites the reader to “Call me Ishmael”.

Eccentric: the story of Moby-Dick still fascinates readers and writers more than 160 years on

Over the course of the next 200,000-odd words, we follow Ishmael as he signs up to sail on the whaler Pequod and encounters its bizarre crew, including Queequeg, the harpooner who is a South Sea chieftain’s son; Starbuck, the intellectual first mate commemorated today by a coffee shop chain; and Ahab, the fanatical captain who seeks revenge on Moby-Dick, the whale who bit off his leg.

And then finally we discover how Ishmael becomes the sole survivor as the Pequod is destroyed by the whale it has tracked so doggedly.

It is hard to warm to Ahab and his monomaniacal obsession with revenge on Moby-Dick; we can see why DH Lawrence thought the whale “should have torn off both his legs, and a bit more besides”.

“This is what ye have shipped for, men!,’” Ahab rages, “‘to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.’”

Starbuck’s repeated pleas for sanity – “‘Vengeance on a dumb brute! that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness!’” – fall on deaf ears, and Ahab leads his crew to their doom. Some cynical souls have seen his vindictive and self-destructive pursuit of his enemy as an eternally relevant allegory for American foreign policy.

Sitting pretty: Chris Hemsworth playing the lead role in the Moby-Dick inspired In the Heart of the Sea Credit: 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The novel has had a lasting impact on high and low culture. JM Barrie’s Captain Hook is an old Etonian parody of Ahab, obsessed rather pathetically with a crocodile instead of a whale.

The Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan (1982) transposes the story into space, with the villainous Khan’s last words to Captain Kirk being directly lifted from Ahab’s final tirade at Moby-Dick: “To the last I grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.”

The novel has obsessed some of America’s greatest creative minds. Orson Welles spent eight years devising a theatre show in which his adaptation of the book was performed on a bare stage: the cast (which included Kenneth Williams) used brooms as oars and a stick as a telescope, and the ship and the whale had to be conjured up in the audience’s imagination.

Ray Bradbury wrote a loose radio adaptation in which Christopher Lee played a space commander relentlessly pursuing the comet that had blinded him. For Bradbury, Melville’s achievement was worthy of the giants of literature: “Shakespeare wrote Moby-Dick, using Melville as a Ouija board.”

And now as a testament to the novel’s enduring resonance, Ron Howard’s new film retells the real-life story of the destruction by an angry whale of the ship Essex in 1820, an event that inspired Melville’s book. Even in the 21st century, the world’s obsession with Moby-Dick still matches Captain Ahab’s.

Written by Jake Kerridge

• Directed by Ron Howard, In the Heart of the Sea is released on Boxing Day at cinemas in the UK