Features Reviews

A Man of Constant Sorrows: Tracing Representations of Odysseus in 21st Century Cinema (Part One)

Written by Justin Biggi. Amongst the myriad of iconic characters that have sprung from the Homeric corpus, Odysseus has seen himself repeatedly re-invented throughout the ages. Two interpretations of the 21st century highlight just how varying depictions of the mythological sailor king can be.

Amongst the myriad of iconic characters that have sprung from the Homeric corpus, Odysseus, alongside Achilles and Helen, has seen himself re-invented, over and over, throughout the ages. Since his appearance in the original Homeric text, Odysseus has been re-incarnated and re-interpreted ever since: from sixth century black-figure pottery representing his numerous exploits, to 1998’s grizzled, modern-day Navy captain in Mark Merlis’ An Arrow’s Flight. We cannot forget, of course, Joyce’s utterly mundane Leopold Bloom. Nor has Odysseus ever shied away from film or television. He has been a constant subject matter since the very beginnings of blockbuster cinema, in the early twentieth century. This essay aims to explore two recent interpretations of Odysseus from 2004 and 2018, and to investigate the ways in which these two pieces of media choose to depict the most well-known sailor king of Classical mythology.  

We will begin with the most recent: Joseph Mawle’s role as Odysseus in the BBC and Netflix co-production, Troy: Fall of a City, released in 2018. Aiming for a more ‘complete’ re-telling of the Iliad, the show takes inspiration from additional, much later, texts, including Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca (second century CE) and Hyginus’ Fabulae (first century CE). It is from this tradition that the showrunners draw much of Odysseus’ backstory, including the episode where Palamedes – Diomedes in the show – exposes Odysseus for trying to trick his way out of the war. Odysseus feigns madness, relentlessly ploughing a rocky field. Palamedes/Diomedes sees through the ruse, and places Odysseus’ newborn son – a daughter in the show – in front of the plough. By stopping the plough before killing the child, Odysseus reveals his lie and must, therefore, come to Troy. The show depicts his departure from Ithaca as tearful; his devotion to his family and in particular to Penelope, who can barely stand watching him leave, as his driving motivation.  

Undoubtedly, Odysseus is supposed to be the emotional heart of the Greeks. Where all the other Greek heroes are larger-than-life – Achilles cynical to the point of disinterest, Menelaus rash and impulsive, Agamemnon arrogant and increasingly violent – he reacts with empathy, often acting as the voice of reason where others will not. He attempts to talk the Trojans into handing Helen over peacefully, and in the show devises the horse as a stratagem to get Menelaus into the city in order to retrieve Helen with no further bloodshed. He is one of the few Greeks who is able to maintain his humanity until the very end; his anguish is the same when he must convince Agamemnon to sacrifice his own daughter Iphigenia in episode 2 as it is in episode 8 when Agamemnon, turned despotic and cruel by ten years of war, forces him to throw Hektor’s infant child, Astyanax, from the ramparts of a now-destroyed Troy.  

Interestingly, the show attempts to marry this reading of Odysseus with his more traditional trickster side. But it is only half-hearted: his rues and lies always serve a greater purpose. He tricks Clytaemnestra into thinking Iphigenia is to marry Achilles to save her the pain of losing her daughter, he tricks Achilles into breaking the truce with the Trojans to hopefully conclude the war more quickly, and he devises the horse as a way to end the conflict with the least bloodshed possible. Of all the characters, he is never ambiguous, his motivations always fuelled by his implied generosity. As the wisest, he is one of the few who really understands the cost this war is demanding. His trickery is tamed down, his shrewdness de-fanged, and the consequences of his actions and decisions, no matter how cruel – he is, after all, the architect of a massacre – are mitigated by his inherent righteousness. Troy: Fall of a City‘s Odysseus is apparently a good man, forced to do terrible things.  

