[The reviewer offers her sincere apologies for the lateness of this review.]
In answer to the perennial question of “whither Classics,” an increasing number of people in the field have been looking toward the commercial media where most people first encounter the stories and images that continue to capture the imagination of children and adults alike. The number of classicists who now produce substantial scholarly work in this area of reception studies has increased markedly over the past two decades, providing a basis for the next logical step: for instructors to integrate treatments of Greek and Roman narratives in popular culture into our courses, as objects of earnest and engaged study.
Bridging the divide between scholarship and instructional materials is a major goal of Salzman-Mitchell and Alvares’ book, Classical Myth and Film in the New Millennium. Oxford University Press is marketing the volume as a textbook, which the authors “hope…will be of interest both to college instructors and to students, as well as to scholars and a broad readership of myth and movie lovers.” (1) Speaking to such a diverse audience poses significant challenges, which publishers are asking authors who work in this area to meet in order to reach beyond the niche market for academic publications. Considering primarily the educational angle, this volume offers support to instructors by suggesting avenues of inquiry for teaching the selected films, which range from action-oriented blockbusters to young- adult franchises to art-house films. Although the book includes pull-out boxes with plot summaries, brief definitions of key terms, and discussion questions, students, especially in introductory or no-prerequisite courses, may struggle to process the book’s contents without significant assistance.
In their volume introduction (1-32), the authors clarify that they aren’t using film as a vehicle for teaching myth per se, for which readers should consult “mythological dictionaries, compendia, or…myth textbooks.” (1) Their focus is on “thoughtful interpretations of the myths and myth patterns that appear in our movies.” (1) Yet they also acknowledge that the almost inevitable disjuncture between “so-called canonical narratives” and cinematic versions of these narratives is a matter of concern for “purists” (2). Such fidelity criticism is a persistent anxiety in reception studies (addressed by e.g. Pantelis Michelakis, Greek Tragedy on Screen, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). The authors rightly prefer to embrace Martin Winkler’s focus (in Cinema and Classical Texts: Apollo’s New Light, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) on the dialectical dynamic within the still-developing classical tradition, in order to gain purchase on how receptions produce their own meaning. The introduction goes on to acknowledge further approaches that the authors will and will not pursue: most pervasive will be “myth theories” (12-23) that draw from literary adaptations of anthropological and psychoanalytic theory (especially the concept of archetypes, which is a major unifying idea across the book), while formalism in film studies and discussions of the industrial imperatives that influence commercial art will be de-emphasized.
The body of the volume is divided into five thematic parts, all of which are of potential interest to instructors of various courses commonly taught at the college level. The first, “Homeric Echoes,” treats Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy and the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? The second, “The Reluctant Hero,” treats Brett Ratner’s Hercules, the mini-franchise Clash and Wrath of the Titans, and Tarsem Singh’s Immortals. All of these films’ narratives are explicitly anchored in classical myth, but take various liberties with commonly taught mythic literature, therefore providing readers with clear test-cases for the authors’ aim of examining dialectical movements within the classical tradition. Most of the art-house films and young-adult franchises discussed in the latter three parts engage more obliquely with themes and characters from classical myth. Part III, “Women at the Margins,” treats two Spanish-language films, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Arturo Ripstein’s Such Is Life. Part IV, “Coming of Age in the New Millennium,” discusses Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Hunger Games, and Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Part V, “New Versions of Pygmalion,” analyzes Lars and the Real Girl and Ruby Sparks through a lens crafted by Paula James’ 2011 monograph, Ovid’s Myth of Pygmalion on Screen: In Pursuit of the Perfect Woman (Bloomsbury).
The authors are clearly very enthusiastic about their project. The chapters, each 20 to 30 pages long, are all brimming with observations. The choice to integrate less-familiar films into a volume that could easily have treated only movies that students likely have already seen is commendable. At its best, the authors’ choice to consider the concept of “myth” broadly creates opportunities to explore beyond the plots of classical literature. The chapter on Pan’s Labyrinth, for example, discusses the historical context for the film’s setting, after the Spanish Civil War, as a time when recourse to myth’s fantasy world might be necessary, and acknowledges the importance of the fairy tale as the generic framework for the film’s engagement with classical myth. The authors’ use of archetypes in analyzing the young heroine’s “Quest or coming-of-age myth” (193) invites engagement with classical myth as mediated by the literary-psychoanalytic framework that privileges symbolic images and structures (after Northrop Frye, whose influence is several times acknowledged in the volume), and provides richly gendered interpretations of the film’s visual poetics. Instructors looking for concrete links to the classical tradition will find it in sections involving the wild gods associated with pastoral, Pan and Faunus (197-200), and the Demeter-Persephone myth (204-214). Instructors of a course focused on gender and myth may find a congenial companion piece to this chapter in Part IV’s discussion of the first movie in The Hunger Games franchise, which connects back to the feminine pastoral/wild world (here, in connection with Artemis in myth and cult) and the underworld concerns of the art-house film.
