Troy (Petersen, 2004) — 10 Years Later: Part II
In Part I of this essay, Jeremy Purves looked back at critics’ reviews of Troy and argued that the film was a better adaptation of Homer’s epic poem than is generally acknowledged.
The Gods Who Weren’t There
“If the issue is restated in ontological terms, the relation between gods and men will appear in a new light. Gods and men are not fixed entities but more or less clearly discerned forces in an order which embraces them both. The primary experience is that of an order of being which permeates man and transcends him. Both relations are of equal importance; there is no clearly circumscribed order of man, over-arched by a transcendent order of gods; the forces that operate … rather reach into man himself in such a manner that the borderline between human and transhuman is blurred … In the present context, however, the resemblance is less important than the great difference which is due to the fact that Homer wrote before, while Plato wrote after, the discovery of the psyche. The Homeric achievement is remarkable as a struggle for the understanding of the psyche … Homer astutely observed that the disorder of a society was a disorder in the soul of its component members.”
— Eric Voegelin
Last among the major criticisms of Troy was that it subtracted the gods from the Iliad. This is probably the most noticeable difference between the film’s story and that of the original source. Ken Hanke (Mountain Xpress) quipped that “[m]aybe they thought gods were passé and might make people laugh at their oh-so-serious film.” James Keast (Exclaim Magazine) complained that “the thrust of the Trojan war is that it’s a squabble between the gods over a beauty contest [….] But clearly Wolfgang Petersen has no interest in making a bigger budget Clash of the Titans, and thus replaces all the god talk with more mundane political motivations. He turns Achilles from an immortal warrior into a mercenary; [and] it makes Agamemnon a more powerful figure than he actually was …”
Now, to reduce one’s estimation of the Iliad into nothing more than “a squabble between the gods over a beauty contest” is one thing, even if rather flippant. We can dismiss depreciatory remarks of that nature as the sort of thing said by those souls who possess sad memories of incompetent classical literature professors in the past. But to insist that it would have been a better film with the gods and goddesses constantly intervening as they played the human characters like instruments, is another thing altogether. Such a criticism neglects the natural problems of including the gods in the film to begin with.
One of the most obvious practical considerations is that keeping “the gods” would have meant having to deal with another twenty additional members of the cast. Remember, for the sake of running time, Petersen already had to cut significant human characters out of Troy. For example, both the Greek Diomedes and the Trojan Aeneas have already been essentially cut. Diomedes was the Greeks’ second ranked warrior, as well as the character who shows the most contempt for the gods, successfully fighting against them himself when they would try to intervene in battle. Aeneas holds the line whenever Hector is busy elsewhere, and is considerably more stalwart than Paris. But, in the film, he is reduced to a teenager who is given approximately a five second cameo towards the very end.
What would making the film with “the gods” really have entailed? Since 2004, we have now seen multiple examples. A bigger budget Clash of the Titans was made in 2010 along with a sequel in 2012. Another similar attempt at big epic mythological fantasy was attempted in 2011 with Tarsem Singh’s Immortals. Even this year we are being asked to patronize both Renny Harlin’s The Legend of Hercules and Brett Ratner’s Hercules. None of these productions to date have worked out well. The acting in them is laughable and the scenes are often unbelievable and cartoonish. None of their portrayals of the gods ever made it past the inevitable combination of camp and CGI. This is not to say that the Greek gods will never imaginatively appear on film. But when you are dealing with an epic that already possesses more human characters than there is time for, there is a point where adding another twenty super-powered beings violates the law of diminishing returns.
Contemporary with Homer’s time, while most of the complete texts are lost, there was another collection of poems that filled in the back story for the Iliad’s characters. This collection was known as the Epic Cycle. In addition to that, there were two other works purportedly written by soldiers who fought in the Trojan war (modern scholarship has demonstrated they were more likely written in the first century A.D.). A Journal of the Trojan War by Dictys of Crete and The History of the Fall of Troy by Dares the Phrygian both gave accounts of the war without including the gods as intervening characters. Many other retellings since have followed their example. By telling the story without the gods, Wolfgang Petersen is doing nothing new.
An English translation of the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye by Raoul Lefevre was the first book ever printed in the English language in 1474. William Shakespeare wrote his adaptation of the story, Troilus and Cressida, around 1602. Like Dictys, Dares and Petersen, Shakespeare himself left the gods and goddesses out of his play. If Petersen obtained this idea from Shakespeare, Shakespeare was probably copying the manner the story was told by Geoffrey Chaucer in the earlier 1380s. Chaucer could have been adapting from earlier courtly romances which again focused on the human, rather than the divine, characters.
Granted, in the film there are some other widely divergent changes to Homer’s original story. But if you pause to consider each of them in their turn, they all follow logically from taking the interventions of the gods out. In other words, the film plays out some scenes in the Iliad as they likely would have happened if the gods had not intervened.
