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Brent Cooper #92114073 CLST 313 – Carl Johnson
April 17th, 2010 “Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity” narrates Odysseus during the opening of the film Troy, setting the stage for a Greek immortality quest that would echo across time. In his commentary, Odysseus asks if strangers will remember “how bravely we fought” as well as “how fiercely we loved,” hinting at the entanglement between war and love and foreshadowing both the cause of the Trojan War and the dilemma of the protagonist, Achilles. In the film, the story’s hero differs in several ways from his poem doppelganger, namely in his atheism and his explicit love interest (Briseis). The 2004 film by Wolfgang Petersen drew wide criticism for being too realistic, unfaithful to the source material, and anachronistic, among other faults. However, I intend to challenge the critics on Troy by drawing parallels between the text of The Iliad and the film. This essay focuses on the adaptation of Achilles from book to blockbuster and the representation of his love, moira (fate), kleos (glory), and aristeia (excellence/ heroic virtue). Moreover, while the point may be lost on some audiences (and critics), the film stresses the unique dike (irreconcilable rights) of Achilles to illustrate the futility of war. Screenwriter David Benioff, having already established himself as a writer of both the novel and script, is in a good position to appreciate the challenges of adapting story to screen, from multiple sources no less. As Benioff admits, he “ransacks ideas” from the various retellings of the Trojan War. He says he is “not worried about desecrating a classic – Homer will survive Hollywood,”1 and he is right, Homer will survive. What is important, when creating a film that is “inspired”2 by Homer and other authors of the Trojan War stories, is not only that the important themes are reflected, but that they are innovated upon. To make a cohesive whole out
David Benioff, "David Benioff Web Access" BBC - Films. http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/webaccess/david_benioff_1.shtml 2 Jaochim Latacz, "From Homer's Troy to Petersen's Troy." In Troy: From Homer's Iliad to Hollywood Epic. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006. 27. (Also see end credits, Troy)
of so many puzzle pieces is a daunting task, but Troy is designed to be a standalone work. This also means that audiences must accept dramatic modifications to well known characters. And to appease critics it is necessary that these changes compliment the themes of the poem; that they address what the Greek poets sought to problematize: questions of love, war, fate, and the tragic conditions of human nature and society. There is a paradoxical relationship between love and war represented in The Iliad and Troy. The given pretext for the war (Helen’s eloping, of course – although not the true motive) is one tenuous link. From the Trojan perspective defensive wars (as in the Trojan case) are tolerable because of the love of one’s country. In Troy, Hector scolds Paris for valuing his personal love for Helen over his platonic love and duty to his oikos (family) and country.3 But as Hector explains, Paris is naïve to the realities of both love and war. Mendelsohn writes that “if Achilles is a kind of existentialist rock star, Hector is a stoical family man.”4But for Achilles too, on the other hand, love conquers his rage temporarily until his love for Patroclus is violated and he returns to a remorseless path of vengeance and kleos. David Edelstein of Slate and David Denby of The New Yorker both gave Troy positive reviews. Edelstein interprets Troy to hit the major themes of The Iliad and demonstrate to audiences that the Trojan War was a "grotesque waste" of lives, despite its glorious heroics. Denby echoes the sentiments, and calls the film "both exhilarating and tragic." Daniel Mendelsohn of the NY Times Book Review refutes them both, arguing that war is paradoxically both "beautiful" and "terrible" to the archaic Greeks. He claims they are eager for violence, in order to gain kleos, and be commemorated in song; this makes the horror of war bearable (read
Troy: Director's Cut. DVD. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Burbank: Warner Home Video, 2007. Daniel Mendelsohn, "A Little Iliad" The New York Review of Books. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2004/jun/24/a-little-iliad/
