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An examination of how screen texts embrace, refute, and reinvent the cultural heritage of antiquity, this volume looks at specific story-patterns and archetypes from Greco-Roman culture. The contributors offer a variety of perspectives, highlighting key cultural relay points at which a myth is received and reformulated for a particular audience.





Cinemyths: Classical Myth on Screen
The myths of classical antiquity—the vast period during which first the Greeks and then the Romans set the political and cultural course for the Mediterranean region and beyond—have fueled the cinematic imagination almost since the inception of film as an art form, as early as 1911 with Giovanni Pastrone’s silent film La Caduta di Troia.1 Yet to authorize his cinematic version of the Trojan War in Troy (2004), screenwriter David Benioff (now well known as the co-creator of HBO’s Game of Thrones) turned specifically to Homer’s Iliad, as the title card before the film’s action proclaims.2 Even in this televisual age, when screens are fertile ground for myths and myth-making, narrative authority still resides in canonized literary and visual texts that have been fixed in a transmittable form: from Homer’s Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Sandro Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus (1486) and Antonio Canovas marble sculpture Perseus with the Head of Medusa (ca. 1800). Such canons constitute the cultural patrimony of the Western tradition, having long since become the measure by which cultural literacy is defined—at least by institutional gatekeepers who continue to exercise enormous influence over the preservation of cultural artifacts and the validation of individuals’ social status.
Meredith E. Safran, Monica S. Cyrino

The Hero’s Struggle


1. “Italian Stallion” Meets “Breaker of Horses”: Achilles and Hector in Rocky IV (1985)

Homer’s Iliad and its narration of the conflict between the Greeks and Trojans, and Hector and Achilles, stands as the ur-text against which all subsequent tales of war, friendship, and revenge can be compared.1 Scholars of classical antiquity have long recognized later works as inheritance, imitation, and adaptation of Homer’s timeless epic. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV (1985), on the other hand, has not been regarded as timeless.2 Critics have typically discussed it alongside other action films in the context of Reagan-era culture, politics, and ideology: a relatively uncomplicated pro-America microcosm of the Cold War.3 Certainly the film is meant to comment on America’s conflict with the Soviet Union and American ideology of the time, yet the film is hardly unproblematically pro-American or simplistic in its treatment of the political conflict. Reading Rocky IV as an inheritance of the myth of Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector sheds new light on how the film engages with issues of social and political identity, responsibility to community, friendship, and war.
Lisl Walsh

2. The Isolated Hero: Papillon (1973), Cast Away (2000), and the Myth of Philoctetes

Franklin J. Schaffners 1973 film Papillon depicts the grueling conditions endured by Henri “Papillon” Charrière in a French Guianese penal colony and his famous escape from the notorious Devil’s Island after being falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. En route, Papillon (Steve McQueen) befriends his fellow inmate Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), and each man quickly becomes indispensable to the survival of the other. Following two failed escape attempts, Papillon is punished in solitary confinement. Even more devastating than his extremely cramped cell and meager rations is the psychological toll inflicted on him by a lack of human companionship, a trauma that stems from Papillons inability to engage a partner in speech. Upon his release, Papillons mind craves and is reconstituted by conversation, no less than his body longs for food and medicine.
Scott A. Barnard

3. The Limits of Human Knowledge: Oedipal Problems in A Serious Man (2009)

In a dream, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish assistant professor of physics in 1967 Middle America, furiously scribbles the derivation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP) on every inch of a towering classroom blackboard.1 The derivation represents the mathematical proof that proves, ironically, that there will always be some uncertainty in the measurement of physical quantities. The mathematical principle has wider philosophical implications, since it also captures the irony of misunderstanding, the subjectivity of perception, or both. This dream sequence captures the signature uncertainty of Larry Gopnik’s tragicomic narrative arc. At home his wife has asked for a get, a ritual divorce within the Jewish faith. At work a student has attempted to bribe Larry for a passing grade on his physics midterm, and Larry’s department chair has alerted him to a series of anonymous letters accusing Larry of moral turpitude, which, along with his lack of publications, threaten his upcoming bid for tenure. The scientist ultimately turns to his rabbi for advice about the enigmatic turns of events that afflict his life.
Osman Umurhan