This narrative choice both eliminates a few characters early and then surprisingly develops a few characters much further than Homer did. For one example, in Book I of the Iliad, there is one point where Achilles, upon having learned that Agamemnon is taking Briseis, is just about to go on a rampage and likely kill every occupant of Agamemnon’s tent (including Agamemnon). The goddess Athena stops him by physically holding him back. In order to avoid ending the Trojan war in the film’s first half hour, in Troy Achilles is stopped, minus Athena, instead by the only other person who could stop him – Briseis. And then, the fact that she stops him says something about her character and suddenly makes her far more interesting. “If killing is your only talent, then that’s your curse,” she declares, appearing in complete contrast to Helen, “I don’t want anyone dying for me.”
In another example, in Book III of the Iliad, when Paris meets Menelaus for single combat, Menelaus begins resoundingly trouncing Paris. The only reason he lives is because the goddess Aphrodite rescues him, making him disappear from the lethal reach of Menelaus’s sword. In the film, without Aphrodite to rescue him … well, one of the two have to exit the story. This makes sense, and it works for Petersen’s film because it both shortens it for a three hour running time while also develops characters who now have to make their own moral decisions. In Homer, the gods were often making these decisions for them. The end effect is that the film portrays them as more culpable in this way and therefore makes them more important as moral agents.
The only form in which the heroes’ interactions with the gods might have been more compelling is if you were to think about how closely Homer’s language is intertwined with ideas about these divine beings. “The gods are never far below the surface of Homer’s language,” writes Owen Barfield in his book, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. “They are springs of action and stand in place of what we think of as personal qualities. Agamemnon is warned by Zeus in a dream, Telemachus, instead of ‘plucking up courage’, meets the goddess Athene and walks with her into the midst of the hostile suitors, and the whole earth buds into blossom, as Zeus is mingled with Hera on the nuptial couch.” In the ancient world of gods and heroes as described by Homer, the boundaries between the physical and the spiritual are almost nonexistent. Or, thinking of this in yet another way, Homer’s heroes did not quite have the same modern ideas of “personality” or “psychology” that we do. They saw and felt the world around them with different eyes. To portray the gods with our ridiculous ideas of them, basically as comic book characters wearing sheets and possessing superpowers, would not have portrayed them as Homer meant them.
Barfield intriguingly suggests that “it is not man who made the myths, but the myths that made man.” His own ideas about the myths of Homer’s poetry are shattering in their final implications on our own language and human consciousness. The idea is that how we think personality, emotions, moods, decisions and psychology were all thought of instead within metaphorical and mythological language. Julian Jaynes discussed something similar in his work, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes explained that it “is one god who makes Achilles promise not to go into battle, another who urges him to go, and another who then clothes him in a golden fire reaching up to heaven and screams through his throat across the bloodied trench at the Trojans, rousing in them ungovernable panic. In fact, the gods take the place of consciousness.” Now try to imagine, just for a moment, a serious film-maker attempting to portray this difference of worldview in film. The problem is the assumptions that have already been accepted by the audience. Our thought, our language and our very consciousness has changed. Very deep thinkers have trouble even describing this. The classical philologist, Bruno Snell, tried to describe Homer’s heroes and their relation to the gods as follows:
“… It is easy to say that Glaucus pulled himself together, that he recovered his self-control; but Homer says, and thinks, nothing of the sort: they are notions which we read back into the scene. We believe that a man advances from an earlier situation by an act of his own will, through his own power. If Homer, on the other hand, wants to explain the source of an increase in strength, he has no course but to say that the responsibility lies with a god … Whenever a man accomplishes, or pronounces, more than his previous attitude had led others to expect, Homer connects this, in so far as he tries to supply an explanation, with the interference of a god. It should be noted especially that Homer does not know genuine personal decisions; even where a hero is shown pondering two alternatives the intervention of the gods plays the key role. This divine meddling is, of course, a necessary complement to Homer’s notions regarding the human mind and the soul.” (Snell, The Discovery of Mind, pg. 20.)
Compared to this understanding of how ancient Greeks would even think of consciousness, of human will, and of spiritual forms and powers that give and take away, how utterly banal it would have been for Petersen to have included the gods and goddesses as X-Men who just ordered everyone around like pieces on a chessboard. And it is just this view of the gods that, on one side, the film’s Hector casually dismisses: “Sometimes the gods bless you in the morning and curse you in the afternoon” and that Agamemnon treats as irrelevant: “The gods protect only the strong!” Not only would including them in this way have made for a bad film, it would have falsely portrayed both Greek mythology and the underlying assumptions contained in Homer’s poem.
