Sunday, September 21, 2008

Camelot! Camelot! (It's only a CGI effect.)

Yes, I watched the BBC's new fantasy series, Merlin.

Good things about Merlin:

Unlike the last two screen examples of Arthuriana, I've seen, King Arthur and The Last Legion, there is no attempt here to do a 'historical Arthur'. Instead, it's all set in a timeless quasi-mediaeval fantasy world (seemingly using leftover sets and costumes from Robin Hood). In general, I approve. When Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes wrote down these stories, the main fonts from which all subsequent versions come, they set them in a timeless mediaeval fantasy world. Doing a historical Arthur strikes me as slightly missing the point.

Gwen from Torchwood! Actually showing more acting skills than she's ever displayed in that role.

Bad things:

Richard Wilson's frightwig is rather unsettling.

The music, overly dependent on Howard Shore, and over-emphasizing the emotional content of each scene, which seems to be the fashion these days.

And there's not much of a sense of otherness about Camelot. Everyone talks, behaves, even to a degree dresses as if this is 2008 London. Roll that up with a bunch of cliches (the bullying prince, the servant who saves everyone but can't tell), and, though this is not bad, it doesn't climb much above most other semi-competent Arthur versions.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Forthcoming films?

There's a Facebook group for people interested in Classical reception studies. I don't look at it as often as I should, though it's pretty quiet most of the time. When I looked today, there was a news item with a list of Greek and Roman themed films that we can look forward to, nine in total (and that list leaves out John Boorman's Memoirs of Hadrian, and I, Claudius, which has just leapt back to life with Jim Sheridan supposedly attached). And I found myself wondering, how many of these films will ever get made. I may be cynical, but I'd be surprised if more than ten percent actually appear in a cinema.

All these projects are in 'pre-production'. What this means is that people have talked about maybe making a movie. Perhaps some actors have been sounded out. Maybe even a script is being laboured over somewhere. But only a small proportion of films that get announced as in pre-production ever actually get made. As Gideon Nisbet says, advance publicity is 'so much hot air until someone starts nailing a set together'. So, Variety may announce that Zak Penn, writer of X-Men 3 and The Incredible Hulk, has signed with Twentieth-Century Fox as writer and producer of The Argonauts, but that doesn't mean that they are committed to putting serious money behind it, however much the publicity department may talk as if this is the case. Reading between the lines, it looks like this is a pet project of Penn's, that he's got some money out of Fox to write a script for. What will become of it depends on a variety of different, and unpredictable factors, not all of them relating to quality.

Last year, for instance, there was much talk of a film of Robert Harris' novel Pompeii, to be directed by Roman Polanski. Plans were afoot to begin filming in Italy, with Orlando Bloom and Scarlett Johansson 'in talks' (another term which, like 'pre-production', covers a multitude of sins) to star. Then the project was delayed due to the possibility of a strike by the Screen Actors Guild, Polanski couldn't commit to the revised schedule, and various distributors pulled out. No new director has been assigned since Polanski left, and though the film still appears on the Internet Movie Database, it seems to me not unreasonable to assume that the project is dead in the water.

What's happening at the moment is that the success of 300 last year has encouraged studios to look at more similar ideas, in the hope of repeating that film's success. The present vogue for films adapted from comic books is also a factor; Hercules: The Thracian Wars is a comic that has been optioned. But this is just a cycle that comes and goes. People talked up the epic when Gladiator was a hit, then talked it down again when Alexander flopped. If Watchmen tanks, comic book films may go out of fashion.

So, I don't expect to see most of the films that have been announced. Some I'm sure will never happen. Vin Diesel has been trying to get his Hannibal the Conqueror since at least 2002. No-one seems interested (Gideon Nisbet has an interesting examination of why this might be in Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture), and I certainly don't believe IMDb's suggestion that it will get a release in 2009, when not a frame of film seems to have yet been shot. Even the animated prequel, which at one point had its own webpage, suggesting it might really happen, seems to have gone into limbo.

Of all these films, Boorman's Hadrian has the most chance of actually appearing. It's got a name director, a big name star in talks (Daniel Craig, or is is Antonio Banderas? Personally I'd like to see Peirce Brosnan in the role, but that's just me, I guess), and a schedule to start filming next spring. But it's currently no more solid a prospect than Pompeii was this time last year, just before it all fell apart. For a film to get made requires not just the allocation of a budget, but some serious spending of it, not just on rights and scripts (relatively cheap in the overall scheme of things), but on locations, and sets and actors.

Once that investment starts, a film can survive all sorts of disasters, and usually (though not always) will make it to the screen. Gladiator's second script got thrown out just before filming started, and Oliver Reed died before completing his scenes, and that still got to the multiplexes. Of course, sometimes it takes a while, if the execs are worried that their project isn't any good; The Last Legion was delayed by over a year.

I'd love to be able to see a classically-based film in the cinema about every other month over the next two years. The Hadrian and Claudius pics have the potential to be classy pieces of work. But until the cameras start rolling, I'm not holding my breath.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The matter of Troy

By coincidence, my last trip to the comics shop I patronize produced the last issue of Marvel Illustrated: The Iliad, and the latest issue of Age of Bronze. Which gives an opportunity to compare two completely different approaches to reinterpreting the Trojan War.