4. Orpheus in a Gray Flannel Suit: George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

The Adjustment Bureau (2011), written and directed by George Nolfi, draws on ancient and modern versions of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to dramatize a conflict between devotion to career and personal fulfillment.1 In this film, David Norris (Matt Damon), a rising political figure in New York, finds that the mysterious Adjustment Bureau is working to sabotage his relationship with Elise (Emily Blunt) in order to direct him toward a political future of great national consequence. Nolfi dramatizes this conflict by combining the Orpheus myths themes of love, loss, and the limits of individual agency with the U.S. myth of the post-World War II company man, whose successful career imperils his domestic happiness.
Seán Easton

Fashioning the Feminine


5. Dystopian Amazons: Fantasies of Patriarchy in Le Gladiatrici (1963)

Amazons have fueled the literary imagination of ancient Greek and Roman authors from the epic cycle and Herodotus to Quintus of Smyrna and beyond.1 As a group, these marginal and transgressive women are portrayed as skillful in battle against men, a stereotype reinforced by the popular etymology of their name from the Greek a-mazon (“without breast”), which is connected to the tale of their cauterizing the right breast to facilitate spear-throwing—among other tales of their strange customs created by male authors.2 In ancient Italy, female gladiators were fashioned after the Amazons. While productions such as the film Gladiator (2000) and the STARZ series Spartacus (2010–2013) have acquainted modern audiences with the gladiator as male hero who enacts subversion while promoting the prevailing cultural image of masculinity, Roman authors occasionally speak of the gladiatrix as a monstrosity who transgresses the norms of her gender and nature itself—an opinion that survived into modernity.3
Antony Augoustakis

6. Arya, Katniss, and Merida: Empowering Girls through the Amazonian Archetype

Myths illustrate timeless human truths, yet their various iterations reflect the needs and fears of the specific age in which they occur. Recently, young female archers invoking the myth of the Amazon have come into vogue on large and small screens alike.1 In contemporary incarnations, there are now so many female archers in media that screenwriters are able to parody this phenomenon with the imaginary blockbuster quadrilogy The Amazon Games, featured in Lake Bell’s comedy In a World (2013).2 As protagonists, three recent young female archers serve to exemplify the trend: Princess Merida of Brave (2012), Lady Arya Stark of Game of Thrones (2011-), and Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games (2012). They embody a new twist on the ancient Greek Amazonian archetype, providing insight into what the Amazon myth means today. A quick review of the salient characteristics of the Amazon myth in antiquity will set up a discussion of how that prototype is both perpetuated and altered in these contemporary depictions of onscreen Amazons. These three figures indicate a perceptible shift both in how the Amazonian archetype is depicted by filmmakers and studios and in how it is intended to be received by the audience. This shift may represent a new variation on the action hero, reflecting changes in contemporary society at large.
Beverly J. Graf

7. The Suspense-Thriller’s Pygmalion Complex: Masculine Desire in Vertigo (1958), Les Biches (1968), and Body Double (1984)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses features the story of Pygmalion, a sculptor whose disgust for the sinful nature of the women of Cyprus inspires him to carve a female figure from ivory so smooth, so pure, that life seems to pulse beneath its surface (Metamorphoses 10.243–97).1 Entranced by this beautiful image, Pygmalion falls in love with the statue and beseeches Venus, Roman goddess of love, to bring him a wife as fine as his creation. So the statue comes alive beneath his loving touch, and they are united in marriage, complete with a child to ensure Pygmalion’s legacy.
Kaelie Thompson

8. Plastic Surgery: Failed Pygmalions and Decomposing Women in Les Yeux sans Visage (1960) and Bride of Re-Animator (1989)

