If you’re anything like me, you’ve likely noticed this by now. Flashy visuals, postmodern takes on how god (or in this case the gods) don’t care/may as well be dead, trying to be hyper historical without a sense of what makes the story what it is, extreme fashion choices or drab all-white ensembles that look like they came directly out of Party City, and twenty new takes on Zeus that all seem to ignore one of the most fundamental (and disturbing and thus understandingly ignorable) pieces of his character.
The Greek Myth movie.
Between every strange, well-meaning, or outright deviating interpretation, Hollywood has hit the books again and again with entirely mixed results. I hesitate to say that there have been any interpretations of film myth that have really hit the mark, but there are things heading in the right direction, and things I wish we’d avoided entirely.
So, while planning my own departure into the land of mythpunk, I want to examine the pieces of sword and sandal cinema that Hollywood both hits and misses with: the fundamentals of what these stories are really all about, and why some of us have so little praise to give when it comes to interpretations of some of our favorite stories.
1. The Gods
Let’s face it. Greek Mythology would be nothing without its fundamental cast of personalities to make it the quirky, heartfelt, emotionally resonate, seemingly permanent thing that it is. There is a reason that these stories have stood several millennia and still find new relevance. But to watch Greek Myth film is to see the roles of the gods frustratingly marginalized.
Many films tend to forget that this cast of characters is expansive and gigantic, forgetting about half of the standard Olympians, let alone any gods outside of this distinction. There is a push for interpreting Zeus’ role as king into a semi-monotheistic role, in which Zeus is God with a capital G, the Olympians become more of a supporting cast of well-dressed worker bees, and Hades, by proxy, is cast into the role of Satan. This is especially notable in the remake of Clash of the Titans where, unlike the original, very little of the supporting cast had anything to say to Zeus, pro or con, aside from Hades who is cast into the role of villain.
Other films like Immortals include the gods in visually prominent ways, but in terms of the story, their roles and ultimately their personalities are still devoid of much character at all. The gods have become a visual crutch, but their place (an arguably fundamental one) in the story is nothing more than visual. Zeus needs no backup, Hades has no connection to the myth other than to destroy.
Alternately, films like Troy decided to write them out altogether, aside from a strange insinuation at Thetis’ origins. Troy stands as a trend in mythological cinema to make the story gritty, “hyper realistic,” and by all claims: “historical.” To do this, however, doesn’t make the story more human or relatable at all, but instead makes the insertion of modern mindsets and philosophies into a world where they do not belong all the more obvious.
The best example of the gods in film as clear cut personalities and characters is with a mythpunk rendition that hits its own source material questionably. Percy Jackson and the Olympians (and moreso, the sequel: Sea of Monsters) does a fairly solid job (aside from once again casting Hades into the role of Satan) in making its gods feel closer to people than many other adaptations. The sequel gives us a Dionysus that makes us empathize with his loss of wine, a knowledgable, charming Hermes who doesn’t just fulfill a narrative role but for a short amount of time, makes us feel his pain as a failed parent, and in Chiron, we have a mentor who seems to have a connection with and care for the heroes in his charge. We’re introduced to a Persephone with a modicum of agency (even if the first film also snafu-ed on the 6-month Earth/Underworld timing), and best of all: a Zeus who feels fallible
(thanks in no small part to being played by Sean Bean).
2. Acknowledgement of the Source
Some films flagrantly and very obviously disregard the source after the moment the names of the characters are chosen. In fact, recently, it may seem that sword and sandal films are banking only on how recognizable the names of the characters in the film are, moreso than the characters themselves. Clash of the Titans and Immortals both fall prey to this, choosing heroes with household names, but not the stories to go along with them. In fact, we’re told more often than not that the stories “aren’t real,” that we’ve “misheard” them in the generations since their origination, and while this is true, these films bank on the fact that their viewership paid about as little attention to Greek Mythology in school as the script pays to the source material.
Clash of the Titans is an interesting case, having been an interpretation of an interpretation, but it’s so vastly departed, and still follows along with this post-modern idea of fighting the gods, of downplaying their importance, and thus also the narrative flow, that I feel it still merits inclusion. In fact, the CotT remake goes out of its way to vastly depart from its predecesor, and the only nod to the source material it seems to have outside of the basic “Perseus slays Medusa” scene is an in-joke nod to the mechanical owl of the original film.
Hercules (2014) also takes this same idea of departure and loose reinvention, but instead of using this as an excuse for said departures and disconnect from the myth, it uses those connections to ground the story, and in so doing, makes the story feel like a reinvented myth, with the same heart and similar intent. Where Hercules differs is that it takes the original myth, actively and vocally acknowledges it, and plays to its strengths. While it still pulls the gods out of the larger context of the film, their existence (and the Heracles myth itself) is vital to the success of the narrative and the story’s survival. Arguably, the original myth is the emotional heart of the film, even if it isn’t the active narrative thereof.
It’s all a matter of active acknowledgement versus intentional disregard. The myth is the reason we’re all here, so why is it always the first part sacrificed?
3. Character & Accuracy
From here-on, critique of Greek Mythology cinema is largely up to the semantics of accuracy in character and story minutiae. We have already established how the story itself is largely deserted for flat character and, admittedly, sometimes interesting visuals, but beyond this larger piece, if we were to point out the mythological inconsistencies, we might be here for another three millennia.
There are, however, larger trends that these films overall seem to ignore when it comes to character in these stories, such as the relationships between those characters. It should come as no surprise that Hollywood tends to shy away from the unclear foundational sexuality of characters involved, but honestly: how long is it going to take before a film (that isn’t Alexander) actively recognizes that the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus does not fit the ideals of the Golden Age of Comics with the older, adult hero, and his younger sidekick (who is often a nephew, younger brother, adopted son, et. al.)?
Actually, without delving too deeply into my own biased semantics, Troy is actually one of the best representative examples of the flagrant disregard of character overall. Helen–whose story almost relies on her taking her agency into her own hands–is given almost none, Briseis is three or so characters all rolled into one convenient package: Briseis, Cassandra, and Chryseis (because women are totally replaceable, especially in a story that has so few of them already), Hector gives literally ZERO fucks about piety, and poor Odysseus’ chance at a sequel is dead in the water before they arrive (again, not helped when also played by Sean Bean).
And outside of terrible Trojan War adaptations, it seems that Greek Myth films also have this tendency to forget completely about stories that existed outside of this. Hercules (while Atalanta is present, along with a few other Argonauts) entirely ignores the existence of Jason, Medea, or the ship at all, and Immortals completely ignores this as well. The Argonauts, outside of a (surprisingly not too bad) Hallmark movie adaptation, seem to simply not exist.
And if you’re a lady, well. Be ready to be a poorly-designed Xena clone, a helpless damsel, or to find yourself written out entirely.
Overall, it paints a pretty bleak picture for those of us still hoping against all hope for a film that not only represents the myth it supposedly paints, but respects the history and intent of that story. But there are things (not always many) that these films do right as well. Small consolations, but there has to be some reason why we keep putting ourselves through this.
Just stop writing out your gods. And for the love of those gods, give us some heroes we can connect with, not heroes that may as well be transplanted into a film of a different genre or era with a different costume and who still fulfill the same purpose.
Seriously. For the love of gods.