Beware of flicks bearing myths

Debra J. Saunders

5/13/2004 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

 "So, is Brad Pitt a good guy or a bad guy?" I hear a man behind me ask as I sit at a screening for "Troy," the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Pitt plays Achilles, the not-so-good Greek hero of Homer's "Iliad."
 
So it's clear the audience hasn't read Homer or doesn't know that Hollywood took his epic and whittled it down to a pic.

 Too bad. The makers of the movie did a number of things right. Pitt is the perfect Achilles -- bronzed, muscular, ruthless and entirely absorbed in amassing personal fame. He's "a temperamental superstar," UC Berkeley Classics Professor Stephen Miller said of Achilles (or could have said of Pitt).

 It is well cast. Peter O'Toole steals the show as Troy's King Priam; Sean Bean works as Odysseus. Julie Christie has the star-power to play Achilles' mother Thetis.

 The Trojan horse manages to inspire awe without looking like a special effect, even if the producers shorted the heartbreaking scenes of the Trojans welcoming the lethal gift.

 Why does Hollywood feel a need to take an exceptional tale but then twist it into the same old story? Unlikable guy becomes likable -- again and again. Or as the press kit explains: Achilles' "insatiable hunger for eternal renown" leads him to Troy, "but it will be love that ultimately decides his fate."

 It is as if the writer didn't even bother with the CliffsNotes or to read the first line of the epic poem. Hint: "The Iliad" is about "The Wrath of Achilles." It's not about Achilles turning into Mr. Sensitivity.

 "The Iliad'' is about an old code of honor and conquest. The characters in "Troy" are New Age apostles who regurgitate the same sound bites and psycho-babble you can hear any night on TV.

 It's ironic that this politically correct version of "The Iliad" dispenses with Achilles' most intimate attachment, fellow warrior Patroclus. They're too close for a buddy movie.

 Enter the Beautiful-Yet-Spunky Young Woman, Briseis, who in Homer's story is a piece of chattel, won in battle after Achilles slaughters her husband and family.

 In celluloid "Troy," she's a virgin who is "seemingly the only person alive who isn't awed by Achilles' personal power." (That's from the press kit, and not remotely true in the movie. Briseis, after all, saw Pitt without his loincloth.) Rose Byrne, who plays the part, explains that her character "becomes the emotional core of Achilles."

 Emotional core? In Achilles' world, that's the solar plexus.

 I can forgive that the war in "Troy" seems to take a few weeks, not the 10 years recounted in Homer's "Iliad." Still, it would have made for a more interesting movie if the script portrayed the steel of men who would fight for a brutal decade, Professor Miller noted.

 Need I mention that "Troy" The Movie dispenses with every mortal female character over 35? There's no Cassandra to warn Troy of its pending doom, only to be ignored. (If she were in the cast, she'd be warning viewers: "They've ruined the ending.") Gone are the middle-aged wives of Greece's middle-aged kings.

 But the most egregious change in "Troy" is that the script kills Agamemnon and Menelaus before they return to Greece. That's analogous to having Pontius Pilate issue a reprieve for Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ."

 In Homer, a victorious Agamemnon returns to Mycenae with his battle booty, Cassandra, in tow. There his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover kill Agamemnon in the bathtub. (That's her revenge for his blood sacrifice of their daughter.) This is one of the great twists in Homer's tale -- but they're gone in the movie.

 On screen however, Briseis somehow changes from an anti-war virgin to a liberated female Rambo; she kills Agamemnon. There's no need to make Briseis kill the king, said UC Berkeley Classics Professor Anthony Bulloch. "The Greeks already thought of that." And there's so much more comeuppance in Agamemnon dying by the hand of a wronged wife and mother.

 Miller fears that schoolkids, having seen the movie, now won't believe the book. "It sounds like you're better off if you haven't read Homer," he said. No lie.

 It's not that "Troy" is a bad movie. It's a good movie -- if you don't care about Homer. It could have been a great movie if the people who created it cared about the power of this fantastic tale.