Instructors looking to support their students’ understanding of film as a medium for narrative and mythopoesis will note that the authors regularly remark upon a given director’s oeuvre and the reception of a given film by the metrics of box-office receipts and aggregate critical opinion, through references to popular websites like RottenTomatoes.com. Consideration is also given to works of popular culture that likely inform these films more directly than classical literature and visual art. For example, their discussion of Ratner’s Hercules in Chapter 3 is foregrounded by a treatment of Hercules in select films: the mid-twentieth-century peplum genre, Disney’s Hercules, and a 2005 miniseries that aired on NBC. (Instructors may also wish to integrate Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, arguably the most influential televisual representation of the hero, into this conversation.) In Part IV, which focuses on young-adult franchises, the authors incorporate references to the literary source-texts by Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling, and Rick Riordan. These discussions, of necessity, are not comprehensive, but they do provide a foothold from which students might launch themselves into further exploration of how material beyond ancient sources shapes the screen-texts of today.
There are a few caveats that people who consider adopting this volume as a textbook should note.
Instructors may feel that inquiring into the process of selection in which filmmakers engage when constructing a film based in classical myth—whether by excavating authorial intent from published interviews, or analyzing what makes it into a film’s final cut—can assist students in formulating a critical perspective on the use of ancient sources. Such instructors will need to provide a significant amount of supplementary material to that end. It is quite understandable that the authors choose not to engage systematically with the many ancient sources through which current knowledge of the narratives of classical myth has been built. Passages like the highly selective one-page summary of “the Matter of Troy”—which begins with “as the myth goes” and stretches from Prometheus’ reconciliation with Zeus to Aegisthus’ murder of Agamemnon (43)—only gesture toward the complexity of that tradition. The authors do recommend that readers look elsewhere for that information (1). Yet some readers (especially those who skip the introduction) may assume that they can rely on a book with “classical myth” in the title for more detailed treatment of that material.
At some points, the capaciousness of the authors’ frame of reference can be overwhelming. The most intense example, the opening paragraph of the introduction to Part II, quotes or paraphrases in quick succession the Gospel of John, Nietzsche, Wagner, the 1953 film The Wild One, Freudian psychology, and H.G. Wells (99). The most curious students may revel in such a wide-ranging set of cultural referents; others will simply ignore what they don’t understand; others will be distressed by this habit. Even when the frame of reference is explicitly cinematic, the authors ask a lot of their readers, including by invoking films that are not treated in the volume, e.g. The Wizard of Oz and 300. Every chapter includes numerous offhanded comparative comments that assume the reader’s prior familiarity with all the films treated in the volume. This choice highlights the continuity of and variations on themes and motifs shared by the authors’ selected films. It also hinders the instructor’s ability to cherry-pick chapters that fit into a given course’s syllabus, which at first glance is an appealing aspect of this book’s organization.
A tantalizing question that hangs over the volume is posed by the third element of its title: “in the new millennium.” Anyone old enough to be considering this volume as a textbook has lived through variations of millennial anxiety that erupted around the year 2000, whether based in theological expectations of a new age, technological anxieties connected to Y2K, existential crises brought on by the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath, and/or fears of looming ecological disaster. What does the deployment of classical myth in these films contribute to discourses on this new era? Although each chapter ends with a brief discussion titled e.g. “Harry Potter and the New Millennium,” this concept feels least dear to the authors’ hearts. In a way, the concept of the millennium is mythical in its own right: effective when deployed within a particular ideological framework, but outside of such a system, rather chimerical.
Like the concept of the decade, measuring out time in round numbers can provide some conveniences, while obscuring continuities. Various chapters cite ecological disasters, loss of faith in institutional authority, and noxious ideologies based on oppression and hatred as problems of the new millennium, yet these are problems that the world suffered before, and likely will continue to suffer. Instructors who want to push their students to consider classical myth not simply as an artifact of the past, but as a vehicle for discussing contemporary crises will be able to pick up on comments by the authors to stimulate such debate. The fact that all the movies treated in the volume were released in or after the year 2000, and so within the lifetime of our students, may facilitate their ability to recognize and articulate what is at stake in these films, as well as the cultural work that classical myth continues to perform for contemporary societies: a significant pedagogical goal.
The challenge inherent in reception studies generally—that every manifestation of traditional material reflects a particular, even idiosyncratic, engagement with that tradition—is no less true of what once was dismissed as mass entertainment or popular culture than it is of “high art.” A vast and exciting field stretches before scholars and instructors who engage with the question of why the material that we have come to cherish and steward professionally continues to fascinate and delight audiences with no skin in the game of classics—but who may yet be induced to appreciate how their current fandom for Percy Jackson constitutes their participation in the classical tradition. Classical Myth and Film in the New Millennium embraces that project wholeheartedly.