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Popular Adaptation – relax, it’s ok

While I can see big problems with films like Troy, 300 and Gladiator, I can’t honestly say that historical or mythological accuracy is one of them. Those who scorn such films usually have exactly the same argument: Troy is nothing like the Iliad, and 300 and Gladiator are full of historical inaccuracies – everything from the exact events to the military techniques used and the ordering of Maximus’ three names. I’ve met people who studied classics at university and have to make all kinds of excuses to themselves before going to see such films. I honestly don’t think these inaccuracies are a problem.

Troy is a film in its own right. There are a lot of problems with it, many of them in the form of Orlando Bloom, but its vast differences from the Iliad are unimportant. The Iliad has a lot of stylistic features that make an accurate film adaptation a near impossibility. Practically nothing happens during books 2-15 and much of what they are there for – giving a gruesome impression of the slaughter of the Trojan Wars – is achieved by several short battle sequences in the film. The Iliad is a two-layered story in which the events of the Trojan Wars are merely the playground setting for the puppeteering of the gods – all the major events of the Iliad are fated to happen and the main characters are aware of this before they occur. This quite simply wouldn’t work in a modern film. We live with the legacy of centuries of humanism that completely contradicts such a deterministic, entirely god-focussed viewpoint. Modern narratives often depend on the viewer/reader not knowing what happens at the end, and modern writers take huge interest in playing out and demonstrating the vast consequences of small decisions made (with free will) by their characters. Fate-based narratives would not please modern cinema-goers. It’s difficult enough to read the Iliad even with a fair understanding of pre-humanistic thought and the conventions of ancient writing – to a modern mind, the fact that the whole plot is predetermined removes half the appeal, and, to be brutally honest, makes it difficult to care. Modern film cannot be expected to accurately recreate this, absolutely central, aspect of the Iliad. Being “true to the original” would in the Iliad’s case be artistically and commercially suicidal.

Being true to the original not only is impractical in some cases but has little history of overwhelming artistic success. What those who sneer at popular adaptation of old stories seem to forget is that arguably the two most important writers of western history, Ovid and Shakespeare, were masters of exactly the same craft. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the source of huge numbers of the Greek myths and legends we know today. He did not invent them, he adapted them and put them together in weird and wonderful ways: he was the first to join the stories of Echo and Narcissus together for example. The result was a fifteen-book work of unidentifiable genre and style that became a handbook of mythology and the source of almost every retelling since. It is in the nature of these stories that they change over time. Look at a copy of Robert Graves’ complete Greek Myths and you’ll find that each story has several different versions, and the footnotes to each story are enormously complex due to the maze of different sources for each one. The great writers of history were not creators, they were adapters.

The same holds true of Shakespeare. The vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays, including all his best known works – Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream etc. – are based on earlier versions of the same stories. They differ hugely from their originals, for example Hamlet is a tale about a man struggling to commit murder because of the lack of proof and the enormous philosophical questions involved in such an act, rather than because he’s too young to do it (the point of the original Danish story). Shakespeare changed stories so that he could make them about what ideas he wanted to explore. This was a large part of his genius. Like Ovid’s, Shakespeare’s versions of the stories are the ones we remember, because they are the best and most influential retellings. Shakespeare was an innovator not of stories, but of style – he wrote plays in a way that had never been done before, and he told old stories in a way they had never been told before.

The question of “popular” writing also comes up here. Critics of such films as Troy point to the popular focus of the films, identifying literary classics as the real deal, but scorning such films as unintellectual and made for the common people, not the intelligent viewer. Again, it must be pointed out that Ovid and Shakespeare were popular writers. The common man read and enjoyed Ovid’s tales because they were fun, entertaining, and subversive. The upright, intellectual, proper people read Virgil, who’s Aeneid, while famous, has never had the same cultural impact as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of his day (in a time when theatre was enormously popular in London, the equivalent of film) and his success is down to him writing to please, rather than writing to satisfy the intellectual needs of the elite.

I am not saying that Troy is the new Shakespeare. There are a lot of stylistic issues with it as I have said, ones that would make Shakespeare spin in his grave. What I am saying is that where films like these need to improve is in their writing, in their acting, and in other stylistic areas, and to criticise them for their lack of truth to the original legend or their lack of historical accuracy is not constructive and goes against the truth of literary history. My problem with the sudden arrival of biologically impossible fantasy creatures in 300 is the sudden and awkward change of genre it caused in what had up till then been a simple historical epic with no fantasy element, not the fact that there is no record of such creatures in Xerxes’ army. My problem with the vast changes to the character of Agamemnon in Troy is that I personally think it makes the relationship between him and Achilles less interesting, not the fact that it is different to the original myth. We call them adaptations for a reason. I have no problem with criticising an adaptation for stylistic reasons, but it does not matter if Hollywood has a different take on a very old story that has in any case changed beyond recognition since it’s original telling.

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