Why Don't Movies About Greek Gods Stick to the Original Stories?

Why Don't Movies About Greek Gods Stick to the Original Stories?

Aug 08, 2013

For as long as there have been movies, there have been Greek gods and monsters in the movies.

After all, this is the most widely known pantheon of heroes and villains outside of Marvel and DC, a collection of legendary characters who instantly conjure up very specific thoughts and images. There are mighty heroes like Hercules and Achilles. There are powerful gods like Zeus and Poseidon. There are incredible monsters like Medusa and the Minotaur. To think of Greek mythology in the movies is to think of swords and sandals, of magic and mayhem, of intrigue and adventure. There are few things as inherently cinematic as the stories told by the ancient Greeks. The fact that we're getting a second Percy Jackson movie is proof that these tales still hold a fascinating power over us.

So why do so few movies dealing with Greek mythology actually stick to the text?

This isn't a complaint, mind you. To wonder why movies cut from this cloth don't follow the original stories isn't a slight against the likes of Clash of the Titans or any of the hundreds of Hercules movies. It's simply an observation. If a movie adaptation of a massively popular book threw away the text as blatantly as most Greek myth movies do their subject matter, fans would be in an uproar. After revisiting many Ancient Greece-themed movies over the past week, I can say without hesitation that almost none of them accurately depict their subject matter as it was originally intended. It's truly odd: the citizens of Mount Olympus and the mortal beings they rule over tend to exist on-screen as a conduit for modern thinking and belief systems, with the iconography of their legends being shaped and molded to appeal to a modern audience. 

But why? That's the big question, right? These stories existed for thousands of years before Hollywood got its hands on them, so why fix what isn't broken? I'm no Greek scholar (and I'm sure someone more qualified than me is going to read this and shake his fist and curse the Internet), but I think it ultimately boils down to something very simple: The characters of Greek myth are so foreign to what we look for in modern characters that writers, directors and studios are frightened to depict them as written. Part of the appeal of these stories is that they're so profoundly strange and crazy... and they may be a little too nutty for modern storytelling.

The massive gap between source material and Hollywood execution is best summed up by Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. In movies like the Clash of the Titans remake and Disney's take on Hercules, he's depicted as the Big Bad, a villain hell-bent on breaking out of his kingdom and claiming the living world for himself. He's a bad guy through and through, a mustache twirling figure of pure evil out to do irreparable damage to the world of gods and men.

However, in Greek myth, Hades is just a guy. He can be a jerk, he can be vindictive and he can cause all kinds of damage to people's lives, but he doesn't do anything worse than any other god in the Greek pantheon. Heck, Zeus, usually portrayed as a heroic leader in Hollywood films, is a far more dangerous and conniving character than Hades. The god of the underworld is just a god with a specific kingdom, the immortal who got handed the short end of the stick while his brothers got the ocean and the skies. He does his job, makes the trains run on time and doesn't cause too much trouble. After all, there is no heaven and hell in Greek myth -- everyone ends up going to the same place. Wouldn't it suck if every single person, whether they were good of bad, had to spend the afterlife being watched over by a tyrant?

Hollywood's transformation of Hades into a bad guy isn't a reflection of Greek myth, but rather an example of Western beliefs and values informing how people see these characters. In a system where most creators have a viewpoint informed Judeo-Christian imagery, of course the guy who most resembles Satan is going to get saddled with the villain role. After all, how could the lord of the dead not be the bad guy? It's simultaneously understandable and condescending. It's an example of a culture attempting to grapple with the beliefs/stories of an ancient culture and simply failing to see eye to eye with it.

And Hades isn't alone, of course. While watching Luke Evans portray a passive, hopeful and ultimately heroic Zeus in Immortals, I couldn't stop thinking about the Zeus of the text, who loved messing with the affairs of humans and siring more bastards than any fictional character in all of recorded literature. Will we ever get a movie where Zeus transforms into a ray of sunlight or a bull in order to seduce a mortal woman? Of course not. That's too weird. It's awesome and crazy and totally fascinating, but it's easy to imagine a movie completely losing an audience the moment it portrays the god closest to the Western concept of God as a cheating womanizer who routinely destroys the lives of everyone around him.

Of course, someone could also write an entire essay on how filmmakers have gotten Hercules wrong. Sure, most movies capture his strength, his heroic deeds and his boastfulness, but they tend to leave out the part where Hercules goes insane and kills his entire family. A hero murdering his family in cold blood is the kind of thing you see all the time in ancient myth. Eventually, you don't even bat an eye at tales of patricide, matricide, incest and so forth. But will the Rock, who is playing the character in the upcoming Hercules: The Thracian Wars, murder his entire family and decide to redeem his name by cleaning the dirtiest stable in all of Greece in order to redeem his honor? Of course not. That would be too weird. That would make modern audiences giggle instead of thrill them. It would make them instantly lose whatever emotional investment they've had in the story so far. But let's face it: it would also be kind of awesome.

I've long since given up on hoping to see the Greek myths I studied during my college years brought to the screen. I've accepted that they're just too bonkers to make the jump to cinema as written. Heck, even a big-budget adaptation of The Illiad cut out all of the gods (memo to Troy: you suck). How strange is it that a proper adaptation of ancient stories would be fresher and crazier than almost every movie getting made today?

Sorry, Percy Jackson. The tales you're inspired by are so much weirder and better than you.

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