'Troy' tramples on 'The Iliad'

Going out to the movies in Athens isn't about the movie; it's about going out. In most theaters, the concession stand sits next to the cafe, the place to see and be seen at intermission.

With the opening of "Troy" last weekend, shows on Friday and Saturday night sold out days in advance. Posters of Brad Pitt decorated the city months before the May 14 release. Earlier in the month, rumors spread that Mr. Pitt himself was in the ancient city of Mycenae.

But celebrities and marketing campaigns don't excite the masses as much as good old-fashioned national pride. Most Athenians were looking forward to "Troy" because their country's glorious past was going up on the big screen. Greeks take pride in their country's ancient history more than any other period. But anyone who assumed this flick would heap more laurels on Greece was in for a big surprise.

This nation has always captivated Hollywood. In 2001, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" dramatized Greek villagers resisting Axis occupation in the Ionian Sea. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which some American critics panned for relying on ethnic stereotypes, was a big hit here in 2002. But Wolfgang Peterson's $200 million Homer-inspired epic is bigger, as the glories of ancient Greece dwarf the country's modern struggles. Indeed, although Greeks hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896 and will host the games again this August, many would rather remind you that they invented the games in 776 BC.

Around that same time, the Greeks also produced "The Iliad," a mainstay in university curricula. Written by Homer, the 15,693-line poem narrates a period of the Trojan War, and takes its title from Ilion, Homer's name for Troy. But as Richmond Lattimore, one of the poem's most respected translators, points out, "The Iliad" is "not the story of Troy." Most today would agree that the ancient city is important only insofar as it lost a famous war to a Greek army positively stacked with legendary warriors.

Peterson's film, based on a script by David Benioff, neither glorifies Greece's ancient heroes nor embraces Homer's narrative as a textual authority. This grates on the sensibilities of some. For starters, the film makes the Greeks the villains. In Homer's version, the Greeks, whom he called Achaeans, are more complex. The reader is reminded that it's been over 10 years since they saw their wives and children. The Greeks don't make this sacrifice in the film.

Troy also downsizes the Greek hero, Agamemnon, Homer's "lord of men," into a petty imperialist. In "The Iliad," the King of the Greeks is a fearsome warrior whose "proud heart [is] stricken with lamentation" when the enemy slaughters his troops. Troy's Agamemnon, played by a hyper-villainating Brian Cox, is too busy throwing temper tantrums to notice Achaeans dying for his cause.

So when Achaeans begin stabbing Trojans in their sleep (another episode not in "The Iliad"), some started growling. They wanted their money back. At the end of the screening, applause was scattered.

Reviews were generally positive in the Athens press. Several critics even hinted that Peterson's battle scenes almost meet Homeric standards - no easy feat, since "The Iliad" details savagery with a blend of vigor and lyricism that many say hasn't been matched in almost 3,000 years.

But leaving the theater, my friends ticked off the various abuses "The Iliad" had suffered in the process of adaptation. Still, my best friend told me she looked forward to "Alexander," Hollywood's next sandal-and-toga epic, which will feature Leonardo di Caprio as the young conqueror. "The Greeks will be the good guys in that one," she said. "You can tell from the title."

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