As I begin to write the chapter which will certainly anchor my dissertation, considering the role the goddess Athene plays in the Odyssey, how she helps effect, what some scholars have called, the only real character transformation in Homer, the growth of Telemachus from a Mama’s Boy to his father’s son, I have tracked down online cheap copies of the two most famous screen adaptations of the epic.
I came away gravely disappointed, the more recent a 1997 TV adaptation far worse than the 1954 Kirk Douglas version. And the former despite excellent realizations of Penelope and Anticleia by Greta Scacchi and Irene Papas respectively.
In the 1950s version, Kirk Douglas played the role he always seemed to play in that era (at least through Spartacus), the self-confident hero, ever smiling, rarely faltering, always declaiming, never wavering. It was from this adaptation that I first learned about the Odyssey, having caught it on TV as a boy and remembering most clearly the scene with the Cyclops (which I loved) and forgetting nearly everything else. Back then, it had seemed so real, I was all but certain Cyclops (Cyclopses?) existed.
And yet now, when I watched it last week, so familiar with the epic, I just couldn’t believe Douglas as the long-suffering Odysseus. But, he at least had a more expressive face than Armand Assante, the actor who would realize the role in the more recent version. That Italo-American actor hardly changed his expression through the flick, always dour, never determined. He showed no none of the warm tears Homer described, when he was finally reunited with his son.
When he arrives on Ithaca, the home for which he had longed for two full decades, his face was unmoved. No goddess was there to greet him on the shore as the owl-eyed Olympian welcomed the real Odysseus now over three thousand years ago. Nor did she disguise him before he approached the hut of his loyal swineherd Eumeaus. He just waltzed right in and started taking food. Instead of sympathizing with his plight, I wanted the swineherd to slit his throat.
Director Andrey Konchalovskiy didn’t give the long-suffering wanderer time to test his servant. But, what was worse than that was that while Konchalovskiy did include the Olympians (in contrast to the 1954 version), well just three of them, he cut back Athene’s role. She was not dynamic, setting things in motion as in the epic, but static. It seemed that once she arrived on screen, the director had instructed Isabella Rossellini, the actress who portrayed her, not to move a muscle, but to stand in place and tell Odysseus she was by his side.
As I watched it, I wondered at the hubris of Hollywood, with producers and directors significantly altering stories that had delighted audiences for millennia even before their medium was even conceived. As if they knew better than storytellers who learned from the audiences because they had read a few books on screenwriting theory. And then my thoughts turned to Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings (which was supposed to be the subject of this post until I got carried away) and I appreciated his achievement all the more.
This is not to say that I, a huge Lord of the Rings fan, “approved” of every change he made. While, to be sure, I quibbled with a few of his choices, including one major casting decision and numerous story alterations, particularly in the The Return of the King, I realized just how faithful he was to the spirit of the epic and to the characters of nearly the entire dramatis personae.
To be sure, he made Gimli more humorous than he was in the books, but he understood that a little comic relief was necessary in this visual medium.
A hard task it is to adapt something from a verbal to a visual medium which keeping its spirit. Those who adapted the Odyssey seemed more interested in bringing a classic to the screen than in appreciating its story. Peter Jackson was able to bring a story to the screen while, on the whole, appreciating the story.
Given that Jackson remade King Kong , I wonder if he’s available to remake the Odyssey. And maybe, while he’s at it, why not tackle Beowulf.