Written by Justin Biggi.
Released in 2018, the BBC-Netflix adaptation of Homer’s Iliad was met with mixed reviews, both from Classicists and internet trolls alike. The former had gripes with the characterisations, plot inconsistencies and (unsurprising) historical inaccuracies, while the latter were mostly angry that David Gyasi and Lemogang Tsipa, two black actors, had been cast in the roles of Achilles and Patroclus, respectively, and that they were shown as having an explicit sexual relationship on screen.
But there are things, despite the criticisms, that Troy: Fall of a City does differently and arguably better than other Iliad adaptations. In addition to a solid “colorblind” cast, which, alongside Gyasi and Tsipa, includes Alfie Enoch as Aeneas and Hakeem Kae-Kazim as Zeus, Fall of a City attempts to bring to the forefront not just the complexities of human interactions, but the inherent awe and terror that the gods carry in the epic.
This isn’t to say, however, that, in its attempts at complexity, the show doesn’t encounter a number of pitfalls. The show misunderstands who the true protagonists of the Iliad are, and more generally speaking, does not trust that the plot, characters, and events portrayed in the Iliad, and the surrounding corpus, will be enough to captivate a modern audience, often inventing plotlines or dramatically changing characters.
The show casts Paris as its entry-point character: a poor pig farmer, he is taunted by the princes of Troy and goaded into participating in a contest of strength, where he is recognised as the lost son of Priam and Hecuba by a birthmark. His elevation to prince is what leads to his meeting of Helen while on a diplomatic mission. The rest, of course, is history.
Unfortunately, Paris’ plotline in the show is, by far, the least interesting, and the show’s insistence on having him as the protagonist doesn’t do it any favours. The goddess he is seen interacting with the most is Aphrodite, who is portrayed as entirely benign – a far cry from the capricious goddess of the Iliad.
During a conversation between Paris and his adoptive father, Aphrodite and Zeus stand aside, unseen, and discuss what’s happening. Aphrodite asks Zeus to leave Paris alone, as the boy has “suffered enough.” Zeus refuses, claiming that “forgiveness isn’t [their] way.” This is not the only instance where Aphrodite is portrayed as overwhelmingly positive towards Paris, her protégé. She weeps when he dies. She often tries to intervene in his favour, speaking to gods and mortals to help him.
In the epic, Helen attempts to refuse Aphrodite’s order to go and sleep with Paris, whom the goddess has just spirited away from a fight he would have otherwise lost. Enraged, the goddess drags her there by force, berating and threatening her: “Don’t provoke me: as much as I love you, I can hate you just as much, and leave you to your fate”. The relationship shown between the two is far from the smooth sailing of Paris and Aphrodite’s’ in the show, and, in good hands, may have made the show interesting, giving Helen a complexity that most adaptations do not allow her. Perhaps, she could have even been the protagonist.
Conversely, the show is at its strongest when it chooses to portray mortal and divine relationships which are already in the book and surrounding mythos. Arguably the most intense, gut-wrenching scene in the show is when Agamemnon, aided by Odysseus, tricks his wife Clytaemnestra and his daughter Iphigenia into believing the girl is to marry Achilles. Instead, the goddess Artemis has decreed Iphigenia must be sacrificed in order for the Achean fleet to reach the city of Troy.
The episode features some of the best acting on the show, mostly thanks to Johnny Harris’ performance as the Greek king and general, transformed into a grieving father when placed face-to-face with the cruelty of his gods. Once his daughter is dead, killed by his own hand, he howls, asking the wind that has just risen and, it is implied, the gods, if this was enough. Artemis, of course, does not answer.
Had Fall of a City been written and directed by braver minds, the potential of a largely unimpressive show may have been fully realised, delivering a modern, intelligent retelling of the epic, more aware of the strengths of its source material.