WE first fell in love with world literature when we became acquainted with the Greek classics the Iliad (about the Trojan War) and the Odyssey (the travels of Odysseus), epic poems written by Homer. But we learned about them first from the movies that we saw in grade school.
We saw the Iliad in “Helen of Troy” (about the forbidden romance of Helen, wife of Menelaus of Sparta, and Paris, a prince of Troy) directed by Robert Wise in 1956 starring stunning Italian actress Rosanna Podesta and French actor Jacques Sernas.
We became familiar with the Odyssey through “Ulysses” in 1954 starring Kirk Douglas as Ulysses or Odysseus, the king of Ithaca who got lost at sea after participating in the Trojan War, and Silvana Mangano as his patient wife, Penelope. In 1994, there was an epic reboot of Iliad in “Troy”, with Brad Pitt as Achilles, Orlando Bloom as Paris and Diane Kruger as Helen. There are other versions but these are the more popular ones.
Now, there’s an 8 episode miniseries co-produced by BBC and Netflix, “Troy: Fall of a City”, and they made many changes from the versions we saw before. The story starts with Troy’s queen, Hecuba (Frances O’Connor), giving birth to their youngest son, Alexander, but the baby boy was taken away because of a deadly prophecy and he grew up with shepherds in the mountains as Paris.
Later, his parents are able to trace him back due to a birthmark and the long missing Prince Alexander (Louis Hunter) is tasked to sail to Sparta to bring some gifts to King Menelaus (Jonas Armstrong).
He meets the king’s wife, Helen (Bella Dayne), and they fall in love. When Alexander boards his ship to return to Troy, he doesn’t know that Helen has hidden in a trunk to join him for good. Of course, Menelaus is outraged and calls on other Greek kings to help him get back his perfidious wife. And thus begins the Trojan War that raged on for 10 long years.
What differentiates the TV series is that it incorporates the Greek gods and goddesses that are omitted in the previous versions. For instance, in the very first episode, an encounter of Paris/Alexander with the gods who appear as human-like characters seals his fate with Helen and the city of Troy.
He favored the goddess of beauty Aphrodite or Venus and she predicted his meeting with Helen. The gods have a fairly big role at the start of the show but Zeus tells them to stop meddling in human affairs so their participation is lessened, but in the Iliad, they didn’t listen to Zeus at all and did as they please.
Another great change is in casting black actors David Gyasi in the role of Achilles and Hakeem Kazim as Zeus, roles that are usually played by white actors.
A big alteration is in the interpretation of Helen, usually portrayed as demure and submissive. The Helen here is more empowered in claiming her place in a society dominated by men.
Also totally changed is the matter of the Trojan Horse. In the past movies, Odysseus devised a way for Greek soldiers to enter the walled city of Troy by hiding in a giant wooden horse which became known as the Trojan Horse. The Greeks hid inside and the Trojans brought it inside their city thinking it’s a peace offering. When the Trojans went to sleep, the Greek soldiers then massacred them.
Here, the Trojan Horse contained grains for food so the starving Trojans excitedly brought it inside their fortified city. It’s Helen who connives with Odysseus (Joseph Mawle) and Menalaus to open the gates of the city to let the marauding Greek soldiers in.
This series ends with a last shot of Odysseus on board the ship that will take them back to Greece. But those familiar with his story in the Odyssey know that he will be wandering for ten more years before he gets finally back home to his wife Penelope and their son, Telemachus, by then a grown up.
In “Troy: Fall of a City”, it is shown that Odysseus is cursed by Andromache (Chloe Pirri), the wife of Hector (Tom Weston), for killing her infant son, so he is punished by the gods. Maybe the producers of this series are thinking that they’ll make the Odyssey as a follow up, but “Troy” didn’t really click with audiences in spite of the obvious expense in making it.
Maybe today’s millennial audiences who enjoyed “Game of Thrones” more can no longer connect with such an old tale from Classic 101, which has actually been told and retold many times before. At 8 episodes, you can also really feel they’re just stretching it. After this, we can expect no more remakes of this very familiar story in the near future.
One of the survivors in the Trojan War is Aeneas, who will later on have his own story in “Aeneid”, the Latin epic written by Virgil. If “Troy” clicked with today’s audiences, they’d probably make a series about the wanderings of Aeneas (also played here by another black actor, Alfred Enoch.)
We’re thinking another reason “Troy” didn’t sit well with modern viewers is because of the lackluster cast that are mostly nameless. The actor chosen to play Paris has dynamic star quality to be a romantic hero, but the actress chosen to play Helen doesn’t look like she can really launch a thousand ships. Her acting is also so wooden. In that scene where Menelaus is killing Paris right in front of her, she looks so expressionless.
Also, when Paris meets her, she already has a teenage daughter, so that means she’s older than him. You’d really wonder why Paris would fall for her. The best Helen for us is still the flawless Rosanna Podesta of our childhood days. Wonder whatever happened to her after appearing in other sword and sandal costume films like “Fury of the Pagans”, “Slave of Rome” and “The Golden Arrow”.