Ancient Greece, BBC, Bronze Age, Greek Mythology, Homer, Netflix, The Iliad, Trojan War, Troy, Troy: Fall of a City
In my previous post, I talked about whether Troy was a real place and whether the Trojan War was a real event. Regardless of whether it was or not, the Trojan War played a central role in the two greatest works of Greek literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and if you were a well-educated Greek, you knew these stories as well as modern people know Shakespeare’s plays. The two Homeric epics have stood the test of time and both tell profound, powerful stories. It’s surprising that modern cinema hasn’t drawn off these well-known classics more than it has.
So I was sort of excited to see the BBC/Netflix series and how it would treat the Trojan War. Sadly, the series is pretty disappointing. The show’s pacing is simultaneously fast-paced and dull, an impressive accomplishment, but probably not one it was aiming for. The acting is nothing to write home about, the dialog feels limp, and the show offers little insight into these ancient characters nor anything to make the story feel relevant to the modern world. The scenery, with South Africa standing in for Asia Minor, is pretty though, and the show’s approach to the Greek gods is sort of interesting, albeit in a rather unsatisfying way. I want to like the show, but I just don’t.
Unlike the 2004 film version of Troy, Troy: Fall of a City makes some real effort to be faithful to the original material. It follows the broad outline of the Iliad: the taking of Chriseis by Agamemnon (Johnny Harris) triggers a plague sent by Apollo that forces him to return the girl. He soothes his wounded pride by taking Briseis (Amy Louise Wilson) from Achilles (David Gyasi), who furiously withdraws from the war effort, and so on.
And it tries to fit in as much of the back story to the Iliad as it can. At the start of the series, Paris Alexander (Louis Hunter) discovers that he’s not some rough commoner but member of the royal house of Troy, which is basically true to the myths, in which Hecuba and Priam are given prophecies that their son will destroy Troy so they order the baby killed, but the kind-hearted servant instead spares the boy. And then the gods ask Paris to decide which goddess is most beautiful. Aphrodite (Lex King) bribes him with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world, and the show’s plot is set in motion.
After he is reunited with his family, Paris is sent on a simple mission to Sparta to give him some experience at diplomacy but he falls in love with Helen (Bella Dayne), who basically Fed Exs herself to Troy, much to Priam’s (David Threlfall) consternation.
When the Greeks want to set sail, they discover that Artemis is angry and will not let them sail until Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia to her. So throughout the show there are nods to actual Greek myths both large and small, instead of just focusing on the Iliad, which after all only covers one period 9 years into the war without either the beginning or the end. Sticking to just that material would have made a rather awkward story by modern standards.
Unlike the 2004 Troy, which tried to tell the story of Troy without the gods or anything else supernatural, this Troy does include the gods. Throughout the show, the gods intervene in small ways. For example, when Paris first sees Helen, Aphrodite slowly walks through the room.
But at the same time, the show also wants to modernize the story by making the characters more psychological and smoothing over some elements of the story that don’t play well for a modern audience. The show takes an essentially race-blind approach to casting, so that the Greeks and Trojans are played by various black or white actors; Achilles and Patroclus are both black, as is Zeus.
As it happens, Chriseis bares a strong resemblance to Iphegnia, so Agamemnon’s reluctance to give her up is more about his emotional trauma from having to sacrifice his own daughter. That’s not a bad twist on the material. But things work less well with Briseis. The show doesn’t want her to just be a slave girl, so Achilles insists that he’s interested in her as a person, and he and Patroclus have a bisexual three-way with her. As a result, Achilles’ anger isn’t over his wounded pride; it’s because Agamemnon has stolen his girlfriend. The reason that’s a problem is that in the Iliad, Achilles’ rage is about his own inability to empathize with anyone else, and the poem ends when Achilles is finally able to achieve a moment of empathy with his enemy Priam. Here, not so much.