worthwhile), he writes.5 This point has some merit, but it is merely a highpoint in his critique, before he returns to debasing the film for lesser grievances. Surely there can be a middle ground: both Homer and Troy do glorify war but they are still anti-war. I must point out that any parallels drawn by critics between the Iraq War and Troy are not insights, they are superfluous, as the connection is made explicitly by Petersen himself: “Just as King Agamemnon (did)... President George W. Bush concealed his true motives for the invasion of Iraq.”6 And this is true; Troy successfully drew attention to the hypocrisies of war, especially Iraq. But any anti-war film does this. Beyond Petersen’s simple allusion the film itself bares no similarity to the current realities of war, no less the occupation in Iraq. Moreover, there is no place for rogue soldiers like Achilles in the modern rigid chain-of-command. So Troy is able to depart from traditional anti-war films by employing a rock star as Achilles to create a romantic and mythical ethos. That is the tragedy; that there is glory in war but that it is futile. For example, although Hector’s execution is tragic, the scene no doubt beautifies and glamorizes the violence to denote the glory and excellence. And perhaps even while the simple life is preferable, war may be necessary (or unavoidable) at times. Regardless, it is also evident from these quarrels that the film, like the poem, will (and should, as art) be interpreted differently by different audiences. For a film that condenses such a sprawling narrative into three hours, the filmmakers not only excelled at the challenge of adapting the classic tales of the Trojan War into a contemporary anti-war epic, but they boldly innovated on certain elements, such as developing the character of Briseis, and Achilles expressing his reservations and pragmatism about war to Patroclus.
Ibid. Casey Due, "Learning Lessons from the Trojan War: Briseis and the Theme of Force." College Literature 34, no. 2 (2007): 248
Meanwhile, key scenes in The Iliad, such as Priam kissing the hands of Achilles7 and Achilles subsequently crying, remain remarkably authentic and true to the source in the film. Nevertheless, several of Troy’s critics also accuse that Achilles’ beach assault was “shamelessly lifted” from the equivalent scene in Saving Private Ryan.8 This could not be a more fallacious parallel. First, I ask, how many different ways can a beach assault look? Moreover, in direct comparison the scenes are remarkably dissimilar in pacing, strategy, weaponry, direction style, context, etc... One reviewer reveals his ignorance of the subject matter when he derides the film’s dialogue, in particular Achilles insult to Agamemnon: “You sack of wine.” This exact phrase can be found in The Iliad: “You wine sack...”9 This bias against the film is illustrated in a more pertinent example when two other reviewers both attribute reference to Stalin’s jab at the pope,10 in Hector’s retort to Priam: “And how many battalions does the Sun God command?”11 The two quotes have distinct connotations and contexts. One particular passage from The Iliad that made its way to the screen partially reflects Hector’s rationalism. Although the film quote is in a more indignant tone – “Bird signs! You want to plan our strategy based on bird signs?”12 – the passage from The Iliad more or less reflects the same attitude, but defers to Zeus still: “But you: you tell me to put my trust in birds, who spread wide their wings. I care nothing for these, I think nothing of them...No let us put out trust in the counsel of great Zeus...”13 Benioff purposefully extrapolated these sentiments to their logical modern conclusion – atheism – but the critics contemptuously label it as cold realism. On the Greek side, Achilles
Richmond Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer (translated and introduction by Richmond Lattimore. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1961) 24.506 8 Stuart Price, "Displacing the Gods? Agency and Power in Adaptations of Ancient History and Myth." Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance 1, no. 2 (2008): 123 9 Lattimore, 1.225 10 Peter Green, "Heroic Hype, New Style: Hollywood Pitted against Homer." Arion, Third Series 12, no. 1 (2004): 182 11 Troy, time: 0:41:35-40 12 Troy, time: 1:14:55-1:15:00 13 Lattimore, 12.237-238, 241