In the myth of Pygmalion, made famous by Ovid’s Metamorphoses (10.243–97), the Greek sculptor carves the form of a lovely woman from snow-white ivory.1 After he prays to the goddess Venus, she brings Pygmalion’s sculpture to life; he marries her and fathers a child by her. Despite this “happy ending,” the myth’s long cinematic history reflects ambiguously on the relationship between human artistry and ideals of feminine beauty. The narrative variant that charts the transformation or “make-over” of a homely or ill-mannered woman under the guidance of a lover or father-figure is epitomized by Professor Henry Higgins’ education of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964), based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion. Other cinematic articulations of Pygmalion’s myth shift the focus from a woman’s character to her physical reconstruction; because of their disturbingly graphic focus on the female form, these are commonly located within the horror genre.2 The Pygmalion of modern horror supplants the divine power of Venus with the miracles of modern science, animating his art through the physician’s masterful knowledge of the human body.
Hunter H. Gardner

Negotiating the Cosmic Divide


9. Savior of the Working Man: Promethean Allusions in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)

Loved and loathed since its 1927 premiere, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis has inspired as many divergent readings as impassioned responses.1 Critics have decried its chauvinistic gender stereotyping, communist undertones, and apocalyptic overtones; its heavy-handed borrowing of Christian and Marian salvific imagery and narrative devices; and a simplistic melodramatic plot that culminates in one of the most notorious endings in cinematic history.2 Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, have even been branded as Nazi collaborators who used the film to support a nascent political ideology.3 Yet within this mixture of fascism and socialism, medieval and gothic, Christian and occult, this chapter throws one more brand onto the critical fire by offering another reading of Metropolis: through the myth of Prometheus.
Alex McAuley

10. Magic, Music, Race: Screening “Black Enchantment” after Black Orpheus (1959)

In contemporary America, film and television make persistent and compelling use of black culture. Film scholars and media critics discuss what they call “mythologies of blackness,” how recurring images and tropes of culturally significant reinterpretations and reinventions are represented in modern media.1 While the scholarly argument does not proceed from the position that there is any real correspondence between what takes place on movie or television screens and actual lived realities, nevertheless film and television often reflect what a society considers important, even if the ostensible purpose is purely entertainment. As film scholar Krin Gabbard observes, “The best place to find out how things get constructed in American culture is a movie house.”2 These onscreen representations both affirm and challenge some of society’s core notions about race: as these ideas are always in flux, and since movies and television present value systems from several different points of view, audiences are constantly being invited to rethink these values at the same time that we are invited to embrace them.3
Monica S. Cyrino

11. Re-conceiving Hercules: Divine Paternity and Christian Anxiety in Hercules (2005)

In August 2004, NBC announced the filming of its made-for-television movie Hercules: “The definitive re-telling of the most famous myth of all: the story of a half-god half-man whose extraordinary feats of strength would elevate him to the status of legend on Earth and immortality in the heavens.”1 But the finished product rejects the origin story of the ancient Greek hero Herakles (better known by his Latin name Hercules2). Instead of Zeus, Hercules presents a blasphemous human sociopath, mistakenly believed to have been Zeus, as the hero’s father. Depriving Hercules of divine paternity allows producer Robert Halmi Sr. and director Roger Young to reshape his life story. Rather than achieving apotheosis, Hercules repudiates his false identity as “son of Zeus” and oncludes his Labors with conjugal domesticity and fatherhood on earth. This hero’s journey is not cosmic but spiritual—and aimed at an audience for whom there is only one true Son of the King of Heaven.
Meredith E. Safran

12. The Twilight of Olympus: Deicide and the End of the Greek Gods

The divinities of ancient Greece have been a staple of cinema from at least as early as Aphrodite’s appearance in the Italian silent short film La Caduta di Troia (1911), and they have continued to appear regularly in films based on ancient Greek myths.1 Other screen texts have reinforced the importance of the Greek gods in modern popular culture, from the God of War video game series (2005-), to the Percy Jackson film franchise (The Lightning Thief, 2010; Sea of Monsters, 2013), to the television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995–1999) and Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001). But the Greek gods are also part of antiquity’s “radical alterity”;2 that is, screen texts use the gods to mark out how different ancient Greece was from the modern West through their arrogance and fickleness. This vision of divinity is problematic for modern Western audiences whose cultures are heavily influenced by Christian ideas, and so some screen texts of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries foretell Olympus’ demise.3 This chapter analyzes inflections of the “twilight of the Greek gods” motif in films and television programs, to make sense of what they communicate about how the West wants to view the legacy of classical antiquity.4
Vincent Tomasso



