Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hollywood's love affair with the Classics

By Emma Jones
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Fifty years ago, the story of Clash of the Titans - now a 3D movie starring Avatar's Sam Worthington - would have been familiar to many school pupils. Classics - the study of the languages, society and history of ancient Greece and Rome - was part of the grammar school curriculum. Now only a minority of children study this in any depth - but the resurgence of the "sword and sandals" epic on screen has seen a corresponding rise in the number of applicants to study the subject at university.

"It all started with Gladiator 10 years ago," says Dr Carl Buckland, part of the Classical Studies department at Nottingham University.

"We saw a spike in applications then, and that happened too with Troy and 300. This year we're expecting another rise."

There are indeed a slew of these kind of films on release in 2010 - from tales of Greek mythology, like Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, to Roman history in Centurion and Eagle of the Ninth.

For those in search of something slightly more highbrow, Rachel Weisz stars in Agora, the true story of a female Roman philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria.

"They're about themes we can all relate to," says actor Sam Worthington, when asked why 3000-year-old stories were still in vogue.

"I see the story of Perseus in Clash of the Titans as a story about family, a man's search for connecting with his father (in this case, the god Zeus) and standing against a common enemy.

"That's why we can still understand these stories, because they're about things which are still important to us today, but the ancient setting illuminates them a bit better."

"They're accounts of events at pivotal moments of history," explains TV historian Lucy Moore.

"These are often happenings which are as epic and monumental as say, World War II seems to us. And so much of classical history has shaped the society, language and politics of modern life."

When classical studies are now all but ignored on school timetables, it's often down to films and video games, to generate interest in the subject. Some movies, like the Percy Jackson series (based on the best-selling books) are specifically aimed at children, and see Percy battling classical figures like Medusa and Poseidon in downtown New York. Others are more violent - especially in the gaming world. Popular titles like God of War and Dante's Inferno, which are rooted in classical literature, have an 18 rating. Yet according to experts, they may not be too far removed from the truth about war in the ancient world.

"They are obviously going to pick out the most gory stories, the ones that appeal to teenagers, but we have to remember that war in that era was done with swords and spears," comments Carl Buckland.

"It was very bloody, very slow and very unpleasant. The Romans, as we know, loved to watch gladiators and animals fighting each other. They had a certain enjoyment of violence and we still have that as a society, even if it tends to be just on screen now."

"These games can take you to the Napoleonic wars, ancient China and feudal Japan," adds Lucy Moore. "It's just a different way of learning history these days."

Hollywood bosses clearly think the genre has the Midas touch - but the story sometimes suffers in the quest for special effects. There are plenty of inaccuracies in Clash of the Titans alone.

The monster Perseus battles is known as the Cetus in Greek antiquity; here it's the Kraken - a Norse beastie who also pops up in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Medusa, the Gorgon who could turn men to stone, did have hair made of serpents - this movie gives her a gigantic tail too. And in mythology, Perseus married a princess, Andromeda. In the movie, he seems keener on Gemma Arterton's character, Io, a nymph.

"I personally think any kind of access people have to these stories is great," says Dr Buckland.

"I don't see any kind of problem in starting off with something fairly simplistic if that sparks their interest. It would be great if people could start to understand how remarkably similar the ancient world was to ours today. For instance, in 2004's Troy, the director Wolfgang Peterson set out deliberately to make the story of the Iliad a metaphor for the American war in Iraq in 2003. You are hard put to separate the good guys from the bad guys, but you do see the Greeks (the Americans) as more aggressive and the Trojans (the Iraqis) thrust in a situation that's not of their making."

Most universities will now accept students with no prior knowledge of ancient Greek or Latin in order to study Classics.

The languages may be all but dead - at least modern entertainment is ensuring these ancient tales live on.

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