Not The Perseus You’re Looking For

Over at Salon, Martha Nichols asks, why can’t Hollywood make good mythic movies?

Watching the trailer for “Clash of the Titans,” I know as surely as the Oracle of Delphi that this movie will be foul. A remake of the 1981 film — fantasy classic to some, pure hokum to others — it will swoop upon us April 2.

Here’s what I wonder: Why has no halfway decent director made a film about the Greek gods and their attendant nymphs and heroes? I don’t mean contemporary retellings like “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.” I mean a movie that re-creates the Greek gods on their own terms.

Think about what James Cameron or Peter Jackson could do with this material — the original stuff from Hesiod and Ovid and Apollodorus, which is so much better than toga-clad extras and grunts fighting giant scorpions.

We could expand this question: why can’t Hollywood make good movies? (which are our myths)

Like Martha Nichols, I’m a huge fan of mythology and like all mythology buffs, I was weened on that particular sub genre known as Greek Mythology.[1] This is where a lot of our culture comes form and some of the greatest, most dramatic stories are told there. But they remain only on paper. The thin shadows of these tales that get made into films are a disappointment, because they lack the scale, the grandeur and the sheer weirdness of the source material. The reaosn is simple: money.

Hollywood movies cost tens of millions of dollars to make.[2] And being concerned with the bottom line before anything else (if anything else, sometimes), producers want a sure thing. That means shaving off the sharp points that might cut or sting and hacking off anything that might offend the small minded bigotries of Real Americans.[3] So: no art for you. All that incestuous, bloody tragedy, that lascivious intent and dark, squirming beauty that makes the myths live is omitted. Instead, we get soldiers killing monsters and saving the (always white, usually blond) princess. Sweet dreams and good night. Don’t think too hard about what it might mean, it’s just shadows on the cave wall.

Which is a shame because if you were to make a straight up, bloody myth, with gods and goddesses scheming and plotting for petty reasons and thwarting the dreams of man, you could make millions.[4] There’s a reason these stories have persisted for three thousand years: they speak to our hearts and tell us about ourselves. Whenever you watch a  movie and feel it’s lacking something but can’t tell what– this is what! It lacks the tragic beauty of myth.

1. Fun fact: the Greek myths aren’t all Greek. They come from a wide range of cultural source material, some of it Egyptian, some of it Persian, all filtered through a loose conglomeration of Greek authors who lived centuries apart and came from different Hellenic cultures, even. Greece isn’t a huge place but it was by no means a monocutlure. it was more like the crossroads where a dozen different cultures (Spartan, Mycenaean, Thracian, Athenian, etc.) all met and swapped their best stories. It was the original crossover comics, the first mash ups. You think adding zombies to Jane Austen novels was fun? How about a movie where the Athenians fight the zombie armies of Hades? You don’t really even have to stretch the myth too far to fit it in.

2. These days, the big tent pole action pictures start their budgets at 100 mil. Avatar cost 500 mil. Half a billion dollars. There are countries in Europe with GDP smaller than one movie. This is why the story that movie tells is so bland and predictable. In order to recoup that much cash, there was no room to take chances.

3. We used to call them yokels. Now, they’re the GOPs base and their Queen, Sarah Pallin, is jealous and petty, like any good would-be goddess.

4. And as Nichols points out, making the cast more multicultural would actually be closer to the source material, so your world market comes built in.

The Endless Library

James Grimmelmann has written a paper outlining a coherent information policy for Borges’ Library of Babel.(PDF version here) He compares it’s vastness and multitudes, which contain not just all books in the universe but all possible books (including impossible and imaginary ones) to the Internet. It’s one of those rare confluences between Library wonk and lit nerd that is intriguing and fun to read. If you’re into that sort of thing.*

Link via Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing.

Reading Harry Potter in America

Ron Charles, Literary Critic for the Washington Post, has a problem with Harry Potter:

But all around me, I see adults reading J.K. Rowling’s books to themselves: perfectly intelligent, mature people, poring over “Harry Potter” with nary a child in sight. Waterstone’s, a British book chain, predicts that the seventh and (supposedly) final volume, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” may be read by more adults than children. Rowling’s U.K. publisher has even been releasing “adult editions.” That has an alarmingly illicit sound to it, but don’t worry. They’re the same books dressed up with more sophisticated dust jackets — Cap’n Crunch in a Gucci bag.