mirrors Hector’s secular outlook, but takes it to a deeper existential level. In my viewing of the film, Achilles’ source of power is his staunch atheism and nihilism. It allows him to transcend the social and psychological boundaries that circumscribe the will of others (or surrender their will to the gods) and this makes him revered by his cohorts. In Troy, Achilles existentialism is reflected when he encourages Briseis to kill him in the night: “Do it! We all die, today or fifty years from now, what does it matter?”14 He utters analogous statements in several lines in The Iliad as well: “Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard. We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings. A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much.15 As scholar Dean Hammer writes, Achilles does not care about the gifts offered to him by Agamemnon’s embassy in book IX, “suggesting that his honour is no longer mediated through social structures.”16 Achilles defines his own honour. Achilles’ ‘enlightened’ view, for lack of a better word, permits him full autonomy and is revealed in scene between him and Briseis added for the film. In The Iliad, Briseis speaks only once in the whole poem, in lamentation for the death of Patroclus,17 and in the film her character is adapted in part from Polyxena. In Troy, Achilles shares a “secret” with her and the audience; that that “the gods envy us” because we are mortal and we will “never be here again,”18 suggestive of Sartrean existentialism, that is both a condemnation and a liberation of the will. A parallel can be drawn here between Achilles and Hector: In The Iliad, Hector’s rationale for pursing glory is related to his existentialism. “Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle, would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal... (we would not fight in the front) but now, seeing that the spirits of
Troy, time: 1:52:40-1:53:00 Lattimore, 9.318-320 16 Dean Hammer, The Iliad As Politics: The Performance of Political Thought. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), 98 17 Lattimore, 19.282-302 18 Troy, time: 1:51:30-1:52:10
death stand close about us in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them, let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.”19
Some critics have scoffed at the irreligious tone of the film, but again I argue that this is subtlety faithful to Homeric artistic values. Benioff rebuts that the influence and “presence” of the gods is profound, albeit off screen.20 To be sure, for those who doubt the film’s adaptation of the imaginary pantheon, Benioff’s script has the word “gods” spoken a total of 41 times. A classics professor, Steve Wiggins, blogged that “the (physical) absence of the gods, distressing as it may be to purists, gave the movie an angst that is generally reserved for more cerebral subjects.”21 Much scholarly debate exists over nature of the Homeric ‘gods’: Edwards – “artistic”; Redfield - “literary” devices ; Havelock – “shorthand” for inexplicable events; Pucci – “narrative” device; and Barnes – “metaphors” for agency of the characters.22 None of which seem to consider them as real, so why should we? Thus, the purpose of the gods in Troy is arguably to act as a reference point to measure the extent to which the protagonist (and secondary main characters) can exercise their own free will; it is Achilles’ transcendence of ‘the gods’ that makes him a demigod. Most people cannot withstand the implications of this existential worldview, whether in ancient or modern society, but Achilles knows better. It is “because we are doomed” that everything is more beautiful and we must seize the moment.23 It is also this moment that solidifies the romance between him and Briseis, and allows Achilles to change his moira (fate). His prior moira is a very Nietzschean amor fati (love of fate), exemplified in the film quote “I
Lattimore, 12.326-328 Benioff 21 Steve A. Wiggins, "Iliad" Sects and Violence in the Ancient World. http://sawiggins.wordpress.com/tag/iliad/ 22 Hammer, 55 23 Troy, time: 1:51:30-1:52:10
chose nothing. I was born, and this is what I am.”24 But for the time being, thanks to Briseis, Achilles is able to make a choice to redefine (or forfeit) his kleos for a life of peace and anonymity over war and glory. This is confirmed in Achilles’ last breath: “You gave me peace... in a lifetime of war.”25 And so the dike – the tragic conflict of rights – may be seen to be more clearly revealed in Troy as Achilles constantly lives on the knife’s edge, driven towards his moira, despite his efforts to transcend it. The dike is further indicated by Achilles’ rejection of Hector’s pact offer both in the poem and film: “...no trustworthy oaths between men and lions.”26 In the film, the irony is more explicit, because in an earlier scene Achilles exalts himself and his Myrmidons as being “menacing... lions.”27 Where Achilles and Hector may have once shared some commonalities, now their destinies must meet head on to restore their time (honour) and to