Similarly, Andromache (Chloe Pirrie) is having trouble conceiving until Helen tells her about a fertility remedy she knows. That’s sort of a nice idea, given the pathos around what will eventually happen to the baby after the city is captured. (Spoiler: in the myths, baby Astynax gets thrown off the walls of Troy so that he can’t grow up to avenge his father’s death.)
But the show feels a need to insert a variety of boring sub-plots because it doesn’t find enough in the Iliad to make the mid-part of the story interesting. After a year of being sieged, the Trojans decide to dig a tunnel that will connect to one of their allied communities. But Paris and Hector (Tom Weston-Jones) have to *yawn* make a daring ride overland past the Greeks to get to that community and then the Greeks figure out what’s up and just after the tunnel gets opened the Greeks slaughter the allies and the Trojans have to close the tunnel. And then it turns out the Odysseus has a spy inside Troy *yawn* and then Achilles sneaks in and sees his old girlfriend Helen who persuades him to leave but then one of the servants sees and starts to suspect her *yawn*, and then just as the Trojans are about the attack the Greeks, the spy releases all the Trojans’ horses, and…
Yeah. Having decided to tell the story of the Trojan War, the screenwriters immediately decided that they didn’t have enough story to tell and had to come up with something else.
Likewise, although the gods are characters in the show, they don’t actually do very much. For example, in the Iliad, Menelaus and Paris have a duel to settle the war once and for all. But when Menelaus is about to kill Paris, Aphrodite intervenes to magically carry him back to Troy, where he can be safe and have sex with Helen (she’s the goddess of love and sex, so the mortals she patronizes get to have a lot of sex). But in the show, all Aphrodite does is briefly distract everyone long enough for Paris to throw sand in Menelaus’ eyes and then run off into the wilderness where he spends an episode wondering why his parents didn’t love him.
At a different point, Hera accuses Zeus of having orchestrated the whole thing, but Zeus denies it, saying that he gave Paris free will to see what he would do with it. But that rests rather awkwardly with the fact that Aphrodite got everything going by bribing Paris with Helen’s love. It also doesn’t really fit with the prophecy that Paris is going to be the cause of the destruction of Troy, or with the fact that Cassandra can see the future. In Greek literature, prophecy is a rich source of irony. Priam, like Oedipus’ father, tries to avoid the prophecy but can’t, while poor Cassandra knows the future but can’t persuade anyone to listen to her.
The Iliad was written before the Greeks had really begun to wrestle with the whole tension between divine will and human free will. The gods are constantly causing things to happen. Athena and Hera want to see Troy destroyed because they are mad at Paris for giving the golden apple to Aphrodite instead. Zeus orders all the gods to keep their hands off Troy, but Hera intentionally distracts him so the other gods can sneak down and interfere. Athena actively suckers Hector into standing and fighting Achilles precisely because she knows that Achilles can kill Hector. So the gods are often ‘Homer’s’ way of giving characters some degree of psychological interiority. Instead of characters making complex emotional decisions, the gods whisper to them to get them to do things. So the whole story is about humans trapped by divine causality because the gods are angry about things. It’s a problematic dynamic, and one that later Greek authors like Sophocles would challenge by articulating notions of free will and human responsibility for their own mistakes.
So the show is compromising. It wants the gods to be figures in the show because they’re important to the Iliad, but it also wants the characters to be fully responsible for their own decisions and have complex interior lives because that’s how modern cinema operates. The result is muddy theology and gods that drift around getting dramatic camera shots but not really doing anything. It’s an unsatisfying solution.
So the show isn’t really that good. But if you’re looking for something that tries to tell the stories of the Greek myths, you don’t have a lot of other options, unfortunately.
Want to Know More?
There are lots of translations of the Iliad. The one that’s most commonly used in classrooms is probably Richard Lattimore‘s. I’m pretty partial to that one. There are also tons of books on the Iliad. If you want a really interesting and very readable analysis that views it as exploring the horrors of war, try Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles.