The Iliad, Troy and the role of the Immortals

I am at last in a position to review the film Troy from the annoying perspective of one who has read the book. Of course there isn’t really much of a comparison. The Iliad is arguably the most enduring piece of writing in the history of Europe. Troy, on the other hand, is a high octane yet entirely forgettable hollywood romp. I think the reason that the film is average at best is that it almost totally lacks emotional resonance. This is, for the most part, the fault of the cast. Eric Bana – who so convinced me in Romulus, My Father – delivers a wooden performance as Hector, one of the greatest heroes in all of literature. Brad Pitt is a preening but inoffensive Achilles. Even the great Sean Bean is reduced to a handful of cliches and simmering glances.

There is a real sense that this failing on the part of the actors is a great shame, because actually the ingredients are all there for a really good film. In this post I want to focus on the gods as they appear (or don’t) in the book and the film, in order to illustrate my point.

It is only fitting that I start with Homer. The Iliad tells the story of a few weeks in the final year of the 10 year war between the Greeks and the Trojans. It focuses on the events leading up to the death of Hector, prince of Troy and leader of the Trojan forces, at the hands of Achilles, son of a Goddess and arguably the most fearsome warrior the world has ever seen.

A great strength of Homer’s writing is the sense of tragedy that he cultivates with each word. At every twist and turn we find ourselves asking ‘what if?’ – What if Patroclus had obeyed Achilles’ instructions to stay out of the thick of the fighting? What if Hector had listened to sound advice and not pressed his attack on the Greeks? Etc. Etc.

In the Iliad scheming gods and the steady rhythm of fate lurk close behind each turn of the knife. The Immortals line up on either side of the conflict and use the mortals as champions to fight their own personal feuds. This is what makes the Iliad such an epic read – there is a real sense that the heroes have no chance, no matter how brave they might be. The fact that we know what is going to happen – we are told several times that there be bad things afoot – only contributes to the tension and the tragedy.

In Troy the gods are at most only vaguely referenced. You might think this surprising, given that they are so insidious throughout the Iliad – indeed lots of people threw their arms up in disgust, claiming that Wolfgang Peterson had entirely missed the point – but crucially I think it works. That is to say, Troy still possesses that sense of tragedy that Homer so wonderfully creates, only coincidence and human devilishness and miscalculation take the place of Immortal mischief.

By means of an example, let us pick one of the most crucial points in both book and film – Patroclus’ disobedience of Achilles, which leads to his death at the hands of Hector and brings Achilles into the fight in search of revenge. In the Iliad Patroclus¬†disobeys Achilles because Zeus whispers winged words into his ear. In the film it is for personal reasons – because he wants to fight and to prove himself to his cousin. To my mind, the second is no less powerful than the first and it is a technique that lends itself to the cinema.

The upshot is that Troy still functions as a tragedy (or would, if its actors could do it credit) in spite of the fact that what made the book so powerful is almost completely absent from the film.

I say almost completely absent because there is a subtle dramatic irony that, even though the gods are not present in the film, they are still screwing things up for the mortals, most notably Hector. On several occasions, Hector offers good advice only to have it dismissed by Priam, his king and father, on the grounds that it is not the will of the gods. Perhaps most importantly, in the film he does not want to attack the Greek ships at all (it is this act that leads to his killing Patroclus) but he is ordered to in any case. In this way, even if the gods do not by their presence play a role in the lives and deaths of the heros, through clever writing, Peterson ensures that by their absence their impact is huge.

The link might be coincidental, of course, but I prefer to think of it as good filmmaking. You cannot turn a book like the Iliad – if you can turn any book, that is – into a film without losing something of what made the book so special. In the Iliad events turn around the spiteful scheming of the Gods. Troy manages to tell its own story – one of man’s folly, greed and love of foul deeds – and, but for a few unconvincing performances from some of its cast, I think it does so very well.

A brief word, before I finish, on the score. I am not a great fan of James Horner, indeed I can count on my fingers the number of his tracks I have listened to more than a few times. However I think that track no. 3 – Achilles leads the Myrmidons – is not a bad piece of music at all, definitely worth a listen. It puts you right in the story at the moment that Achilles and his boys storm the Trojan beach –¬†

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