I studied Ancient History at university, focusing on literature and in particular Homer’s Iliad. I’ve been known to get quite precious about it occasionally. So when Troy came out in 2004 – the year I was writing my dissertation – I went to see it with some trepidation.
I did manage not to shout at the screen whilst in the cinema. I’m still proud of that.
The thing is, it’s not actually a bad film. The casting is all good, there’s some fantastic set-pieces and scenes (particularly Achilles’ opening fight), the style of the armour and weaponry is lovely, and the storytelling is fine. Yes, there are bits which deviate from the story – Patroclus as a ‘cousin’ in deference to American sensibilities was something I expected – but this was Hollywood. I’d braced for that. I even liked some of the changes, such as the way the ‘arrow in the ankle’ was done at the end.
The thing was… they got stuff right. And not just any bits, but some of the harder things to interpret. Hektor’s characterisation was absolutely perfect, even though it takes someone who knows the original text very well to draw out the finer nuances. There were lines in the script taken directly from the epic poem. Someone knew what they were doing and then didn’t do it.
This upset me on a very personal level. I could have forgiven Hollywood doing what they do best: taking an original text, changing it enormously and making a good (?) action film out of it. It was those flashes of promise – the knowledge that they had it within their sights to get it right – which were then ignored that was so gutting.
By contrast Snyder’s 2006 version of 300 was very enjoyable. Again, it took the original story, kept some scenes and then just played with the rest. What set it apart enough from the text was the style. The sepia tint, the exaggerated weirdness of the Persians, the frame-by-frame reproductions of the graphic novel – such an artistic approach took it far enough from the original words that my inner classicist wasn’t really engaged.