Myth, Journey and Triumph in Cinema

Ancient storytelling is frequently used in modern times, no more so than in film. I find that even aside from direct representations, such as O Brother Where Art Thou (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2000) which is based on the Odyssey, ancient references are unavoidable in cinema today. Especially considering that everything builds upon something else, so modern cinema is derived from vaudeville and theatre which is in turn based on ancient Greek drama. There has always been a concept that performances are there for entertainment, as indicated by Aeschylus presenting his tragedy as an “augury of a happy life” (Wise, Arethusa, 2008).

One of the more obvious examples for me, would be the film Chi-Raq (Spike Lee, 2015) which is based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (see Aristophanes and Parker, 2009). This is the story of women withholding sex from their husbands in an attempt to stop the Peloponnesian war. In this modern adaptation, we see a bunch of women incited by the murder of a child. The reference to all out war is found in the title, which is a controversial combination of ‘Chicago’ and ‘Iraq’ which was used to highlight Chicago’s high crime rates in comparison with the war in Iraq. Additionally, the two rival gangs in this film are dubbed the ‘Spartans’ and the ‘Trojans’ led by Demetrius and Cyclops, respectively. While this film makes an amusing play on names and titles, it uses a modern setting for an ancient comedy in a very unique and enjoyable way. The core ideals and motivators behind the women of the film directly mirror the desires that drove the women of the ancient comedy, and while the film has a dark and gritty subject matter, is it interspersed with moments of humour just like an ancient play would have been performed.

Additionally, it is unsurprising that Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos takes inspiration from Greek history. His film The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017) is explicitly mirrored by Euripides’ play Iphigenia at Aulis (see), which is also speculated to have been also mentioned in Homer’s epic, The Iliad (see Homer and Green, 2015). Direct reference to ancient drama can be seen throughout the film’s uneasy premise of the necessity of a father sacrificing his daughter for the greater good of a new realm and the audience grows increasingly uncomfortable watching an ordinary family go through an unfortunate bizarre situation, as it is likely an ancient audience would have felt while watching Euripides. The very concept of this film is rooted in tragedy, because, no matter what decisions are made or outcomes are reached, an innocent person is going to die. The barbaric nature of this myth is represented by the growing unease throughout this film, as those who know the story become increasingly aware of what tragedy is about to happen.

The Sacrifice of Iphigeneia (1653) by Sébastien Bourdon

You definitely gain a sense of dramatic irony watching these films when you know the ancient precedence behind them, which makes them all the more enjoyable. There are many films, however, that implicitly and unconsciously borrow from Greek myths, and these examples are perhaps even more fascinating as they demonstrate the longevity of these stories and their continued importance. The 70s film Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), for example, implicitly evokes the cyclical nature and ever present doom of a Greek tragedy that even Sophocles would have been proud of. A reverse of Oedipus Rex can be seen in Noah (John Huston) and Evelyn (Faye Dunaway)’s relationship, and Evelyn getting shot in the eye mirrors Oedipus’ gouging of his eyes at the climax of the story. Ultimately, as in Greek tragedy, it becomes evident that no matter what takes place or actions that follow, these characters are doomed to their fate from the opening credits. 

The Killing of A Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017) Image courtesy of Element Pictures

This aspect of myth is also present in Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014). It is an entirely cyclical film, and one that is based around the idea of transformation through a long and arduous journey. This is similar to the tale of The Odyssey (see Homer and Wilson, 2018), written five thousand years previously. The Odyssey has now become synonymous with the word and idea of an odyssey, which means a long and eventful journey or experience, and the story of Wild is exactly that. Wild tells the autobiographical story of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), a woman whose life has become overburden with loss and strife, which causes her twisted descent– from misusing drugs to the break up of her marriage–who decides to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. The tangential nature of The Odyssey which takes readers on a journey which is not quite chronological is mirrored by the flashbacks in the film which show instances and scenes from the childhood of Strayed. As was common in ancient myth, The Odyssey begins in medias res (in the middle of the story) which is also seen in the opening scenes of Wild. Strayed begins by thinking retrospectively of the journey which brought her to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, just as Odysseus’s strife causes him to begin the journey home to Troy. Book Five shows the hero Odysseus alone, and forced to throw the black protective veil given to him by Ino, Queen of Thebes, just as Strayed flings her boots over a cliff face in a moment of loneliness and desperation.

Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014) Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

First and foremost, The Odyssey is about a journey which leads home, a concept which is only realised in the last five minutes of Wild, when Strayed explains that the Bridge of the Gods, the final stretch of her journey, is near where she will marry her future husband and that she will later have a son. This culmination is akin to Odysseus revealing his identity in the final book and reuniting with his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus. The idea of a challenging journey is seen in both mediums as well. While the length of Odysseus’s journey outweighs Strayed’s ninety-four day hike by a decade, there is still the similarity of it being a seminal event, and that the passage of time causes an upheaval of their lives. Odysseus and Strayed are definitely not two characters who have frequently been compared, but Odysseus was not immediately portrayed as the hero he becomes. Like Strayed, in Book One, Homer displayed him as sulking and yearning for home, just as Strayed is searching for a home, and for meaning in her life. 

Modern cinema can be considered a form of ancient myth, as filmmakers are crafting carefully woven stories using lyric and imagery, all the while creating entertainment and a sense of belonging with their viewers. 

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