Mythology in Movies: The Greeks

hercules and xena

I’ve always loved myths and legends – Greek, Roman, Norse, Arthurian. As a kid I read and re-read fascinating stories, punctuated by beautiful artwork, in D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, Usborne’s Norse Myths and Legends, Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy. Eventually I graduated to reading the classics, listening to Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and playing Wrath of the Gods on my computer while watching Hercules and Xena religiously every week.

It always gives me a thrill to see those stories brought to life on the big screen for a wider audience, whatever the end result may be.


Vanessa Williams Armand Assante The Odyssey Calypso Odysseus

The Odyssey
As a tv-miniseries, The Odyssey had the luxury of time to fully – and accurately – tell Homer’s story of Odysseus, a clever king who, having angered the sea god Poseidon with his arrogance, spends ten years after the end of the Trojan War fighting to get back home to his wife and son.

This movie revels in the fantastical aspects of Greek mythology, featuring the giant cyclops, sea monsters, and sorceresses. It captures the essence of Greek myths, which was rooted in the journey of a hero, the dangers of pride, and the complex interactions between gods and mortals: their feuds, rivalries, riddles, and romances. But at its heart, it’s the story of a man fighting apparently insurmountable odds to reach his home and his loving wife, who has suffered for 20 years in his absence, always trusting he will make his way back to her.

hercules and hades

Hercules
This Disney cartoon takes countless liberties with the myths to make them palatable for children, but the catchy soundtrack, adorable cheesiness, and scene-stealing hilarity of James Woods as Hades all make it work. Like the Pixar films that would follow, Hercules is also a fun watch for adults, who will catch numerous in-jokes, references, and anachronisms.

Triangle Melissa George

Triangle
This movie is one of my all-time favorites, due to the mind-bending plot that kept me fascinated over multiple viewings. It tells the story of a young woman who, stranded in the ocean on an overturned sailboat, takes refuge on a deserted cruiseliner called Aeolus. In Greek mythology Aeolus was the father of Sisyphus, a crafty king who angered the gods by outwitting them – and Death itself – multiple times. When he finally ended up in Tartarus, the Underworld, Sisyphus was as punishment forced to roll a boulder up to the top of a hill for all eternity. But each time he comes close to reaching the top, the boulder slips and he’s forced to start over again. It’s literally the definition of a “Sisyphean task.”

If you’ve seen Triangle, you’ll understand the reference. Melissa George’s character is trapped in a vicious cycle, forced to watch her friends die over and over for reasons she doesn’t understand, and she attempts to break the chain of events so she can get back home to her son.

my fair lady image

My Fair Lady

This is an adorably charming classic about a man who transforms a street urchin into the ultimate gentile lady, molding her with his linguistic expertise. If you trace the film and the musical back to its stage version, Pygmalion, the connection to the Greeks becomes clear. In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who made a statue of a woman so beautiful, he fell in love with it. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, granted his wish for the statue to become a real woman.

Troy Movie

Troy
On first viewing, I detested this film. Aside from Eric Bana’s terrible performance and Brad Pitt’s utterly ridiculous fight choreography, I was really annoyed by the fact that they removed the gods from the story. Troy presents the story of the Trojan War as a historical event based in political strife, but set off by the torrid affair between Prince Paris of Troy and Helen of Sparta. The only parts of the movie I could say I enjoyed were Peter O’Toole’s magnificent monologue as King Priam, plus the clever way they suggested the myth of the “Achilles heel” might have begun.

Over time I forgave Troy for trying to be a regular war movie; if nothing else they had introduced a generation to the concept of the Trojan Horse – I was shocked, SHOCKED I tell you when my friend asked, “Why are all those men hiding in that big wooden thing?” And perhaps there wasn’t room in the 3-hour movie to do the gods justice. But I missed those stories: the petty squabble amongst the goddesses that led Paris to Helen; Cassandra, blessed to see the future but cursed never to be believed; the demi-god Achilles’ single point of weakness, etc.

Immortals Henry Cavill Tarsem Singh Theseus

Immortals
Immortals, while perfectly acceptable as an action movie in the vein of 300, is something of a jumbled mess. The gods play a major role, but every aspect of their mythology is re-written. Tarsem Singh took the idea of beautiful, powerful immortals and a young demi-god abandoned by his immortal father (a recurring theme in mythology), and wrote his own story. It’s entertaining I suppose, and the visual presentation is stunning, but in re-writing the gods as benevolent guardian angels Singh lost what made them so fascinating: their pettiness, selfishness, and propensity to meddle in human affairs. He also erased any hint of uniqueness and made them completely indistinguishable from one another.

