The gods are trying to make a comeback. Two movies based on Greek mythology are set for release in 2010; one a remake of a B-movie classic (Clash of the Titans, coming out April 2), the other an adaptation of a series of popular kids’ books (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, getting released on February 12). As such, now seemed like a prime juncture to revisit the cinematic history of Zeus, Medusa and the rest of the gang.
There have never been too many movie adaptations of Greek mythology, probably at least partly due to the fact that the stories are so over-the-top that a modern audience would have trouble accepting them. So the following list isn’t a best or worst of list as much as a review of films that borrowed something from Greek mythology. The most successful of them, like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, take the basic source material and change it up a bit, making it palatable to modern audiences while still working some references to Greek mythology into the material.
directed by Marcel Camus
What sticks out about Black Orpheus more than 50 years after its release isn’t the acting or the story, or even the characters of the doomed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice. What stands out is the music; before Black Orpheus was released and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959, most Americans hadn’t heard of the Brazilian style of music known as bossa nova. As tragic as the love between Orpheus and Eurydice is, it’s the music and dancing that is the focal point of the film. Set during Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, where the rich and poor alike dress up in elaborate costumes and dance the night away, Black Orpheus‘ juxtaposition of the original myth’s tragic love story set against the music and city-wide partying is the real reason to watch the film.
Clash of the Titans
directed by Desmond Davis
The original Clash of the Titans had the misfortune of being a special effects-heavy film (effects were done by stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen) released in 1981, following Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and right before Return of the Jedi. Any effects that Harryhausen could come up with would be measured against zooming TIE fighters and the exploding Death Star—and unfortunately Clash of the Titans doesn’t measure up. Even though the acting is wooden and some of the special effects shots are more amusing then awe-inspiring (specifically the Kraken destroying the city of Argos), the original Clash of the Titans does get by on a certain B-movie charm.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
This 2000 film is a retelling of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey set in Depression-era America. It stars George Clooney as a convict who escapes with two other members of his chain gang to retrieve stolen treasure (well, that’s what he tells them at the time). Along the way they face the Coen brothers’ versions of the Sirens and the Cyclops (an eye patch-wearing Bible salesman conman played excellently by John Goodman), all while being pursued by the Devil himself. The film’s soundtrack—which featured “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and a host of other excellent songs—won the Grammy for Album of the Year.
directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Troy stars Brad Pitt as Achilles, the best warrior the world has ever seen and a soldier in the Trojan War. The movie is too long and Pitt’s acting is horrible (he expresses any emotion by moving his eyebrows and looking perturbed), but the main flaw of the movie is the fact that its main character is practically as contemptible as the villain, Greek king Agamemnon (Brian Cox). The movie does play with the traditional notion of “good guy vs. bad guy”—Achilles (the main character) is Greek, so we should be rooting for the Greeks in their fight against the Trojans, except Achilles is a complete jerk and I was rooting for the Trojan prince Hector (Eric Bana) to stab him all the way through the movie. Anyone who’s familiar with The Iliad knows that that doesn’t happen. It was a bold choice on Petersen’s part to make his main character as unsympathetic as Achilles is—unfortunately, it didn’t pay off.
directed by Zack Snyder
300 rocketed actor Gerard Butler, who played Spartan king Leonidas, into stardom practically overnight. The movie focuses on the fight of 300 Spartan soldiers to defend their country against a Persian force that vastly outnumbers them. The movie caused controversy when it was released, in part because of its culturally insensitive portrayed of the Persian army, but also because it was just plain violent. Indeed, the violence in this movie, along with its striking comic book-inspired visuals, is the main draw here. Unfortunately, there isn’t much else to it.