Thus, the interventions of the gods are directly dependent upon Homer’s language, shaping how he describes the “choices” of the heroes. When Athena, the goddess of wisdom, stops Achilles from swinging his sword in Agamemnon’s tent, no one else in the tent can see her. Without being able to describe it, how could Petersen show her to us without spoiling the effect? Indeed, it would tax the powers of the greatest directors of cinema’s history to make such a metaphysical dimension work for film. Petersen was far ambitious enough with Troy’s grand scope without having any delusions about his ability to accurately make the gods and goddesses work for the screen. While it is possible that he could have done far better, in, oh say, a 12-episode HBO miniseries, it was never a realistic possibility for a film.
Another dimension here also worth considering is how some of the most important mythological parts of the Iliad were treated in Homer. In order to think about this, first consider how one goddess was far too important for Petersen to leave out of the film. While there is nothing about her that anyone unfamiliar with the Iliad would notice to think she was a goddess, Thetis (Julie Christie), Achilles’s mother does appear in order to give her son her prophecy about the “choice” he is faced with. Here the film pretty accurately sums it up. ““If you say in Larissa, you will find peace,” she tells him, “you will find a wonderful woman. You will have sons and daughters.” But, of course, then he will live a normal human life and then be forgotten. On the other hand, if he goes to Troy, he will not live a happy normal life. He will never return home. But he will always be remembered. Here the film keeps an essential mythological element from the Iliad. But does it really work or does it just turn Achilles into someone who is more small-minded than in the book?
Now consider this. Political philosopher, Eric Voegelin, argued that the prophecy of Thetis is of fundamental importance to the Iliad’s story:
“Homer uses the device of confronting Achilles with the certain knowledge of his death in battle. The hero is a demi-god; and from his divine mother Thetis he has learned of the alternative fate that is in store for him: if he stays with the Army at Troy he will not return home, he will perish in battle and thereby earn imperishable fame; if he boards his ship and returns home, an inglorious but long and happy life will be his lot (Il. I, 352, 414ff.; IX, 412f.) … The alternative fate of Achilles is not extraordinary by virtue of its content, but by virtue of its revelation. Homer’s problem is not the fate of Achilles but the tension between a rather common fate and the uncommon reactions of the hero. The construction of the Iliad depends on this tension.” (The World of the Polis, pg. 84.)
Voegelin notes that the dilemma in this “revelation” is not out of the ordinary. Many a soldier is offered at least the possibility of both options, lasting fame for daredevil heroics in war or a longer life with a family after war. Not many a soldier has ever succeeded at both. Some of the craziest stories that led to purple hearts were of those of the brave who did not live long. And many a common soldier has dearly wished for long life and family rather than a famous death. But there is something that happens in the Iliad that we would not initially expect, with our ideas of how Homeric characters thought of the gods.
“The revelation of the fate is not an event outside the personality of Achilles; to have such a revelation is part of his character. The interpretation of the prediction as an obsession with death is not perhaps an anachronistic ‘psychologization’ but the very meaning intended by Homer. The prediction is known not to Achilles alone but to everybody in the army. If it were considered by the Homeric characters as a piece of reliable information, from a divine source, on the impending death of Achilles before Troy, it not only would affect the Pelide but also the conduct of his friends. But his friends and comrades act as if the prediction did not exist. They seriously offer him wealth, a family alliance with Agamemnon, and an expansion of his realm, though they ought to know that such splendid prospects can hold no appeal for a man who will die and not return home. And when he reminds the embassy of the reason why their offer can hardly interest him (IX, 414f.), they continue their argument as if he had not spoken. Achilles with his revelation lives in a private world; or rather, he lives in a private world in so far as he is preoccupied with this isolating revelation. The action of the Iliad becomes incomprehensible unless the prediction is understood as an obsession which a hero, in so far as he is a public character, is not supposed to have … The interjection of his predicted fate as an argument in the debate is a display of poor taste which the other lords are well-bred enough quietly to ignore.” (pg. 86.)
Why? I ask this while contemplating Roger Ebert’s interesting criticism in the Chicago-Sun Times: “By treating Achilles and the other characters as if they were human, instead of the larger-than-life creations of Greek myth, director Wolfgang Petersen miscalculates. What happens in Greek myth cannot happen between psychologically plausible characters. That’s the whole point of myth.” But maybe myth has a deeper psychological resonance with us than we would at first recognize. Achilles is a man obsessed by the possibility of his own mythology – the turning of himself into something that transcends mortality. The film’s Achilles seems to be constantly repeating litanies about always being remembered. Odysseus uses the possibility of being remembered across the ages as an argument to convince Achilles to fight. And, given that this is not a perfect film, even Petersen gets caught up in this and rather embarrassingly has the narrator seriously intone what could be a parody of fame obsession: “Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity and so we ask ourselves, ‘Will our actions echo across the centuries? Will strangers hear our names long after we’re gone and wonder who we were?” Please.
