I’ll admit it. I’m a bit of a myth geek. I even read academic books about myths in my spare time (yuck, I know). Which is why, as a movie geek too, I was so excited when my favorite film magazine, UK’s Empire, recently posted a blog entry by Helen O’Hara on Hollywood’s recent interest in movies based on classic myth or legend.
O’Hara, a self-proclaimed “history geek and fantasy lover,” makes a few choice comments about the recent film updates (“Troy works wonderfully as a silent movie” and so on) and what she would like to see in the future (Táin Bó Cúailnge, anyone?). And since I’m, well, a history geek and fantasy lover myself, I couldn’t resist using her entry as inspiration to make a list of what I believe are my favorite and least favorite movies based on myths and legends.
The Mummy – I believe I’ve said it before, but this is one of those guilty pleasure movies that I can watch again and again (and I do). I love ancient Egypt and ancient Egyptian mythology, and this has got fun spins on both. A Book of the Dead made entirely out of some sort of hardened black substance? Sure, why not. A Mummy that brings with it the ten plagues of Egypt? An interesting take on the Bible, but okay. An expert on ancient Egypt as an action heroine? It’s about time! Fun, entertaining (sometimes in a campy sort of way), action-packed, somewhat romantic, and rooted in Egyptian myth, The Mummy’s got it all.
Troy – Okay, it has its weak points (for me, the Paris/Helen chemistry-free romance), but it’s got some awesome fight scenes (Brad Pitt vs. Eric Bana in a gracefully brutal Achilles and Hector showdown) and I have to admit that I was touched by the love story of Achilles and Briseis, whether or not it was true to Homer’s The Iliad, the movie’s basis.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Not for everyone, this is one of those movies that most people I know either love or just don’t get. Me? I still crack up at the opening scene (I’m getting better!) and:
-What is your favorite color?
-Blue. No yel- Ahhhh!
And who can not appreciate an extended discussion on the flight capabilities of the African swallow?
Stargate – This is myth-based, you say? Of course it is! Clearly it is simply a sci-fi retelling of ancient Egyptian myth. Who is the god Ra? Why he’s an alien, of course! How else do you think they built the pyramids? (Riley from National Treasure, you were right all along) In any case, it’s got Kurt Russell and James Spader battling it out with that guy from The Crying Game in an alien version of ancient Egypt. It doesn’t get more fun than that.
Aladdin (Disney) – Perhaps not the most accurate adaptation of the Arabian Nights (if the tale of Aladdin is a Nights tale at all), but probably the most financially successful one. Who would’ve thought that Robin Williams as a blue genie could be so much fun? And don’t even try to deny that you’ve had “A Whole New World” stuck in your head at some point or another – for better or for worse.
Hororable Mentions: Ghostbusters and Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Okay, a bit of a stretch perhaps, but the use of a Sumerian god, Gozer, and an Aztec curse? They might both be fictional, but still clearly influenced by mythology.
CAMPIEST (and thus, lots of fun as well)
Clash of the Titans – This is truly a camp classic of mythology. Presenting the tale of Perseus and Medusa with stop-motion animation (see the giant monster Kraken move jerkily forward to attack!), this 1981 film has got enough action, fantasy and romance to satisfy anyone. Not convinced? Then go for the actors who play the gods: Maggie Smith plays Thetis, Ursula Andress is Aphrodite (Venus), and Laurence Olivier himself plays Zeus. And for you gamers out there, Harry Hamlin, who does the voice of Perseus in God of War II, originated the role in this movie.
Comingsoon.net reports that Warner Bros. is scripting a remake. Well, I suppose it was only a matter of time.
Jason and the Argonauts – Another stop-motion animated classic, but this time from 1963. It’s a retelling of the classic myth of Jason and his crew of Argonauts (including Hercules), and their search for the Golden Fleece. If you like Clash of the Titans, you’ll like this.
Excalibur – Another cult classic. A dramatic and violent, and beautifully shot, retelling of King Arthur and his knights. With Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Bryne, Liam Neeson, and others. Be prepared for lots of mist!
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys / Xena: Warrior Princess – I know they’re not technically movies, but you know I had to include them.
The Thief of Baghdad (1924) – Watch the caliph’s daughter swoon over Douglas Fairbank’s swashbuckling (yes, swashbuckling) Aladdin in silent black and white. Need I say more?
Honorable Mention: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Referencing classical mythology and Celtic folklore, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is of course the classic comedy by William Shakespeare. It is, however, also a recent film from Fox Searchlight. Sit back, relax, and watch stars like Calista Flockhart, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christian Bale, Kevin Kline, and Stanley Tucci have lots of fun running around in the forest, while occasionally tripping over Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter.
MINISERIES (solid and not too shabby)
The Odyssey (1997) – Okay, I can give adaptations a hard time, but let’s admit it, it’s not easy to adapt a classic epic, especially one that is one of the most famous in the Western world. Although not perfect (but what is?), this miniseries with Armand Assante as Odysseus manages to pull off a solid retelling and keep many of the tale’s details intact. Also starring Vanessa Williams, Isabella Rosselini and Christopher Lee.