13. Of Marketing and Men: Making the Cinematic Greek Hero, 2010–2014

The ancient Greeks had their heyday in film from the 1950s to 1981, a period that encompasses the numerous adventures of Hercules in scores of “sword and sandal” movies and the carefully crafted mythological creatures of Ray Harryhausen.1 While they never really disappeared from the cinema,2 in the past four years ancient Greek heroes have appeared quite frequently in a number of back-to-back films focused on mythological characters and set in classical antiquity Most notable among them are Perseus in the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010) and its sequel Wrath of the Titans (2012), Theseus in Immortals (2011), and Hercules in The Legend of Hercules (2014) and Hercules (2014).
Stacie Raucci

14. John Cameron Mitchell’s Aristophanic Cinema: Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

John Cameron Mitchell’s film Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) tells the story of Hansel, an East German youth; his transformation into Hedwig, a transsexed1 performer of punk rock music; and her2 attempts to achieve love and self-acceptance. According to Stephen Trask, the composer and songwriter of Hedwig, Plato’s Symposium provided the source material:
When John and I started working together, the first thing that we did was we walked to a bookstore and he bought me Plato’s Symposium… and he gave it to me and said, “Read this—there’s a story in there I want you to adapt.”3
Lorenzo F. Garcia

15. Dionysus Comes to Gotham: Forces of Disorder in The Dark Knight (2008)

An enigmatic figure surfaces to seize control of a city that fails to acknowledge his ideology.1 He is confronted by the guardian of the city, whose own ideology directly opposes that of the stranger. The guardian captures the stranger and interrogates him, soon finding the tables turned as the coolly charismatic captive exposes the fractures in the guardians uptight persona. Eventually the stranger is condemned to imprisonment, but he is not thwarted: in an eruption of fire and rubble, the stranger levels his dungeon and walks free. The theatrical flair with which he executes his schemes, the madness he inspires in his followers, the protean avoidance of one fixed identity—in all these ways he establishes himself as a figure of chaos, the arch-nemesis of the city’s guardian.
David Bullen

16. Hypatia and Brian: Early Christianity as Greek Mythological Drama

Both the British film Monty Pythons Life of Brian (1979) and the Spanish film Agora (2009) reimagine canonical tales of the origins of Christianity, its conflicts with Judaism and Roman polytheism, and its transformation into a dominant religion. Rather than following religious orthodoxy, both films treat the narratives of Jesus and St. Cyril, as well as crucial turning points in the history of Christianity, as tales similar to ancient Greek myths: that is, they are available to be reinterpreted according to the values and beliefs of each new generation. In challenging traditional divisions between mythology and scripture, as well as between history and fiction, both films have drawn accusations of blasphemy and irreverence toward the canonical stories of Christianity. While Life of Brian is a popular comedic classic and Agora is an acclaimed art-house film, they share an interest in re-evaluating Christian “truths,” implicitly questioning why audiences welcome different depictions of Jason and his Argonauts, for example, but not of Jesus and his followers.
Anise K. Strong

17. Divine Animation: Clash of the Titans (1981)

Clash of the Titans (1981) is not for purists.1 While the film focuses on the hero Perseus (Harry Hamlin), renowned for beheading Medusa and rescuing the princess Andromeda from a sea monster, it presents some striking changes to the classical myth. The winged stallion Pegasus no longer springs from the decapitated Gorgon’s body, nor does he abandon Perseus in mid-story. Rather, he is the last of Zeus’ sacred herd, tamed by the hero and transformed into a trusty steed. The goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith) plays an unexpectedly crucial role, as does her son—not Achilles, as in the Homeric poems, but the monstrous invention Calibos (Neil McCarthy, in close-ups), who replaces Phineus as Perseus’ traditional rival for Andromeda (Judi Bowker). Finally, the film boasts a rather peculiar conception of the Titans promised in its title. The many anthropomorphic children of Ouranos (Sky) and Gaia (Earth) are replaced by Medusa and the Kraken, the latter imported from Scandinavian lore to supplant the generic Greek sea monster.2
Dan Curley


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