But I think the heart of the story is tied to the fact that Achilles flirts with divine promises of immortality through fame for too long. In the film, Briseis brings Achilles to the actual point of changing his mind. Yet it is still too little, too late. He had already decided to join the war, and it is his decision that eventually leads to the death of Patroclus. His refusal to the fight for the Greeks, self-servingly leading to the Trojans getting the better of the Greeks, brings about the moment where Patroclus is not willing to wait for Achilles to save them. The fact that the other Greeks in the Iliad ignore Thetis’s prophecy about Achilles is an indication that there is something wrong. In the film, the fact that Achilles’s assertions about acquiring lasting fame through the ages sound flat and hollow is an indication that there is something wrong with him, even despite his seemingly just criticisms of Agamemnon. While leaving the gods out of the film, Petersen still keeps this important character arc.
That film adaptations of literary sources can take different forms can be taken for granted. Moreover, that fidelity to the the original sources is not a requirement for a good film should also be rather obvious. But then there is such a thing as literal fidelity and fidelity in spirit. Any film that changes the “spirit” of a literary narrative loses something often without justification.
Strong arguments have been made even more respectable by those who who have argued against film adaptations of classic works of literature. Thinking of how Hollywood adapts works of literature, Virginia Woolf wrote: “So we lurch and lumber through the most famous novels of the world. So we spell them out in words of one syllable written, too, in the scrawl of an illiterate schoolboy. A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse. None of these things has the least connection with the novel.” Hannah Arendt also warned: “The entertainment industry is confronted with gargantuan appetites, and since its wares disappear in consumption, it must constantly offer new commodities. In this predicament, those who produce for the mass media ransack the entire range of past and present culture in the hope of finding suitable material. This material, however, cannot be offered as it is; it must be prepared and altered in order to become entertaining; it cannot be consumed as it is.” While I disagree their conclusion, I cannot dismiss these warnings lightly. The film, Troy, loses much in its transition between artistic mediums. Complexity is simplified and tragedy is portrayed for the purposes of entertainment. While the temptations and distractions are great, the question still remains whether a film can accurately capture and explore important ideas contained in any original literary work.
“Trying to adapt the features of other art forms to the screen will always deprive film of what is distinctively cinematic,” wrote Andrei Tarkovsky in his book on filmmaking. This difference between artistic mediums, he argued makes “it harder to handle the material in a way that makes use of the powerful resources of cinema as an art in its own right” (Sculpting in Time, pg. 22.) Wolfgang Petersen has never pretended to be on the level of Tarkovsky. But even Tarkovsky adapted literary works. Thinking about adapting Vladimir Bogomolov’s Ivan, Tarkovsky noted that some “prose works are made by ideas, by clarity and firmness of structure, by originality of theme; such writing seems not to be concerned with the aesthetic development of the thought it contains. I think Bogomolov’s Ivan is in this category … All this made it easier for me to see the work as prose that could be readily screened. Moreover, screening might give it that aesthetic intensity of feeling which would transform the idea of the story into a truth endorsed by life.” (15-16) In other words, while literature can produce effects that cinema cannot, cinema is an art form that can do somethings that literature cannot. This means that one artist’s interpretation of a literary work can help us understand how a work that we may have found powerful was also an intense experience for someone else.
Alison Patterson writes that “more important than a ‘faithful adaptation of a text to the screen is a film text’s ability to perform or produce interesting, viable, and useful readings of the preceding text.” This “is perhaps why an unfaithful text may seem faithful, why a faithful text may be uninteresting, and why an adaptation that is not quite an adaptation may revitalize the source text …” (In/Fidelity: Essays on Film Adaptation, pg. 151.) By no means should a film like Troy ever be used as a replacement for the Iliad. Yet it could help us look at the Iliad in another way that we may have never considered before. If this helps us understand Homer’s writing even a little better, then an adaptation must possess value. In her essay, “The Appeal of Literature-to-Film Adaptations,” Malgorzata Marciniak writes:
“In spite of the fact that … the audience will inevitably declare against all the details of the films that betray the cherished original, adaptations have not lost their appeal for the film industry. Filmmakers know perfectly well that their films are going to be scrutinized for signs of unfaithfulness to the source … An adaptation invites the viewers to discuss not only the film itself but also their private readings of the adapted text, for it gives them an opportunity to see how the cinematically active readers have responded to the book. When we watch the film, our private form of filling in the gaps is revitalized by the confrontation with the way another creative mind has filled in the same gaps.”
This potential value of an adaptation does not prevent bad cinematic adaptations of original literary sources. Many a filmmaker has failed to capture even a little of the “spirit” of the book he attempting to adapt. I do find, however, that good cinematic adaptations have helped me appreciation the original source in a manner that I didn’t before seeing the film. Often these adaptations will send me back the book to re-read it and to think it through more deeply than I did before. So the last and most interesting question about Troy would be to reflect on what it was able to capture from its very famous literary source.