Mists of Avalon – Based on Marion Zimmer Bradley’s popular King Arthur epic with a feminist twist, I didn’t think this was half-bad. The book was still worlds better, but a solid adaptation nonetheless. Plus, Michael Vartan plays Lancelot!
Helen of Troy (2003) – I’m torn on this one. One of those “this is the true story of…”, it doesn’t necessarily always stick directly to the original mythology. Plus, some of the legendary characters get short shrift; Achilles and Hector who? But I still found the miniseries – about the Trojan War from the perspective of its famous beauty – entertaining at times and usually fun to watch, and it contains many of the characters left out of other adaptations (Cassandra, Pollux, poor Iphigenia, even Kings Atreus and Theseus make appearances).
Arabian Nights (2000) – Nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries, this adaptation of the 1001 Nights plays up the romance between Scheherazade and Sultan Schariar, to whom Scheherazade must tell a story every night in order to put off her execution at his hands. It’s got its campy moments, but it doesn’t digress as much from the Nights as other adaptations and Dougray Scott (Mission Impossible II, Ever After) and Mili Avital (From Stargate! It’s all coming together…) are convincing as the troubled king and his beautiful storyteller.
Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King – A miniseries that aired on the Sci-Fi channel and is based on the Germanic tale, The Nibelungenlied (nee-buh-luhng-ehn-leed, I believe – it’s a very impressive name to mention at parties). Ever heard of Wagner’s Ring cycle? Also partly based on The Nibelungenlied (translation: Song of the Nibelungs). Benno Furmann, a Kevin Sorbo look-alike with his long hair, plays Siegfried, the hero and dragon-slayer, and Alicia Witt is Kriemhild, his sometime lover. Kristanna Loken plays the other lover, the warrior Brunhilde. Not bad for a miniseries, it’s got lots of fun, smoldering dialogue and special effects. It lags at times, but generally provides lots of often campy fun. It was originally released outside of the US and under various different titles, including Ring of the Nibelungs.
Spirited Away – Hayao Miyazaki‘s beautiful and haunting animated movie was heavily influenced by Japanese Shinto mythology and tradition. It tells the tale of a girl who wanders into a supernatural world populated by all manner of magical creatures. The film won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003. Just goes to show that you don’t need fancy CGI to make a stunning animated film. If you’ve seen this and liked it, go rent My Neighbor Totoro. An earlier film by Miyazaki, it’s the story of two young sisters and their adventures with magical spirits. Playful and fun, but also moving.
Whale Rider – Set in New Zealand, the film uses Maori myth and tradition to captivating and poignant effect. It’s a touching story about a girl growing up to become a leader in a male-dominated society. The lead actress, Keisha Castle-Hughes, was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the film at the age of 13.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Like Monty Python, most people I know either really like this or don’t get it at all. An odd, yet oddly captivating, retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, the movie follows three ex-prisoners in the 1930s as they encounter a Cyclops, sirens and more on their search for treasure and love. George Clooney is Ulysses and Holly Hunter plays the modern Penelope, “Penny.” In my opinion, all worth it for the scenes with the Soggy Bottom Boys.
Ramayan (1987-88) – A hugely successful Indian “miniseries” that recounts the famous epic story of Rama and Sita, ancient heroes in Hindu tradition. According to Wikipedia, the series was watched by over 100 million people when it was first on the air. It can move at a slow pace and may seem campy to Western audiences, but it’s lovingly done and an Indian classic. It’s also a great way to learn more about beloved Hindu figures. The whole thing is 78 episodes long (no, that’s not a typo), so if you haven’t seen any of it, catch an episode of it sometime if you can.
Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen – The Nibelungenlied again, but this time in silent black and white. The famous director of Metropolis tells the epic tale in two parts (Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge). Slow but powerful.
Hercules (Disney animated) – I just don’t like this movie, I’m sorry. Hades as a used car salesman type? No, no, no, and no. Not for me.
King Arthur – I love Clive Owen, and have a soft spot in my heart for Keira Knightley due to her beautiful portrayal of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, but I was not impressed by this movie. They were striving for the “real story” of King Arthur, and I respect that, but it just didn’t work.
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (animated) – Yet another example of why celebrity voices alone (Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones) can’t sell a movie.
Pasolini’s Il Fiore delle mille e una notte (The Flower of the One Thousand and One Nights) – I really don’t know what to say about this film. It defies description. Critically acclaimed, yes, but I’m just not sure I get it. Be warned though: for adult audiences ONLY.
The Fountain – Lots of references to Mayan myth, but again… ?
TO BE DETERMINED
Beowulf – Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother? I’m suspicious, but willing to give co-screenwriter Neil Gaiman the benefit of the doubt. For my review, click here.
Thor – In development, an adaptation of the Norse superhero in the Marvel Comics. For more, go here for Rotten Tomatoes’ news of the event.
Yes, I know I’ve missed some (First Knight and Camelot come to mind – even The Matrix and Star Wars), and probably many, but this list can’t go on forever. What can I say? The ones above are the films that made the strongest impression on me, for better or worse.
For great print versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Arabian Nights, check out Neil Gaiman’s Dream Country for his award-winning take on Shakespeare’s play, and Fables and Reflections for a look at the world of the Nights – both volumes are part of Gaiman’s Sandman series.