gain kleos. When Hector trips on a rock during the fatal duel, Achilles commands: “Get up Prince of Troy. I won’t let a stone take my glory.”28And in failing to restrain his ate (anger; selfdestruction), the best Achilles can do is to exercise his aristeia. In this most essential feature of the story, Troy excels, with an Achilles rich in aristeia. Starting from the opening scene when we are introduced to the protagonist, Achilles swiftly executes his opponent with one precise thrust of his sword. The specific action invoked in the film is reflected in a passage in Book XXI of The Iliad: “but Achilleus drawing his sharp sword struck him beside the neck at the collar-bone, and the double-edged sword plunged full length inside. He dropped to the ground, face downward, and lay at length, and the black blood flowed...”29
Troy, time: 1:50:30-35 Troy, time: 3:00:45-52 26 Lattimore, 22.262 27 Troy, time: 52:13-17 28 Troy, time: 2:25:05-15 29 Lattimore, 21.116-119
This martial prowess continues unremittingly throughout the film, with multiple parallels. But reviewer Peter Green argues that while Homer emphasizes the aristeia of the individual, in Troy Achilles and Hector get lost in the “egalitarian melee.”30 While he notes the exception of the duel between Hector and Achilles, this claim is still weak, as Achilles’ presence is never subtle. The major Greek battles were fought with Achilles suspended from the action, in both versions, but in the film the time on the sidelines is used to romanticize and intellectualize Achilles. Similarly, Mendelsohn derides Petersen for stuffing too much into the film, in general; for being too epic. Despite the narratives of multiple characters, the film is still primarily about Achilles, just as The Iliad is the story of Achilles.31 The film opens with Achilles, and it closes with him, burning on a funeral pyre. In conclusion, this essay praises the filmmakers for their Homer inspired adaptation of the Trojan War myth. The essential themes of moira, kleos, and aristeia are represented in Achilles in a way that modern audiences can appreciate, but still based on a close and considered reading of Homer. The both the glory and tragedy of Achilles is his constant temptation of fate, and paradoxically the tragedy of war itself. To the chagrin of some critics, Achilles is expectedly played by one of the most powerful and anatomically perfect actors in Hollywood, but this adds to the notions of aristeia and tragedy. And while the plot is imbued with a sense of realpolitik that is deemed anachronistic to the poems, we can scarcely criticize it due to the complex nature of war. Although The Iliad ends with Hector on a funeral pyre, the film ends as it had begun; Odysseus’ narration bookends the film saluting the aristeia of ‘brilliant’ Achilles: “Let them say I walked with giants... Let them say I lived in the time of Hector, breaker of horses. Let them say I lived in the time of Achilles.”32
Green, 180 Lattimore, 17 32 Troy, time: 3:04:40-3:05:10
Works Cited Benioff, David. "David Benioff Web Access ." BBC - Films. http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/webaccess/david_benioff_1.shtml (accessed April 17, 2010). Due, Casey . "Learning Lessons from the Trojan War: Briseis and the Theme of Force." College Literature 34, no. 2 (2007): 229-262. Green, Peter. "Heroic Hype, New Style: Hollywood Pitted against Homer." Arion, Third Series 12, no. 1 (2004): 171-187. Hammer, Dean. The Iliad as Politics: The Performance of Political Thought (Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. Latacz, Jaochim. "From Homer's Troy to Petersen's Troy." In Troy: From Homer's Iliad to Hollywood Epic. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006. 27-42. Lattimore, Richmond. The Iliad of Homer (translated and introduction by Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1961. Mendelsohn, Daniel . "A Little Iliad ." The New York Review of Books .
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2004/jun/24/a-little-iliad/ (accessed April 17, 2010). Price, Stuart. "Displacing the Gods? Agency and Power in Adaptations of Ancient History and Myth." Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance 1, no. 2 (2008): 117-132. Troy: Director's Cut. DVD. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Burbank: Warner Home Video, 2007. Wiggins, Steve A.. "Iliad" Sects and Violence in the Ancient World. http://sawiggins.wordpress.com/tag/iliad/ (accessed April 17, 2010). 10
Winkler, Martin M.. "The Iliad and the Cinema." In Troy: From Homer's Iliad to Hollywood Epic. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006. 43-44.