NBC's Sumptuous 'Odyssey' Is Must-Read TV

Odysseus just wanted to go home. But getting home took him 20 years in all, and that long and difficult journey is the subject of Homer's elegant and ancient epic "The Odyssey." The tale has influenced many works of art throughout the history of Western civilization, and now it has even reached the small screen as a major television film.

"The Odyssey" is an ambitious miniseries made by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky ("Runaway Train") for NBC, airing 9 to 11 p.m. on Sunday and Monday (check local listings). Shot in Turkey (the ruins of ancient Troy lie in Turkey) and Malta, it took a year to complete, required a crew of 300, and cost $40 million - the largest TV-movie budget ever, according to its executive producer Robert Halmi, chairman of Hallmark Entertainment.

It is not wholly successful as a unified work of art, though it is a sumptuous entertainment. Some of the writing is uneven, and the commercial interruptions distract from the complex storytelling. The very fact of having to edit the film to accommodate those interruptions, building in a hook to keep viewers returning, gives it an odd, somewhat disjointed feeling. Many sequences have been foreshortened or changed.

Still, it's an exciting adventure with much to recommend it, including a solid-gold cast, a lively narrative, dazzling cinematography, and meaningful messages. "The Odyssey" movie demonstrates that TV is capable of more than it usually delivers.

The story begins with the abduction of the most beautiful of all human women, Helen - stolen by that rogue Paris of Troy. After 10 years fighting, when all the Greeks have become weary and want to go home, King Odysseus of Ithaca cleverly schemes to get inside the impenetrable walls of Troy. He has a giant horse constructed in which he and his men can conceal themselves, and then all their Greek comrades hide while the Trojans come out to see what they think is an amazing war trophy.

King Priam doesn't listen to his prophets, who warn him against accepting this gift. Instead, he has his men wheel the horse inside the gates of the city and celebrate in triumph. But when the Trojans fall fast asleep, Odysseus and his men quietly descend from the horse's belly and open the city gates for their own army. The Trojans lose the ensuing terrible battle, and the city is razed.

But Odysseus, who angers the sea god Poseidon, doesn't get home to Ithaca right away. Instead he wanders the sea for another 10 years, while his faithful wife, Penelope, waits, and his little son grows to manhood. He meets monsters and gods who try to destroy him and witches and goddesses who tempt him to forget his home and his responsibilities. But home is where his heart is, and eventually he reaches it.

Colorful gods, mortals

"The Odyssey" was written when people believed that the Olympian gods ruled them - and an eccentric lot those gods were, too, making terrible things happen to mere mortals for their own amusement. Konchalovsky, who also wrote the screenplay, handles the gods with wit and an ingenious sense of otherness. Poseidon is a bully, but Aeolus (played with delightful goofiness by Michael J. Pollard) is a charming clown, and Athena, who protects Odysseus, laughs at him, too. Isabella Rossellini plays her with just the right touch of tender regard, amused nonchalance, and regal haughtiness.

Armand Assante gives a layered and engaging performance as Odysseus, though in the beginning he has some difficulty with the overblown language. The soulful Greta Scacchi as the patient Penelope brings a fine spirit to her role. This is a queen who labors at the olive press as readily as she does her loom - and Scacchi is always real, intelligent, and touching. She works particularly well with the great Greek actress Irene Papas, who plays Odysseus' mother with grand tragic style.

Not all the action in the original story is appropriate for TV, and some of the story has been sanitized for contemporary viewers. The ancient Greeks had a rather grim sense of rough justice. Because it deals with so much violence, it may not be appropriate for younger viewers.

Then, too, Odysseus himself does not always act in a completely admirable way. He is tempted and succumbs to the charms of the witch Circe and then the sea nymph Calypso. Still, neither goddess can make him forget his wife and his home.

"This is a basic, simple, accessible story," Mr. Halmi says. "But Homer tells it so overwhelmingly - with such an incredible imagination and fantasy. Cyclopes, gods, and monsters - it makes it very exciting."

In order to do the story justice, Halmi says, motion-picture technology had to catch up with Homer's imagination. Only now is the industry ready to do a masterly job of re-creating the creatures of the story, he adds. They had to wait for Jim Henson's Creature Shop and a whole new world of animation.

Indeed, the special effects are awesome - when, for example, Aeolus captures the winds in a calfskin for Odysseus, the whirling storm might have come directly out of "Twister." The monsters are wonderfully horrible, the faces of gods in the ocean and waterfall believably weird, and the ghosts of the underworld, the kingdom of Hades, are strikingly original. Though fire jets out and molten lava flows at the bottom of Hades' caves, it doesn't resemble a medieval view of eternal punishment. The sequence is beautifully shot and highly imaginative, and the billowing robes of the inhabitants assure us it is a land of shadows, not torture.

Rediscovering the book

One of the most important things about the movie is bound to be its ability to reawaken an active interest in the tale. Don't be surprised if your teenager actually asks for a copy of the book.

In fact, that is the very reason Halmi says he made the film. All his TV movies come from important books, the most recent of which was the popular "Gulliver's Travels." Halmi grew up in Hungary, where Homer was read, studied, interpreted, and cherished, and he wants to put "The Odyssey" back in the hands of children.

"Homer started literature and fiction as we know it," he says. "People who have read Homer know how modern the story is. The stories in 'The Odyssey' are the basic stories. I think Jonathan Swift ripped off Homer for 'Gulliver.' "

"Television's first crime was that it took books out of the hands of children, and we are now trying desperately to put them back," he says. "More copies of 'Gulliver's Travels' sold after our show than in the [previous] 10 years. And we just shipped out 100,000 Odyssey books to 40,000 bookstores."

Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books edition features the movie's poster on the cover and an excellent introduction geared to young people by Walter James Miller of New York University. The highly accessible prose translation by Samuel Butler (author of "The Way of All Flesh") is vigorous, lovely, and fun to read. The book also includes a detailed synopsis and a handy pronouncing guide and index: e.g., "Odysseus" is "oh-DIS-use." Every high school in the country will receive teachers' guides about "The Odyssey." There will be direct broadcasts into some schools and libraries.

"The journey is the story," Halmi says. "Today we see the young people say, 'I have to find myself.' Well this is simply the way to say what the journey of life really is. You do really have to find yourself, and everyone has to go on a journey of one kind or another."

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