Many of those adults who are reading Harry Potter may not have time to read Serious Literature, because they’re too busy trying to figure out how they’re going to pay their overly bloated mortgage, keep their kids in a school that isn’t hamstrung by NCLB, or pay for health care. Perhaps if our American Culture wasn’t so money obsessed and corporatized, adults would have some extra leisure time to read other novels as well. But they don’t and so most of them won’t. But some will. Surprising as it may sound– shocking, even to lit snobs like Charles, some of us Harry Potter fans also read other Serious Literature (though I will be setting aside Against the Day for Deathly Hollows. That’s just how it’s going to play out).

Continue reading “Reading Harry Potter in America”

Loosing Shakespeare

I’ve been reading The Book of Lost Books on my lunch breaks and it’s fascinating stuff. Take for example, the lost Shakespeare play, Cardenio.

Cardenio was known to have been performed at least on one occasion in 1613, by the King’s Men, the London troupe that Shakespeare wrote most of his plays for. The text was attributed to both William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, a playwright of equal fame during the time. Not much was known about the story of Cardinio, other than that it was thought to be a loose adaptation of an episode from Don Quixote, the first English translation of which had reached London in 1612.

In 1727, Lewis Theobald, a well known Shakespearean scholar and editor, claimed to have obtained three Restoration-era manuscripts of an unnamed play by Shakespeare, which he edited (with improvements) and released under the title Double Falshood. This had hardly settled the matter of the missing Shakespeare by any means, as Theobald refused to show anyone the three manuscripts that he claimed as his source and they were later thought destroyed in a fire in 1806.

What’s more fascinating than this is that we have as many of Shakespeare’s plays as we do. Given the fragility of paper and our generally moist climate, and the habit of religious fanatics for burning everything that disagrees with their narrow minded fairy tales, it’s amazing any literature has survived this long.

The old claims of bias against non western literature is silly in the face of all this. It’s not that academics or librarians have discarded non-European literature, it’s that so little of any literature has survived. It’s only by chance that some of Europe’s literary heritage managed to be preserved at all and we should appreciate what we have, not fret over why this or that piece was lost.

You Are What You Read

John Dickerson at Slate wants to know why GW was reading the Stranger on his Vacation:

On his summer vacation in Crawford, Texas, George Bush read Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger. I’m not sure what to make of this. It’s usually college freshmen who suddenly take up the French existentialist’s slim volume, and then usually to impress some literature major with wavy hair.

[…] Whatever the reasons, Camus’ story line is ripe for geopolitical literary misinterpretation. The main character, Meursault, spends much of his life as the young George Bush did, engaging in escapades that demonstrate little drive or motivation. On a visit to the beach with friends, he gets into a fight with some Arabs. Later, he finds one of the Arabs and without much further provocation shoots him repeatedly. During the circus-trial that follows, and the long hours Meursault spends in jail, he is remorseless and unable to engage in contemplation. On the day of his execution, he has a flickering thought that he might have lived another life. But mostly he’s excited about the day and hopes that everyone will cheer for his death.

[…] This is no time to be vague. The president uttered the word “crusade” a single time when talking about fighting terrorists and critics in Europe and the Middle East still use it as proof that his war aims are motivated by 11th-century wide-eyed religious zealotry. Surely someone is going to think that Bush read the book because he identifies with Meursault. There’s got to be another explanation. Does his experience in Iraq push him to read works replete with themes of angst, anxiety, and dread? Was the president trying to gain insight into the thinking of Europeans who are skeptical of his plan for democracy in the Middle East, founded as it is on the idea of a universal rational essence that existentialists reject? Did he just want to read something short for his truncated vacation? This may be the first time that national security demands an official version of literary criticism. We want a book report!

One can only speculate. The cynic in me wants to say that he was just going for a short read. He thought it was the cliff notes to a much longer work (something involving sexy strangers who like leather boots and stern looks, dropping by a ranch to pay a lonesome cowpoke a visit?) The navel gazer wants to believe that, after fifty years of aimless drifting, he is having a late life awaking. That his mind, suddenly sober with the sight of all the carnage it has wrought in the Arab world, craves introspection and so he reached for the one familiar piece of introspective literature at hand (perhaps one of the twins left it laying around after scouring their old college books, looking for booze money tucked between the pages?) Or maybe he didn’t read it at all, just carried it around in the hopes of lookin’ smart to all them French folk that are trying to clean up his mess with the help of the UN over in Syria? We may never know. And it is probably fruitless to even ask.