Talking to a friend about films the other day, she told me her favourite was ‘300’. This is a movie I associate with comically overblown fighting scenes and Gerard Butler in a loincloth totally unsuited to keeping hordes of Persians out of Greece, but when I asked her why it was her favourite, she told me that the film reminded her of “what it means to be human.”
Even though ‘300’ was based on a comic book more than any historical event, the comment made me wonder about classic Greek literature, particularly Homer’s Iliad, which is more usually referred to when people say literature taught them something about human nature. What is it about these warrior stories that appeals so much to so many people?
The Iliad has survived for centuries because it does in fact tell us something about being human. However, beyond providing some excellent caricatures of the less pleasant people we meet in our everyday lives – the manipulative Odysseus is the archetype of any politician, while king Agamemnon’s management skills mainly consist of deferring unpleasant tasks to someone else – it is not always that clear why it strikes such an emotional chord.
To find out why, I returned to some of the popular modern adaptations I’ve read or seen of the story, and tried to work what the writers did – which elements of the original they kept intact, and which were altered – in order to figure out what made these adaptations work – or not.
The biggest effort in terms of scale was probably Hollywood’s production of Troy, the 2004 movie starring celebrity actors like Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom, among others. I know many people liked this movie, due to the action scenes and some of the acting. However, the movie just doesn’t work for me, mainly because it didn’t stick to the events of the original Iliad at all and left out the entire cast of Olympian god characters.
I can only guess at what the intended aim of the screenwriters was, but there is one scene in the movie, where Achilles lops off the head of a statue in one of the Trojan temples dedicated to their gods, that implies that they must’ve figured the gods have no place in a story told to a 21st century audience. After all, many of us would say we consider ourselves self-made and free, choosing the course of our lives entirely for ourselves. All value judgements aside, this does make it awfully hard to relate to the psychology of a group of warriors who lived thousands of years ago and their motivations, which by themselves probably do little to warm us to them: like sacking a city for the purposes of dragging a woman back by her hair or throwing a big fit over honour and war prizes.
This is why the characters of the gods do much to keep the themes of the Iliad alive. The gods, being immortal, make the idea of ‘forever’ physical, close enough to reach out to but just far enough to be tantalizing. They represent both immortality and fate, and the human desire to achieve the first and manipulate the second, a struggle that must be recognizable to anyone, regardless of the time they live in.
Some of the most tragic moments in the saga are the times when one of the characters realizes he or she can’t hold off fate forever- even the gods sometimes have to accept that they cannot save their mortal children or favourite heroes when fate (or Zeus) has other plans for them.
A good modern adaptation of greek literature should ideally address these dilemmas between immortality, fate, and personal autonomy. A book I liked particularly for this reason was Madeline Miller’s novel, ‘the song of Achilles’. It describes the relationship between Achilles and, in this version, his lover Patroclus in the lead-up to the Trojan war, as they learn that Achilles must fight and die to achieve immortal status in legend, or watch his divine talents fade away as he becomes an old man.
I initially had very mixed feelings about this book, especially as it includes a lot of scenes in which Patroclus sits around like a love-struck puppy dog, literally admiring the pink soles of Achilles’ feet. In fact, it was a very clever move to re-tell the story from Patroclus’ point of view: he struggles with his own feelings for Achilles and his selfless resolution to protect Achilles’ reputation, so that the latter will have the greatest fame possible after his death, an emotional dilemma people can relate to.
The gods are constantly present in influence, providing the framework for the characters’ decision making. Thetis is the only god-like personality that physically appears in the book: she functions as a villain throughout most of the book, hating Patroclus because she is afraid he will ruin her son’s heroic reputation, right up until the point Achilles is actually killed.
Being one of the lowest ranking gods, Thetis is blessed with eternal life, but no power to control anything that happens around her, much less the final outcome of her son’s life: she is left nothing more than that most universal of characters, a mother.
“We watch the light sink into the grave of the Western sky. ‘I could not make him a god,’ she says. Her jagged voice, rich with grief.”
What we relate to in many of the Greek stories is the simple tragedy of seeking to gain some sense of control over the narratives of our lives; control that most of us at times in our lives will feel like we don’t have, especially when faced with death. The lengths normal people would go to try and achieve any sense of immortality comparable to that of their deities is a sure recipe for a drama that stays recognizable over time.