Myths in the movies

There is an abundance of movies loosely based on mythologies coming out these days. Take note on the phrase “loosely based.” I don’t understand why critics and other commentators take issue with these pictures taking their liberty of playing around with their source material, especially when the source material itself is not really immutable. Off the top of my head, I can’t say this for sure regarding Norse myths, but the Greeks had very diverse, and contradicting, stories to tell about their deities anyway.

Besides, I think being “alive” is the most valuable aspect of mythology, and it’s what sets it apart from normal, publishing-house fiction. Myths are fascinating not only because they’re really engaging stories, but because they’re tales that address our deepest questions about the world around us. How did we come to be? How did the sky, mountains and seas come to exist? Why does the sun rise from the east and set in the west? Mythologies reflect the hopes and dreams of the societies that created them. They’re social products in the fullest sense; they’re genuine records of culture.

Spinning your own tale out of ancient lore by itself therefore shouldn’t be so bad. What’s really problematic is the quality of the resulting films. To base a movie on myths is to ride on a formidable wave of familiar characters and stories, to capitalize on a seemingly universal desire to experience in visual glory all the scenes that for so long were only accessible through oral traditions and the written word. And what the critics are right about in their analyses is that the movies coming out these days are merely thin, low-quality audio-visual layers taking advantage of the firm, rich foundation of classical narrative content.

There’s mythology, and then there’s Hollywood mythology. There’s the Greek canon with its ensemble of complex, troubled characters reflecting the values and perspectives of ancient Greek culture, and then there’s Hollywood with their plain plots, flat characters, and splashy visual effects reflecting the values and perspectives of contemporary American culture. Movies based on myths are understandably more expensive to produce, given the higher visual effects budgets required, but why do they have to sacrifice the quality of the films’ other aspects? Is this all about economics, of the market getting what they want, of the audience getting what they deserve?

Here’s to hoping better mythological movies come out eventually.


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