I have always been fascinated by Greek myths and legends – I remember even as a young child being enthralled by stories of gods and monsters, of heroes on winged horses and snake-haired women. It’s hardly surprising given the massive influence the ancient Greeks and Romans had on shaping our society that such stories continue to exert a fascination today, and are constantly revisited by contemporary writers. So I thought this week I’d offer my favourite takes on these ancient stories…
Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
If there has one been book that I have loved so much this year that I’ve forced it onto complete strangers, it’s this one. Miller’s Orange Prize winning novel was 10 years in the making and the hard work shows: a beautifully realised version of Achilles’ story, it is both a sweeping, heartbreaking romance (slightly controversially, Miller treats Achilles’ relationship with his ‘beloved friend’ Patroclus as a straightforward gay love story) and a no-holds-barred look at the horrors of a war in a land where Gods not only exist but are more than happy to meddle in the ways of man. Plus it has a centaur in it, what more could you want?
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
Phillips’ accomplished debut novel lands the Greek deities in today’s London, where as human faith in them has waned they find their power has faded. As squabbling, petty and venal as they were in their heyday, they are reduced to mundane modern jobs: Aphrodite is a telephone sex worker, Apollo a TV psychic, Athena a dog walker. The book loses its way a little towards the end as its human characters stray off into the underworld, but it’s a fresh, entertaining take on the myths.
Xena and Hercules
While Hercules was of course cut straight from the fabric of mythology (although they played fairly fast and loose with this in the show), I always thought Xena was a lot more watchable – Lucy Lawless’ warrior princess tangled with a whole raft of gods (despite wandering around the New Zealand countryside), from the handsome and arrogant Ares to the ludicrously coiffed Cupid (a blond Karl Urban, well-pre-Star Trek and Dredd, who also played Caesar in the show, and no doubt desperately would like all of these images scrubbed from the internet – no such luck, Karl!).
Clash of the Titans
Oh, none of your forgettable Sam Worthington remakes here: while the 80s version may be slightly creaky, it’s still enormous fun, with a fantastic cast of supporting characters, and remains a favourite from my youth. In fact, I’d list pretty much any of the Ray Harryhausen movies, as his visual effects are still clever, thrilling and evocative today (although I realise Sinbad falls slightly outside the remit of this feature, they are still worth a watch…). Go on, you know you want to say it… Release the Kraken!
How can you mention classical legends without referencing the world’s most famous Amazon? The daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons*, Princess Diana left her home to come to the land of men to fight for our rights (in her satin tights), and remains one of comic-doms most iconic figures, as well as being the cause of many a young girl of my generation spinning round till she fell over in the desperate hope that she, too, would be transformed into a spangly-pants-wearing, gold-braceletted goddess.
OK, I’m actually including this as it’s an example of how not to do the classics. Wolfgang Petersen’s take on Homer’s epic should have been a slam dunk, given its mega budget and A list casting (Sean Bean! Brian Cox! How could it go wrong?). While in fairness the movie has plenty of fans, I think it ended up way, way less than the sum of its parts; a clunky script, muddled action (a few great set pieces aside), an anaemic Orlando Bloom as Paris and an utterly insipid Diane Kruger as Helen, a miscast Brad Pitt (in a teeny skirt) not helped by a terrible dye job and a determination to annihilate any homo-eroticism from the story (Patroclus becomes his cousin in this take on the tale)… it all just ended up as one great, forgettable mess that in cinemas felt only marginally shorter than the bloody Trojan War itself. The only redeeming feature was Eric Bana’s powerful, compelling Hector, who came across so well that I was rooting for him in his final showdown with Achilles, Homeric veracity be damned.
Want to read more? If you’re a little rusty on your classical mythology, I’d recommend It’s All Greek to Me by Charlotte Higgins or Opening Pandora’s Box: Phrases we borrowed from the classics and the stories behind them by Ferdie Addis for a bite sized intro into the culture and stories of the time.
*I’m aware Wonder Woman’s origins and parentage changed depending on her writer, but I’m sticking with this one. And Linda Carter will always be Wonder Woman to me. So there.
So, do you have a favourite version of these classic tales? Let me know if I missed one by posting in the comments. I’ll be back in a fortnight but in the meantime do feel free to pop over to my blog, Body of a Geek Goddess, or of course check out my book Dark Dates which, while entirely free of Greek gods, does feature a woman named after one of the most famous classical anti-heroines (Medea) and a cameo from a Valkyrie. So that has to be worth a couple of quid, right?