Troy’s Literary Offenses

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

As a movie, Troy is okay.The fighting is fun, and the scenes with the ships arriving and those showing us the city of Troy are convincingly real. But as an interpretation of Homer’s Iliad, the movie is an abomination. Everything significant and interesting about Homer and his characters has been eliminated, leaving behind a predictable melodrama.

The first mistake the film-makers made was to ignore what the Roman poet Horace told us was one of Homer’s great insights: to start the story in medias res, in the “middle of things,” rather than going back to the beginning. In this way Homer concentrates all his dramatic force on the key characters and the most important event of the war, the death of Hector and the events leading up to it. Troy, on the other hand, dissipates the drama by going back in time to the beginning of Paris and Helen’s affair, and forward to the sack of Troy, losing that dramatic concentration and power.

Next, in the movie the affair of Paris and Helen is reduced to the sentimental, worn-out romance paradigm more suitable for a soap opera or a romantic comedy.  The idealization of sexuality that forms the core of our romantic delusions was unknown to Homer. In his world, sexual passion, like Achilles’ wrath, is a destructive force that overthrows the mind and the sense of shame and honor, leading one to behavior destructive to the self and society. In the Iliad, Helen despises both Paris, a pretty-boy weakling, and herself for desiring someone she knows is inferior to her husband. Troy could have challenged the audience’s romantic preconceptions by showing us Homer’s realist view of sexual passion, but instead we get something straight out of supermarket romance.

The film’s worst offenses, however, are its reduction of Homer’s complex characters into melodramatic clichés. In Homer, Agamemnon is a portrait of what happens when a man’s character and virtue aren’t up to his power, a political lesson the Greeks returned to in tragedy, history, and philosophy. In the movie, he’s a moustache-twirling villain with no interior conflicts. Likewise with Homer’s Hector, who embodies the tragedy of being second best and then thinking he can achieve more than his fate and talents allow. When Hector kills Patroclus, knowing full well whom he has killed and who will seek to revenge the death, and then puts on the armor of Achilles, he stakes a claim that he ultimately knows he can’t fulfill–to be Achilles, that is, to be the best. The changes made by the movie destroy this tragic complexity, and leave out the powerful scene of Hector’s realization of his delusion and folly in the moments before his fatal duel with Achilles.

So too with Achilles: unlike the film, in Homer he sends out Patroclus in his armor to save the Greeks. That is Achilles’ tragic error: to think that Patroclus can be him and fulfill what he owes to the other Greeks, while Achilles stays out of the fight and nurses his vengeful wrath. When Patroclus dies, Achilles is consumed with guilt as well as rage against Hector. His ultimate insight is to realize that the pursuit of honor costs not just his own life, but the life of the one he loves most. Since the movie removes Achilles’ complicity in the death of Patroclus, it flattens out Achilles’s character and thus ignores his growth into an awareness of his own limitations, a recognition that despite all his excellence and achievements, he is like all of us: subject to passions that drive him to actions he never would’ve chosen.

So, if you want to see some standard action-flick mayhem in ancient Greek costume, see Troy. But if you want some insight into the tragic complexity of human action and character, read Homer’s Iliad.

All copyrights reserved by Bruce Thornton

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