 

Michael Fassbender David Prometheus star map

Prometheus

Like Triangle, Prometheus draws inspiration from Greek mythology without directly reenacting it. The title references the Titan who created man out of clay, and later brought fire – enlightenment – to mankind. For this crime he was chained to a rock, forced to watch an eagle eat out his liver every day, while it grew back every night. Prometheus is less than subtle in its homage to Greek myths; the themes in this movie could have been lifted out of any one of them: man’s hubris, and misguided quest to be closer to the gods – our creators – brings about his downfall.

Hercules Disney movie Muses

These adaptations are all over the map, but they all do their part to keep the magic of the classics alive.

See also Mythology in Movies: The Norse , Mythology in Movies: The Celts, Mythology in Movies: The Egyptians, and Mythology in Movies: King Arthur

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16 thoughts on “Mythology in Movies: The Greeks

  1. Great post! i wish more myths were adapted on screen, especially from celtic mythology, they are so beautiful. I agree pretty much with everything here – I wish they included Casandra in Troy, though the film was such a mess maybe it’s for the best.

    • I’ve been wanting to read up more on Celtic mythology! The closest I’ve gotten is some of the Merlin sagas that refer to Druids, Stonehenge, etc. I’m going to follow up with a couple more mythology posts so hopefully I’ll find a few good leads on that 🙂

  2. good article, but 1 movie you left out that made numerous references to the Greek gods, was ” Jason and the Argonauts.” Good story and special effects decades before cgi. The teeth of the Hydra, skeletons, rising out of the ground to battle Jason was created by Harry Harryhasen, sp. ck., and was nominated for an academy award. Solid tale that kept the greek legends on the screen.

  3. Interesting article, I didn’t know Triangle had some references to Greek mythology. I LOVE My Fair Lady but that’s an interesting insight there about the ‘sculptor’ falling for the object of his creation. As for TROY, I couldn’t disagree more about Eric Bana’s performance, I think he’s the saving grace of the movie for me.

    • I’ve just never found Eric Bana believable. His accents never sound right and I can always see him _acting_. Like the scene on the ship: “You know nothing about dying, and you know nothing about love!” It felt SO rehearsed and melodramatic. Same thing with Stark Trek, he completely took me out of the movie.

  4. Pingback: Mythology in Movies: The Norse | On the Screen Reviews

  5. Good post. I also disliked Troy, partially because of the removal of the gods. They did toss in a small nod, though. Achilles’ mother is seen standing in the shallows of the ocean when he goes to talk to her. If I remember my mythology correctly, his mother was a sea nymph.

    Some movies for other religions – Thor for Norse mythology, Legion for Christian mythology, and The Legend of Bagger Vance for Hindu mythology.

    • oooh, nice catch! It totally escaped my notice but you’re right, Achilles’ mother was a sea nymph.

      Thanks for commenting – and for the tips! I’m working on several mythology posts right now. Once you get started it’s hard to stop seeing all the references.

  6. Pingback: Mythology in Movies: The Celts | On the Screen Reviews

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  10. I must agree with ruth… I found Eric Bana’s performance at Hector in Troy to be the saving grace of the film. Anyone who loves the Illiad knows that Hector’s death is the dramatic heart of the tale, and I felt Mr. Bana portrayed perfectly the gentleness, heroism, and manliness of a true hero.
    Loved reading you article though. I too would like to see more mythology done well in motion pictures.

    • Wow, that’s high praise! I must really be missing something… maybe I should rewatch it?

      And since you mentioned the Iliad: didn’t you feel the movie lost a lot with its compressed timeframe? It seemed to span a few months at most (Hector’s baby was still a baby at the end); I think a lot of the emotional resonance and tragedy of the tale stems from the fact that they’ve been at war for TEN. YEARS. Ten years under constant siege is almost incomprehensible, and it adds an important dynamic. The Odyssey mini-series did a fantastic job of conveying the physical and emotional fatigue the characters suffer in that amount of time; I think Troy would have benefited from adding that level of depth to the characters’ experience.

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