So, the other day I was reading Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, you know, as one does. I was particularly excited for this play because it takes place during the Trojan War and includes all your favorite characters from The Iliad. More to the point, I was super excited to see Shakespeare do Homer, because I’m a huge nerd with literally nothing better to do in my free time over Thanksgiving break. Anyway, in case you were wondering, I’m rather enjoying it. I’m enjoying it to the point where I thought it’d make a really good installment in my “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” series. Sadly, there are no feature film adaptations of Troilus and Cressida. Okay, I thought, well, I can still do stuff with The Iliad, and that could be fun. I was wrong. It wouldn’t be fun.
The working title for this article was, “Second Breakfast Explores Troy, and Everything that’s Very, Very, Very Wrong with It.” As you can see, I opted against that title, mainly because I usually shoot for somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand words for these posts, and examining everything that’s very, very, very wrong with the movie Troy would put me into dissertation territory. Still, it got me thinking, have any ancient works been adapted into great movies? Probably, I mean, there are good Bible movies out there if you count Ben-Hur, but what about yon pagan stuff? What about…
- The Iliad –
How easy is this? Let me count the ways.
It’s easy because Homer did the work,
He armed heroes with sword, spear, and hauberk,
But also with wit, honor, nobility.
Hector, Menelaus, Aeneas, and Achille’,
Ajax, Ulysses, all so great they shook
The craft for ages and defined the book.
Why, how hard may’t be to make a damn film
When all the story’s writ and plot well-known?
I guess as hard as piercing pen through helm.
None have done’t? None have even nearly shown
An understanding of this studied source.
Can’t they at least get the characters right?
Troy changes who lives and who doesn’t, o’course.
Upon the viewer it’s naught but a blight.
- The Odyssey – This is another one that really shouldn’t be all that hard. I think, though, people get a bit too caught up in the journey section with all the monsters and everything, but in truth that portion doesn’t make up much of the overall work. It’s a story within a story. The Odyssey is far less about a harrowing quest through beasts and gods and hellscapes, and much more about intimate human relationships, particularly that between a father and his son, and between a husband and his wife. Odysseus is certainly the main character, but Telemachus and Penelope are equally important. The word “odyssey” has come to refer to a long, wandering, and eventful journey. Notably, Odysseus is not the only character who embarks upon an odyssey. Adaptations just think that monsters and action will be the main selling point, but really a movie will succeed if it has engaging, deep characters who all go on their own individual journeys. Maybe that’s why no straight adaptation of The Odyssey has been that good.
- The Aeneid – No one’s even touched this one. The Aeneid is Virgil’s homage to Homer. I’m not sure if homage is really the right word, but it’ll do for now. Virgil adapts Homer’s style to tell the story of the sole Trojan survivor of the war, Aeneas, and his odyssey around the Mediterranean until eventually founding Rome. It was famously adapted into the opera Dido and Aeneas, but I’m pretty sure no opera would translate well to film. The difficult thing in the process of adapting The Aeneid would be in differentiating it from The Odyssey, but if your adaptation of The Odyssey really focused on the text and not just the monsters, then it actually wouldn’t be a problem.
- The Anabasis – a.k.a. Xenophon’s Persian Expedition, this is a great one. Did you ever see the movie The Warriors? 1979 cult classic, you know? That is the closest thing we have to a good adaptation of Xenophon. The Plot: 10,000 Greek soldiers are hired to help a dude win a war in Persia. It goes super well, except the dude gets killed, and so the king they’re trying to depose retains power, and no one is around to pay the Greeks and arrange for them to get home. So, the only option left to them is to fight their way back through hundreds of miles of enemy territory. It’s awesome, and no one has thought to adapt it. I’m not asking for a 300 deal, mind you, because I hate 300 in much the same way I hate Troy. I’d much rather see a cool, calculated, somewhat realistic exploration of leadership, determination, and… oh, hey, this one is an odyssey, too, kind of. Crazy.
- The Shahnameh – Not the whole thing, of course, because the whole thing is impressively long, and much of it is kind of irrelevant. This is the Persian Book of Kings, and it consists of stories and legends to complete a full narrative history of Persia… sort of like The Silmarillion. The best bits are the ones that focus on the great hero Rostam. His story is broken into a convenient little trilogy, The Trials of Rostam, Sohrab and Rostam, and Rostam and Esfandyar. I would not recommend producing a trilogy, because there’s some serious tonal whiplash between Trials and Sohrab. It’s sort of like if Gladiator was a direct sequel to Clash of the Titans. The latter two installments are both truly superb, very tragic, and since they’d be Iranian productions, sure to nab an Oscar nom for Foreign Language Film. Maybe even costumes.
Alas, we don’t have a solid Iliad or Aeneid. The best Odyssey we have is O Brother, Where Art Thou? and that’s hardly what I would call a straight adaptation. Rostam and Xenophon shall ever remain obscure characters to us, and instead we get Alexander, 300, Troy, Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Titans, Spartacus, Hercules, Immortals, Rome, and whatever sequels are looming. Gladiator was great. Why can’t we have more like Gladiator?