When I was in Class X (that’s ‘Tenth Grade’ or ‘Tenth Form’ if you’re not from India), I was in the middle of a classicist phase. I hunted down translations of Greek and Latin epics, dabbled in Babylonian and Egyptian mythology just a bit more than is totally normal (like reading Theogony), and even memorised the opening of Gavin Douglas’s Eneados. It was cool and it got me attention that I wasn’t getting any other way, and it helped me carve a niche for myself in a class – indeed, a school – full of high achievers. Part of my ‘deal’, if you will, was telling people what a bad film Troy was.
I was very young and sheltered when Troy hit the screens, and I only remember seeing posters on walls, and thinking to myself that it must be about that Greek story with Helen and how they got her back. I didn’t watch Troy till I was in Class IX or X, and when I had, I decided it was terrible, particularly as an adaptation of the three books (or two books, if we leave out The Odyssey, which it doesn’t refer to much).
When I beheld the Poet blind, yet bold,
In slender Book, his vast Design unfold,
Messiah Crown’d, Gods Reconcil’d Decree,
Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree,
Heav’n, Hell, Earth, Chaos, All; the Argument
Held me a while misdoubting his Intent,
That he would ruine (for I saw him strong)
The sacred Truths to Fable and old Song
My feelings towards Troy were similar to Mr. Marvell’s early impression of Paradise Lost. The story of the siege of Troy is something exciting – Romantic in that it represents a culture whose worldview and language are foreign and enchanting, and spectacular for the scenes of passion and honour that come to us through the ages. When one has felt the thrill of hearing that story, one cannot wonder at Mr. Schliemann digging up a mask and proclaiming that it belonged to Agamemnon. One would hope with him that it really did.
To adapt this story to cinema is tempting in the extreme, since it is a story whose rudiments are known to virtually everyone, and whose themes and plot devices are so universally exciting. It is tempting, and temptation often ends in failure. This was what I felt had happened to Troy: some fools had assembled in Mexico and on some island and made a travesty of a venerated epic. My complaints were these:
- The divine machinery was gone. I say again, the divine machinery was gone, and nowhere to be found! The gods and demi-gods that make the Iliad what it is were absent. So was the legendary chain of events that lead to the war – I could name them then, and I shall try now – the Apple, Paris’s Arraignment, Iphigenia, and the like. These were vital to the larger narrative: they have been cited over centuries when debating free will and determinism. But they simply weren’t there in the film.
- The realism was something that bothered me. Instead of the gods, Agamemnon wanted to attack Troy just for conquest. Achilles wasn’t immortal, just quick on his feet. They were trying to make it an actual historical event, and that was unacceptable to me. It made me more upset than when I hear about Superman wearing his T-shirt on the job, or Batman in a suit of armour (that Jim Gordon controls, apparently).
- The plot had to be cut into shape to fit. It had to be a film, not an epic poem. While this was much less annoying, I didn’t like that Briseis and Chryseis were now the same person, or that Hollywood hunk Brad Pitt had been cast as Achilles (never mind his excellent acting in that and other films).
Thus, in brief, everything about Troy seemed petty, ridiculous, or disrespectful. I was an angry fanboy of the Hellenism franchise.
So what changed? Why do I keep using the past tense?
I changed. I gradually let off reading those things and, well, found other interests. I’m trying to remember what they were. The fact that I can’t think of any after some time shows that I must have been going through some things – and I was, but that is not our present concern. Suffice it to say that when I was in my final year of school, I found myself actively cultivating another field of learning: comic books. My favourite kind, I found, were origin stories (perhaps the precise opposite of most readers). I loved the post-Crisis origin stories of DC superheroes, and also Elseworlds. It didn’t take long for me to realise that I really enjoyed reading about a Batman evolving in different periods in history, from the Victorian era to an alternate reality where Puritanism was the state religion. You can see where this is going. I learned to love the archetype of a given hero, moulded into whatever character the writer could imagine. Superhero movies went a long way in shaping my taste, of course.
I don’t remember when, but one day, Troy was on TV, and as I watched, I stopped hating it. I had learned to observe themes, instead of the most superficial part of the story, and I realised how faithful the film had been to Homer’s poem. What is the poem about? Duty? Look no further than Eric Bana, who was so good as Hector that you could look at any one scene, and know who that man was even without knowing what the film was called. The Hector of the book did not look on Astyanax more dotingly, or treat Helen more kindly, than Bana. If the story is about unbridled passion, it is there in Achilles, in Agamemnon, in Menelaus, and even in Paris. The divine machinery is unnecessary if one looks at the finished product that is the film: Paris is not whisked off the battlefield to suddenly begin making love to Helen; instead, he is rescued, and expresses shame while his lover tries to console him. This segues very nicely into his training in archery and Achilles’ death. If the poem is about the motif of the shield and of free choice and destiny, it’s all there: Achilles does not heed his mother’s warning; Patroclus (his cousin here, slightly disturbingly) meets his fate; Achilles finds his classic motive to enter the war. Filial and marital bonds, the very real passions of human beings, the wiles of Odysseus, the funerals of two heroes – these remain, and it is these things that made the Iliad what it is. It is not a mockery or masque to feast the eyes and forget. It is not even the rather sunny Odyssey. It is that epic about the rage of Achilles and the fall of Troy; and when one watches Troy, one does not want Poseidon and Pallas to trouble themselves with sacking the city. The final lines of Odysseus are as sombre and sublime as Homer’s invocation, or as Solon’s words, ‘Call no man happy till the day he dies’.
I was not the only person to misunderstand Troy. A couple of years ago, I read a review that took issue with many things. One, as I recall, went something like this: ‘You can’t tell who the bad guys are! They made both seem like the good guys!’ As I recall, the phrase ‘good guys’ was used. I do not think myself likely to be mistaken in presuming that the speaker was unfamiliar with the source material. It is something we are all guilty of at some point of time. It is to this author that I direct this missive: ‘You’re not supposed to tell them apart, you oaf. That’s the whole point. They both have arguments going for them, and the story is a tragedy, not an American action movie with cars and planes and explosions.’ I confess that this strand of thought has stayed with me since that moment, and it’s nice to finally say it.
Troy taught me things. Of course, it’s a simulation of theories that political thinkers like to ponder on. Anyone who’s read Machiavelli or Hobbes knows that Priam is making mistakes. Hubris and hamartia are well explored, too. I think my conclusion should be as personal as the inception of this essay: I’m sorry I maligned this excellent film. It has a story to tell by adapting a book, and it does so with laudable taste and skill. I hope I’ll continue to enjoy it for years… hope that it won’t age, hope… that it becomes a classic in its turn.