Much like his Netflix counterpart, Odysseus in Troy (2004) is the voice of reason amongst the ego clash of Achilles and Agamemnon. His motivation, overall, is the good of Greece. When Menelaus dies, a departure from the original texts, he first voices the thought that the Greeks should leave. When Agamemnon contests this, Odysseus argues that if they stay, they should stay for the sake of Greece and not a single man’s pride. Later on, following Patroclus, donning Achilles’ armour, being killed by Hektor, he is the one to agree to stop the fighting. He is shown reacting emotionally to the event and voices his worry that they have reached a point of no return.  

But for all his level-headedness and supposed wisdom, Sean Bean’s Odysseus does not have a single scheming bone in his body. In his introduction, present only in the director’s cut, we get a small taste of his shrewdness: he tricks Agamemnon’s emissaries into thinking he is but a shepherd, evidently a reference to his own disguise at the end of the Odyssey. But he himself reveals who he truly is, and he certainly doesn’t seem reluctant at the idea of going to war. In the theatrical edition, Achilles is the one to mention Odysseus’ “tricks”, but we do not see any of his supposed shrewdness until, of course, he devises the idea of the horse. Even then, it is a trickery born of sheer necessity: to avoid Agamemnon’s folly of ‘[smashing Troy’s] walls to the ground, if it costs [him] 40,000 Greeks’, Odysseus finds ‘a way to make the sheep dine with the wolves’ – Agamemnon’s words, not his.  

Odysseus’ narration bookends the beginning and the end of the movie. In this way, he is made the heart of the story, the emotional id of the audience. Though he is less present than in the Netflix adaptation, he still serves as the most human of the characters: the audience’s avatar.  

In both adaptations of the myth, Odysseus is seen by showrunners and scriptwriters alike as the most plausible emotional “in” for the audience. As a result, they find themselves compelled to tone down his less savoury aspects. For example, adaptations of the Iliad usually choose to remove the episode concerning Thersites entirely. Thersites is described as ‘the ugliest man who came beneath Ilion’ (Il. 2.216) and, when speaking out of turn towards Agamemnon, finds himself at the mercy of Odysseus’ anger. The Ithacan king beats him, leaving a ‘bloody welt … between his shoulders’ (Il. 2.267). Odysseus beats Thersites both because he is ugly, and because he spoke to someone greatly above his station.  

Nor are his actions any better in the Odyssey. Once returned home, Odysseus exacts terrible vengeance upon the suitors who have taken over his palace. He spares no one, not the men, whom he slaughters, nor the serving girls who, over the years, struck up relationships with them. In fact, on his orders, Telemachus kills the servants ‘so they might die pitiably’ (Od. 22.440) and hangs them from pillars like ‘[birds] caught in a snare’ (Od. 22.445).  

Adapting ancient works to a modern audience will always be difficult. Especially with ones which rely on cultural and societal norms so deeply removed from our own, such as the Homeric corpus, risking either alienating the audience, or sacrificing some of the complexities in favour of narrative ease. This is, of course, not to say that Troy: Fall of a City‘s Odysseus is a bad one (the jury is still out on Troy‘s, though not for lack of trying on Sean Bean’s part – he does as best he can with what little he is given). Narratively speaking, he serves his role well. He is, like most version of Odysseus before him, relegated to being the emotional core of the story, bringing much-needed humanity to the blood-soaked shores of Turkey. The ambiguity, the ill temper, the lies, and trickery are left to other characters, less trapped by the yoke of traditions of (re)interpretation. After all, it was Dante Alighieri who placed Odysseus in Hell, where all pagans belong… but it was Dante Alighieri who also made him say that men were not destined to live like beasts of burden, but rather to relentlessly seek knowledge and beauty.  

Written by Justin Biggi

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Homer, Iliad. Transl. by R. Lattimore. University of Chicago Press. 1951. 

–––, Odyssey. Transl. by A. S. Kline. PIT Press. 2004.  

Troy. Dir. by Wolfgang Petersen. Writ. by David Benioff. Warner Bros. Pictures. 2004.  

Troy: Fall of a City 1-8. Dir. by Owen Harris. Writ. by David Farr and Nancy Harris. Netflix/BBC. 2018.  

0 comments on “A Man of Constant Sorrows: Tracing Representations of Odysseus in 21st Century Cinema (Part One)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: