Git Off My Lawn: Mythological Madness

“Everything old is new again.”

Historians love this phrase, because it states a simple and fundamental truth, that history repeats itself. I love this phrase because hopefully it means I’ll be new again too. Sooner, preferably.

And finally, movie watchers should also learn to love (or perhaps fear, or loathe) this phrase, as it represents a trend in the film industry: taking old films, stories, television programs, and other media and recycling them into new films. Iron Man comes straight from the comics. The A-Team drives van-first out of 80s television. And please let no one remind me of the live-action version of Charlotte’s Web.

What makes an adaptation good? What makes it better or worse than the original? What makes it worth changing from the source? What makes a filmmaker decide to stomp on the memories of the old like so many grapes? (Oops, sorry; I’m still bitter about that whole Charlotte’s Web thing.) Let’s look at a fine example of this concept, currently playing at a theater near you: Clash of the Titans. Here we take a tale that is older than dirt, give it the 80s treatment, and then reimagine it 30 years later.

The myth: Perseus, with the help of the gods, kills the Gorgon Medusa, saves his mother from an evil king, and also saves Princess Andromeda from a giant sea monster in his spare time. He and Andromeda get it on. Pegasus springs from the earth where Medusa’s blood falls. So does some guy named Chrysaor.

The 80s film: Perseus, with the help of the gods, kills the Gorgon Medusa in order to save Princess Andromeda from the Kraken. He and Andromeda get it on. Pegasus helps him get around. Perseus also has a robot owl named Jar-Jar Binks. Some guy named Calibos is a jerk. The gods bicker and plot and manipulate, but eventually just laugh it off and go on vacation.

The 2010 film: Perseus, who totally hates the gods and doesn’t want their help, kills the Gorgon Medusa in order to save Princess Andromeda from the Kraken. He and Andromeda do not get it on. The gods fight: Aslan vs. Voldemort in Immortal Kombat! Pegasus is more like an X-Wing fighter at the Battle of Yavin. Some guy named Calibos is a jerk. Io guest stars from a completely different myth to get it on with Perseus. Djinn also guest star from a completely different culture, just because.

Right. Where to begin? The basic myth of Perseus killing Medusa and saving Andromeda remains intact in all versions. This is about as good as it gets.

The older film is easily derided nowadays for its special effects, which are thirty years old. Cut a film some slack; ILM was still sucking on a pacifier at the time. Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion model animation brought all of mythology’s creatures to live as well as could be done for 1981. For geeks who scoff at that, remember that George Lucas used the same technology in all three original Star Wars films. The newer film obviously benefits from the wonders of today’s CGI, although it takes a big misstep in trying to slap on the coveted “3D” label and ride James Cameron’s furry blue coattails. The original story features no special effects to speak of, aside from a few pictures on vases and some frescoes and sculptures. Words are a tough sell in today’s graphics-intensive blockbuster market.

Story-wise, the original myth gets points for being, well, the original. Sure, it meanders from plot to plot with little segue, and it’s in Greek, and has several authors, but it has a nice resolution and everyone lives happily ever after. Except Medusa. The first movie turns it into a simple Hero’s Journey, transforming Perseus from humble fisherman to action hero to king, as gods and men look on. The newest movie tries to make the tale darker and edgier, telling of a war between men and gods, and another war among the gods, and Perseus trying to be himself and avenge the death of his adopted family by killing everything that moves. Don’t buy into that; darker and edgier might work for Batman, but it’s out of place in this tale. Perseus is not the ancient Greek equivalent of Bruce Wayne, no matter how hard Sam Worthington tries.

The new movie also illustrates my personal pet peeve with movies using Greek mythology as their foundation: Why is Hades always cast as the Evil Guy? He is the ruler of the underworld, and makes sure the dead get to where they’re going. He is NOT equivalent to Satan. He’s more like the Chief Executive Officer of the Afterlife. Cut the poor guy some slack.

Finally, the Titans. Do they really “clash?” Perseus probably does the most clashing of anyone else in this tale, and the two so-called titans, Medusa and the Kraken, don’t clash as much as they have a staring contest, with Kraken coming in dead last. Poor Kraken.

Which of these three versions is the best? I’m going to stick to my rotten-old-coot guns and say that the myth is the best part, because it’s the original. (Surprisingly, that is not a universal truth; I’ll always admit when the remake is better. Today is not that day.) Which movie is better? That’s a tougher question; the original had the better story and execution, but older special effects and worse hair, while the new version is visually better, but the storyline is weak and jumps pretty far from the source. I’ll have to hand it to the original movie; Sir Lawrence Olivier trumps Liam Neeson this round.

Tune in next time when we wonder what’s up with that Iron Man guy and why he’s not fighting Commies anymore.

Posted on May 12, 2010 at 11:22 by The Grand Vizier · Permalink
In: Columns, Movies · Tagged with: , , , , , ,

5 Responses

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  1. Written by arkonbey
    on 2010-05-13 at 14:16

    You're absolutely correct about Hades always getting cast as Satan, when he wasn't the embodiment of evil in the Greek world. They didn't have a single evil entity (that seems a monotheistic convention; one good god, one evil god).

    In fact, in at least one myth, he's portrayed rather sympathetically as an entity that's doing a lonely job that nobody else wants to do.

  2. Written by Latin Geek
    on 2010-05-18 at 01:55

    Thank you for writing this. I'm a high school Latin teacher and the one question I get most is “Why did everyone go to hell?” They all think because the underworld is below the ground it must be bad. I then try to describe the Elysian fields and they get confused.

  3. Written by Trisha Lynn
    on 2010-05-18 at 11:59

    LG, you keep fighting that good fight! Though, I have to admit that maybe telling impressionable teens that sometimes dying can be a good thing and a relief may result in a visit from your principal and the board of directors…

  4. Written by Vizier
    on 2010-05-18 at 14:52

    I always liked the fact that the Greek gods were not “good” or “evil”; they were, in a way, human. They did noble things and petty things; they were honorable and deceitful; they succeeded and failed. They worked together and fought each other. The myths were as much about them and their activities as they were about the humans and heroes.

  5. Written by Vizier
    on 2010-05-18 at 14:58

    Teaching any kind of Greco-Roman mythology is tough nowadays, especially since a lot of “education” came from Disney's “Hercules” and the “Hercules” and “Xena” television shows. I cry a little when people tell me they learned about the Greek gods from Xena. I really do.

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