Jeremy McCarter in NEWSWEEK March 19, 2010
Sure, the Greeks are broke. But look how much we owe them.
If the ancient Greeks had invented a durable copyright system in addition to cheesecake, theater, and democracy, modern Greeks might not be in such trouble today. A few weeks ago, Greece's Prime Minister George Papandreou exhorted his fiscally ravaged countrymen to "rally together" to keep the nation from "going under." They've rallied, all right—going on strike and staging protests in the streets of Athens. Meanwhile, publishing houses and movie studios throughout the West enrich themselves with stories and characters drawn from the old Greek world: a boomlet of Hellenic novels and movies that culminates on April 2 with the big-budget 3-D remake of Clash of the Titans. I'd call all this appropriation ironic, but it would only rub salt in the wound: the Greeks invented irony too.
The debt that Western culture owes to ancient Greece is so pervasive and enduring it hardly needs totting up. From time to time, though, it's worth taking stock of how that debt changes over the generations. Think of our inheritance from the Greeks as a trunk full of wonderful stage goods: costumes and props that can be used in all sorts of ways to enact all sorts of stories, depending on the performer's inclination and the zeitgeist. In the Romantic era, Shelley rewrote one of Aeschylus' plays to draw attention to the Greek war of independence; The Odyssey gave Joyce the template for a masterpiece of 20th-century modernism. Closer to our own time, the makers of Hollywood's 1981 version of Clash of the Titans drew on the Perseus myth to—well, it's not clear what they were trying to do, beyond showcase the godly brown locks of young Harry Hamlin. (It worked.)
In the last few years, artists have rummaged around in that trunk more frequently than usual. No pattern unites all the borrowing that has turned up lately on bookshelves, stages, and movie screens, beyond the underlying assumption that stories about gods and heroes from hazy antiquity could still be relevant to us today. Somehow they can still move and amuse us, the assumption goes. Somehow they can help us, even now, to find our place in the world.
For Orestes and Medea and the rest to do this, modern artists need to identify the spirit that animated the stories all those centuries ago and translate it to the changed circumstances of today. The vexed track record of their attempts to do this lately suggests that they need more help than they've been getting. They might echo Homer's plea at the outset of /The Odyssey/, that the Muse "sing for our time too."
To appreciate fully the richness and liveliness of Hellenic culture, look past the stock images of austere men in togas and the sun-bleached ruins of Athens. The imaginative literature, particularly the poems and plays, is the truest and most lasting monument to the glory that was Greece. Homer's epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, depict a world in which gods mingle with mortals—conniving, fighting, having sex. The fusion of supernatural spectacle and high human drama is all very photogenic, which makes it very attractive to Hollywood. But that doesn't mean it's easy to get this stuff right.
Consider a movie from a few years back: Troy. In her new book, The War That Killed Achilles, Caroline Alexander notes that "there is no action in the Iliad that does not have divine prompting." But the film excised the gods, leaving individual psychology to explain the Trojan War as well as it could, which turned out to be not well at all. Achilles, in Brad Pitt's portrayal, was not a half-god killing machine whose awesome martial fury made his regrets about the war majestically, achingly poignant: he was more like an irritable surfer.
Staying true to the spirit of the Greeks—drawing out of the myths what Homer and the others put into them—means giving freer play to the sense of wonder that they carried with them when they explored their mysterious world. The recently released Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief fares a little better on this score. Based on the series of novels by Rick Riordan, the film imagines that the Greek gods remain very much involved with humans. So involved, in fact, that they keep impregnating them. Exhibit A is the title character, who learns that while he seems to be an indifferent student with dyslexia, ADHD, and a flair for swimming, he is really the son of the sea god, Poseidon.
As Percy embarks on an adventure to rescue his mother, who is only a muggle—sorry, a mortal—he traverses a landscape of jumbled-up Greek myths. Thus Mount Olympus hovers high above the Empire State Building, and the alluring island of the lotus eaters in The Odyssey becomes Las Vegas's Lotus Casino. In director Chris Columbus's hands, some of this comes off right. Percy faces down an enormous, Buick-tossing minotaur that would have spooked old Theseus himself. Even more cleverly, Percy uses the reflective back panel of his iPod to avoid being turned to stone when he confronts Medusa. Call your ad agency, Steve Jobs.
Still, the film's charming moments don't entirely sneak it past a trap: how to situate Olympian spectacle in the modern world of lattes and taxicabs without looking ridiculous. Uma Thurman deserves better than the role she draws here, playing Medusa as a snaky-haired cougar who lures tender Percy into a New Jersey gardening shop; Pierce Brosnan looks as discomfited as I was to see that a gruff centaur is played here by Pierce Brosnan.
Awkward collisions of far-out myth and familiar reality suggest that Homer and the great tragedians of Athens knew what they were doing when they set nearly all their stories in the distant past. In Greek Tragedy, her admirably exhaustive new study of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Edith Hall argues that such a time shift was crucial to the playwrights, giving them a way to crystallize "the anxieties, aspirations, tensions, and contradictions that underlay Athenian society and thought." Beyond their storytelling brilliance, it's this insistence that literature try to answer the hard questions that allows Greek culture to endure. If filmmakers and other artists want to do right by the myths today, it's not enough to borrow the juicy stories and Olympian thunderbolts; they need to honor the interrogatory impulse that motivated the stories in the first place.
