Two versions of shipwreck and cannibalism story behind Melville's classic are being made

The story that charts the obsessive, ill-fated hunt for a great white whale has resounded down the generations since the publication in 1851 of Herman Melville's novel, Moby-Dick: or, The Whale. Now the lure of the enormous whale has proved too strong both for film director Ron Howard and for the BBC, who have set off on rival voyages to bring the true story behind Melville's dark saga to audiences.

With Chris Hemsworth, Ben Whishaw and Cillian Murphy lined up in Howard's cast, the director of the new Formula One film Rush returns to England this week to make his next film, In the Heart of the Sea, at the Warner Bros studios in Leavesden, Hertfordshire. Howard has recruited British screenwriter Peter Morgan, who also scripted Rush, to redraft his seafaring screenplay.

The BBC is already editing footage shot over the spring and summer for its new adventure film The Whale, written by Terry Cafolla and made in collaboration with the Discovery Channel. Filmed on location in Malta, the 90-minute drama stars Jonas Armstrong and Adam Rayner, last seen in BBC1's Hunted. Armstrong, who first came to fame as BBC1's Robin Hood, plays the key part of first mate Owen Chase in the BBC film, while Hemsworth takes that role in Howard's production. The real Chase was one of the few survivors of a Nantucket whaling ship, the Essex, that went down after being rammed by a huge sperm whale in 1820. It was Chase's account of this grim fate that was related to the young Melville by Chase's son and is believed to have inspired the author to write Moby-Dick.

Melville seems to have based his novel on the early part of the unfortunate adventures of the crew of the Essex. After it sank in the South Pacific, the crew were adrift for 90 days and survivors were forced to turn to cannibalism.

In Nantucket in later life Melville met the captain of the Essex, George Pollard. The former sailor had once been proud to be the youngest captain of a working whaling ship and Melville pronounced him "one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met". The encounter is set to be recreated in Howard's film in a scene between Melville, played by Whishaw, and Pollard, played by Brendon Gleeson.

In Melville's book, the story of Moby-Dick is narrated by a sailor who calls himself Ishmael. He recounts the story of Captain Ahab's quest to exact revenge on the whale which had destroyed his boat and bitten off his leg. "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," vows Ahab.

Howard's version of the true story of the Essex takes its title and much of its narrative from the award-winning bestseller by Nathaniel Philbrick. Published in 2000, it is based on Chase's account, but also draws on a journal kept by the youngest member of the crew, a 14-year-old cabin boy called Thomas Nickerson. Nickerson and seven other survivors spent three months at sea before they were rescued. Some faced starvation on the Pacific island of Henderson, while others resorted to cannibalism at sea.

Nickerson's version of the events surrounding the whale attack, The Loss of the Ship Essex Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats, was undiscovered until 1960 and not published until 1984, when the Nantucket Historical Association realised its significance.

Nickerson, who will be played by young British actor Tom Holland in Howard's film and by the newcomer Charles Furness in the BBC film, wrote his account in 1876, just seven years before he died at the age of 78.

"Very few people will know that Moby-Dick was directly inspired by this story, which was first told by Chase and which Melville would have read and we hope to tell it as excitingly as possible," said Eamon Hardy, executive producer of The Whale. "Nickerson's experiences were definitely recounted by Chase and would have contributed much to the classic that is Moby-Dick." © Guardian News and Media 2013