I recently watched the movie version of Homer's Iliad, Troy. I think I normally would have hated the movie's intense violence, over-the-top special effects, and mediocre acting. As it was, while Troy was certainly not my favorite movie of all time, I found it quite a bit more interesting to see immediately after reading Homer's epic.
By far the greatest strength of the movie is the gorgeous visuals. The scenes where we see a thousand ships filling the sea on their way to Troy is beautiful and terrifying. The enormous cast that fills out battle scenes adds to the larger-than life feel of the movie, as does the historically inaccurate enormity of the castles and city walls. And then there is the beauty that is Brad Pitt--that is, if you look at his body and not his acting. Or you might interpret his look as "a creepy yoga teacher at an overpriced Californian spa," as Alex von Tunzelmann does:
This film definitely puts us in mind of an epic. Unfortunately, "epic" here does not refer to the old Homeric kind with dactylic hexameter, but the Hollywood box-office hit kind of epic.
There are many changes from Homer's story to Troy's screenplay. Some are deliberate changes or additions, while others are codified interpretations of open questions. Although they are not accurate as true translations of Homer, some are quite interesting and make certain themes from the book perhaps more relevant to a modern audience. Others are just annoying.
Perhaps the most obvious change is the removal of the gods from the action at Troy. While some of the Trojans talk about temples and the gods, Hector routinely laughs at the idea of believing in omens. (In contrast, Homer has the gods determining everyday events as their whims dictate.) At first, I found this to be a relief. The idea that characters might believe gods control human destinies works well for me, but I struggle when authors explain the actual events that way. But as the movie went on, I realized that by removing the gods, the film overplays the roles of individuals. Homer, I think, means the characters to be both heroic and weak--that is, immortal in name but mortal in body, distinguished hero but also a diminished everyman. The lack of gods leaves Achilles seeming like the most powerful one in the story.
Achilles in the film states that the gods are jealous of humans precisely because humans can die: "Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed." Of course, it is death that creates human immortality, as he acknowledges when he urges his troops to fight the bloody battles that will make their names last throughout history. This theme certainly echoes one of the main Homeric ideas.
Some of the other changes from book to film were in an effort to unify the story. One that especially bothered me was the the movie portrays the war from beginning to end--all happening quickly and with great excitement. There is none of the drawn-out boredom and exhaustion of a long war that Homer allows us to see.
I love the "in medias rex" style that Homer uses, beginning and ending his story in the middle. The central story of the film is the story of the war as a whole. In Homer, Achilles's changing rage and emotional growth is the central story, a story that takes place in the setting of the great war. And this smaller story allows character analysis that seems erased by the film. In other words, since Homer wasn't thinking that "epic" meant telling a big story about a big thing, we could get a deeper story about an individual's transformation.
The filmmakers create parallel characters throughout the story. Some are hinted at in Homer where others are totally new. I found many of them to be fascinating riffs on the story--sometimes bringing out themes which would otherwise be missing (many of which were absent in the original epic).
Images of Hector getting dressed for battle are alternated with images of Achilles getting dressed for battle, while Achilles' lover and Hector's wife are each distraught. But the contrast between the two men is even more obvious that the parallel: Achilles fights for pride and fame, while Hector fights out of duty and love of family.
Another parallel--completely invented in the film--is the relationships among cousins. Although Homer tells a different story, in the movie we are told that Patroclus is Achilles' cousin, and Briseis is Hector's cousin. Achilles grieves when his cousin dies at the hands of Hector, and Briseis grieves when her cousin dies at the hands of Achilles.
Although the cousin echo emphasizes the humanity of both sides (a theme Homer also presents), I was annoyed that this move allowed the filmmakers to placate anti-gay activists and remove all the questions about the intense relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.
In sum, I wasn't too keen on the movie, but I found it fascinating to consider why the filmmakers made particular decisions and interpretations. I was reminded how much I like the character of Hector--who was very well played by Eric Bana. Definitely one of the best performances of the film.
Least favorite change in the movie: the way Agamemnon dies. What?! Change of fortune in the house of Atreus!
Favorite moment in the movie: King Priam, played by Peter O'Toole and looking for all the world like Obi-Wan Kenobi in his robes, solemnly intones, "May the Gods be with you."