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Matthew McConaughey's 'Serenity' and other fish tales: Why Hollywood loves them

Movies about obsessed fishermen, including "Jaws" and "Moby Dick," have been a staple of the big screen.

From left, Matthew McConaughey, Jason Clarke and Djimon

From left, Matthew McConaughey, Jason Clarke and Djimon Hounsou star in "Serenity." Photo Credit: Aviron Pictures / Graham Bartholomew

You don't have to be an experienced angler to understand the madness that sometimes overtakes fishermen.

American literature is bursting with such characters, and Hollywood loves them, too. Which is why director and screenwriter Steven Knight took notice while big-game fishing with a tuna-boat captain off St. Lucia some years back. The angler was jovial until a fish got on the line.

“Then he was totally obsessed and you didn’t exist — it was just he and the fish,” says Knight.

That experience inspired Knight to write and direct “Serenity,” a new, noirish thriller starring Matthew McConaughey as a fisherman awash in lies, deception and (possibly) murder. Also starring Djimon Hounsou (as his buddy), Anne Hathaway (a mysterious ex) and Jason Clarke (her violent husband), the film opens Jan. 25.

At a glance, fishing doesn’t seem terribly film-worthy, given all that…well, sitting around.

“But the fisherman is a classic American hero — a drifter who goes off into the void, into nothingness,” says Knight, who loves fishing himself. Add to that a sun-drenched, outdoor locale and the thrill of triumph when a fish finally takes the bait, and it doesn’t surprise Knight why so many classic films pit man against fish. Consider…

* “Moby Dick” (1956) — A driven Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) vs. that whale with the funny name.

* “The Old Man and the Sea” (1958) — Ernest Hemingway’s classic hero (a remarkably not-that-sun-burned Spencer Tracy) vs. a marlin.

* “Jaws” (1975) — A motley crew (Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw) vs. a great white shark, and the most bloodcurdling theme (“duhhh-dun…dun-dun dun-dun dun-dun”) in music history, courtesy of John Williams.  

* “A River Runs Through It” (1992) — Brothers (Craig Sheffer, young Brad Pitt) vs. trout, in director Robert Redford’s ode to fly-fishing.

* “The Perfect Storm” (2000) — Gloucester fishermen (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg) vs. swordfish, Doppler radar and the worst luck ever.

Not all fishermen inspire — remember the New York Islanders’ much-maligned (and short-lived) fisherman jerseys, when they tried to rebrand in the 1990s? Still, whether trawling the Sound for fluke or blackfish, or hunting flounder, stripers or Blue Point oysters in the Great South Bay, local anglers know that fishing is about faith.

“You cast your line out, waiting for something that’s under there, that you have to believe is there — even after a long day of catching nothing,” says Knight.

It takes patience.

“There’s a great quote that says, ‘God doesn’t subtract from your life span the time you spend fishing.’”

Maybe the same goes for watching fishing films, too.

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