Now and then, theater artists try to do this by going straight to the source, mounting revivals of Agamemnon, The Bacchae, or some other Athenian classic. In New York, at least, the results lately have tended to be a mess or a bore—too clumsy or too outré to capture the beauty and ferocity of the originals. The really interesting work has come from writers like Charles Mee, who mashes up Greek plays with modern texts (newspaper advertisements, Web searches) to create a hybrid of old and new. In Iphigenia 2.0, he used the story of Agamemnon's sacrificing his daughter for the sake of the Trojan War to raise hard questions about our self-centered society as we invaded Iraq.
A more recent attempt to explore the modern mysteries comes from John Banville. His new book, The Infinities, like the Percy Jackson movie, assumes that the gods are still hanging mischievously around our world. The novel unfolds in a single day in the home of Adam Godley, a brilliant mathematician who lies comatose on what appears to be his deathbed. As his family and various friends tend to his needs and squabble with one another, only the dog notices that the messenger god, Hermes, is floating around the house. And only Hermes notices that Zeus himself has dropped by so he can—the familiar note is struck—sleep with one of the pretty mortals.
The interplay between gods and humans illuminates one of the book's themes: the dissolution of boundaries, of limitations themselves. "In an infinity of worlds all possibilities are fulfilled"—that is one of the lessons of Adam's research, which has apparently yielded cold fusion, redefined our understanding of the cosmos, etc., etc. Yet in this bright reality—which doesn't seem to be our reality, exactly, since Oppenheimer never built the bomb, and the Swedes are on the warpath—people are stuck wrestling with dilemmas even older than the Greeks. One of the knottiest is the relationship between fathers and sons. Hermes remains at the beck and call of his father, Zeus, and muses about what would happen if Zeus died (as Hermes says he wishes to); young Adam grapples with the legacy of his own powerful father. Their concerns swirl together when the book's narrative voice breaks down: by the end it's not clear if the story is being narrated by Adam, Hermes, neither, or both.
Banville has a light touch with all this—too light, in fact. The book's open ending isn't especially satisfying; issues that were raised in passing aren't resolved. A book laden with such heavy mythological borrowing, you feel, should land more forcefully than this.
Of all the creative efforts to bring the Greeks into the 21st century recently, the one that has paid off best is Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey. It purports to be a translation of 44 newly discovered alternate episodes from Homer's tale. Actually, they're short stories that work clever, surprising twists on Odysseus' legendary voyage, all while feeling absolutely part of our culture today. Fan fiction has never been more ingenious, nor so much fun.
In some of Mason's stories, an opportunistic Odysseus turns out to be the author of his own epic. In others, a familiar episode is reprised from a fresh angle, like the Cyclops-eye view (so to speak) of the monster's encounter with Odysseus, or a minor-key retelling of the fight with the sea monster Scylla. Mason has a big heart beneath all his narrative trickery, and he uses it to bring a contemporary sensitivity to the myths.
Beyond capturing the playfulness and weirdness of these old stories, Mason lets us ponder some of their enduring hard questions. Unlike Homer's original, his characters aren't a gallery of the beautiful and the powerful. Sometimes they're weak or cowardly, or social outcasts—which gives us a different way to think about the Homeric theme of the injustice of fate. Again and again, people ask: how do we find contentment in a universe that seems rigged to torment us? Mason even finds a way to explore the mysteries of the heart. The most captivating thing in the book is Odysseus' relationship with Athena. She is wily, inscrutable, and imperious, but devoted to him. While she appears only sporadically, the clearest thread through the book is a kind of glancing love story between the hero and the goddess who watches over him to the end.
When a book makes such delightful use of Greek myth while belonging entirely to its own time—which is to say, not being a slavish act of duplication—our view of Hellenic civilization begins to seem faulty. Greek culture, we tend to think, consists of the plays and poems and pottery that certain artists created in certain locations at a certain time. But hasn't Mason just added another lovely bead to that string? The tradition of the ancient Greeks—of Homer and the great poets—doesn't seem to have closed down after all. Perhaps it's less of a geographically and chronologically distinct corpus than an impulse to use certain stories and characters to explore the world in a rigorous, imaginative way. Mason's passport might declare him to be a young American, but his book makes him an ancient Greek.
Doubtless it's asking too much for the upcoming Clash of the Titans to be this rewarding and thoughtful. Big-budget 3-D epics do not lend themselves to hand-wrought Homeric encounters. But the movie could benefit the Greek tradition in another way. The rise of 3-D technology offers a potent new way for the myths to do what they've done for 3,000 years: test the limits of our imagination, which is the first step toward awakening our moral sense. To judge by the previews, Liam Neeson will look imposingly Zeus-like, the battles will be outrageously gory, and Medusa's heads will be scary as hell when they dart toward your face. (You landed the wrong gig, Uma.) The filmmakers might not get the spirit of the Greek myths right in 3-D this time, but somebody will figure it out eventually. Who knows—maybe it'll be the Greeks themselves. Not getting the most out of these great old stories is, among other sins, just leaving money on the table.