When people retell the tales of Troy, there are four aspects that I think are always worth looking at (these are notions I've developed partly out of conversations I've had with the likes of Nick Lowe, Paula James and Lynn Fotheringham, so they deserve credit). First, there's the issue of the 'canon'. Most of us know these stories in their most famous versions, and this can sometimes lead to imagining that they are fixed in that form. This tends to manifest itself in attacks by some classicists on retellings for 'changing things', which was the fate of Wolfgang Petersen's film Troy. Other treatments stick pretty closely to the received version, such as Daniel Morden and Hugh Lupton's version of The Iliad, which, as I recall (it's a while since I saw it), only deviates in certain minor details (and even this received criticism from some quarters). In fact, the 'canon' is a mirage. Euripides, Chaucer and Shakespeare did not feel themselves bound by Homer, and it is unfair to expect modern writers to be (see here for a fuller discussion of this in relation to Petersen's film).

Then there's the scope of the retelling. Most versions choose to tell 'the story of the Trojan War', from the rape of Helen to the Wooden Horse; Petersen's Troy fits into this, as does Lindsay Clarke's The War At Troy, and indeed Morden and Lupton's work. But Greek and Latin versions don't do this (as far as I'm aware - I may have missed something minor on this point). For an ancient author, the Trojan War was like World War II is to modern writers, a background against which to tell stories, rather than a story in its own right.

Thirdly, the attitude to the gods. Most modern treatments don't like the gods - they don't know how to cope with them. So they get removed, along with most other elements of the fantastic, leaving little more than prophetic dreams. Again, Troy is a good example of this.

Finally, there's homosexuality. Homer does not emphasize a sexual side to the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and it can be argued that he did not intend one to be read into his writings. Nevertheless, people have done so, ever since the fifth century BC at the latest, and it is a potential nightmare for anyone coming to the story in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Play the relationship up, and conservative critics will attack the work - but play it down, and activists will comment on the removal of a gay subtext. This happened to Troy, though I have suggested (in a piece for CA News in June 2006) that, whilst the film plays the gay relationship down in the dialogue, it is restored in the visual semiotics.

So how do these comics stack up against these points? Marvel's Iliad is part of a line of retellings of well-known literature, taking up the mission of the Classics Illustrated line. So it is the Iliad, not the tale of Troy. A prelude explains the background, but writer Roy Thomas sees no reason to add a postscript describing the final fall of Troy - the comic ends where Homer ends, with the funeral of Hector. In terms of the Homeric canon, obviously there are no conflicts. There is much omitted, as you'd expect when compressing twenty-four books of poetry into eight issues of a comic, but no changes.

And the gods are present. When you actually think about it, this is hardly unexpected, even were it not for the requirement to tell the Iliad, in which the gods are crucial. Roy Thomas has been writing superhero comics since 1965, in which gods like Hercules and Thor have regularly featured. So it's not too surprising that he has no issue with writing the gods here. If anything, they come across as better rounded characters - Thomas seems to have enjoyed writing the gods more than writing the heroes.

Pity about the art by Miguel Angel Sepulveda. It's serviceable, and at least it's not ugly in the way a lot of superhero art is these days. But all the women look like Californian porn stars, and Athena is dressed up like an Amazon from Xena: Warrior Princess.

Eric Shanower's award-winning Age of Bronze is a different matter entirely. Shanower is very definitely telling the story of Troy, according to the ancient accounts, except carefully writing out the gods, beyond the dreams of Cassandra and other prophets. Key events of divine intervention, such as the Judgment of Paris or Iphigenia being spirited away from the sacrificial altar, are reported, by people who may not be telling the truth. It's meticulously drawn and meticulously researched. Shanower makes sure to set the War against the geopolitical background of the twelfth century B.C., so far as that is known. Everyone is clothed in Bronze Age outfits, in contrast to Marvel Illustrated: The Iliad, where the arms and armour of historical Greece are depicted.

The trouble is, it's also very slow. Shanower is determined to get every part of the 'Trojan story', so we have seen the stories of Telephus, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the story of Palamedes. Every possible author, from Homer and Aeschylus, down to obscure Latin playwrights like Accius, is drawn upon. As a result, ten years and twenty-seven years down the line, and we're only just getting to the first Greek attack on Troy. This amount of characters makes it difficult to keep track of who's who (especially on the Trojan side, where many of the main characters look alike). And combining so many different stories means that, as a whole, Age of Bronze lacks dramatic shape.

Besides, setting the story in an authentic historical background may seem like a good idea, but I can't help but feeling that, like 'historical' King Arthur stories, it's ever so slightly missing the point. These are timeless legends, that have become unshackled, at least to a degree, from whatever historical origins they may have had, and exist in an invented time that never truly was. In that respect, Sepulveda's Corinthian helmets, and the like, which look right to the general reader, are perhaps truer to the spirit of Homer, who happily mixed up elements remembered from the past and from his own time, than are Shanower's boar's-tusk helmets, which are right for the Late Bronze Age.

Shanower does make explicit a sexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, something Marvel Illustrated: The Iliad doesn't really engage with (but then neither does Homer, so you can see why). But Shanower does this in a very twenty-first century way. Achilles meets Patroclus, falls in love with him, and immediately loses all interest in his wife Deidamia. To me, this doesn't really accord with Greek attitudes.

I feel quite bad about my reaction to Shanower's work. It's beautifully drawn, an obvious labour of love, and unquestionably, it's a more serious piece of art than Marvel Illustrated: The Iliad. But the latter seems in some respects a little more successful.