June 2004

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Troy -- A Conversation With A Classics Major

Reading The Iliad is hard -- it’s really long and there are bunches of characters and I’m very lazy. But that’s why the good Lord invented classics majors -- so that lazy bums like me can avoid reading classic works of epic poetry about long-ago Greek wars.

My friend Alison earned a BA in Classics at the University of Southern California, which means, among other things, that she's read classic works of epic poetry over and over -- sometimes, in the original languages! She also knows plenty about filmmaking (she managed to major in that, too), so she was the perfect person to discuss the latest Hollywood adaptation of a classic work -- specifically, the Wolfgang Peterson-directed, Brad Pitt-starring Troy.

What follows is an attempt to be serious about a movie that doesn't really deserve that kind of attention. The discussion contains spoilers for a story written three thousand years ago and a movie released last month. There's also some talking about gay sex. Much more than in the movie, at any rate.

All right, you've read The Iliad how many times?

We did it in parts a lot of the time -- it was always ever-present. I don't know if I've read it start to finish since high school but yes, it was always "base this on book four of the Iliad..."

How long is it?

It's 24 books, something around a thousand pages. But it's all in verse, though, not like reading a thousand pages of The
Fountainhead
.

So tell me about why you dig it.

Well, it's very, very good. I mean, there are these Bible sections where they list who was born and who died because it's like a
historical record -- so you skip those, because those are really boring. But it doesn't really have set good guys and bad guys --
in the movie, Agamemnon was clearly evil, but otherwise that was the same.

It also captures the ethos of a people, which is really a lot different than ours -- you know, dying the good death and all that -- and it has a BILLION THEMES. Honor and pride and stuff -- but also stuff like the Trojan men are like the family men, and they get killed by all the barbarians. It's like the changing of what it means to be a Greek man.

The caveman versus the astronaut?

Sort of. It's just this really weird statement on Greek culture.

Okay -- so it's got the good themes, the good characters, it's got the...

Cultural snapshot?

If by cultural snapshot you mean cultural thousand-page-long poem, yes. But when you first heard they were making a movie, what did you think?

Well, it was obvious that they were going to have to change things, and it's very, very long, there are a billion characters in it... I wasn't very optimistic.

And about a year and a half ago, I was able to get you a copy of the screenplay. Can you please describe your reaction to the screenplay?

I was quite overjoyed upon getting it -- upon reading it was another situation. Cuz, uh, I was not very thrilled by the actual content.

What really put you off?

Well, David Benioff's reading of it was not the best... They did a lot of Hollywoodization. Like Briseis having a character, so that Achilles could have a love interest. And the dialogue was terrible...

Yeah, I remember you saying that the dialogue in the original was so much better than the dialogue in the screenplay. What lines did you wish they had kept?

I don't know if I recall specific lines, and some of that stuff they did keep -- like the Prium goes to collect Hector's body stuff is
actually sort of close to what's in the book. I do think the book does a better job of getting across the feelings of sorta-cheesy lines without making them feel like they're cheesy -- I'm sure that the lines that they wrote would have worked better if the mood had pulled us into believing that that's how they actually talked.

It got pretty 20th century there for a while.

Yeah, and the jokes were pretty modern.

"The last time I saw you with that look on your face, you had just stolen Father's horse. What have you done now? I'm from AusTRAILia."

Yeah... that was no good.

Eric Bana's omniaccent was a problem.

Yeah, the accents were kinda inconsistent. They let Brian Cox speak in English...

And they didn't make Brad Pitt do anything.

Well, he had the pseudo-British-syncopated...

The weird pacing... But it wasn't so much an actual accent. Speaking of the movie, though, was it an improvement on the screenplay? Did it play better?

Things were improved, I think, like the tone. Because David Benioff is like, a modern literary novelist, and it had that modern literary novelist feel. The script was not very epic. The movie was a lot more epic.

So, other big changes. Aside from the fact that Briseis actually existed and did things and killed Agamemnon, which I was pretty sure wasn't in the original.

Yeah, in the original Agamemnon makes it through the war, but gets killed by his wife when he makes it home.

That's awesome. I woulda seen that.

It's one of the best Greek plays, actually, about what happened to Agamemnon. And she's really evil. But they actually combined the Briseis and Chryseis characters for the movie -- which given that everyone gets Briseis and Chryseis confused reading the book anyway...

Who's Chryseis?

Well, we'll get to that. Chryseis is actually the daughter of the priestess of Apollo (but in the movie they made Briseis a priestess of Apollo) -- so Chryseis in the book gets taken by Agamemnon and made his woman. And then all this bad stuff starts happening and all the Greeks get plagues... So everyone says, "Well, you gotta give her back because Apollo is plaguing all of our people and we're gonna die if you don't give her back," and he's like "Okay." So he's forced to give Chryseis back and that's why he takes Briseis from Achilles -- it's because they took his woman away.

So Briseis and Achilles were actually lovers?

Yeah, she was his "prize," but she never speaks -- she doesn't have a voice in the book.

What does she do? Is she another priestess?

No, she's just "the Trojan woman." She's his prize. She doesn't speak, we don't know much about her...

He shows up, has sex, goes have sex with someone else...

She's just the inciting incident, really.

For the Achilles/Agamemnon hate.

Yeah. Achilles and Agamemnon do have some troubles, which they amplify in the movie, but mostly he takes her because he's the head of the army and he doesn't get one, and why does Achilles get one if he doesn't get one? And that's why he takes her. And Achilles isn't actually that broken up about it because he's not actually in LOVE with her the way he is in the movie. He's just mad because they took his prize away.

That was strange. Because they made this big deal about him being a killer, but he goes inside the Trojan horse with the specific purpose of finding the chick he likes so she won't die in the carnage.

The poor Achilles character in the movie -- Brad Pitt didn't have anything to work with because his character didn't make any sense. In the book it has absolutely nothing to do with this woman, you know, because in the book his great love is Patroclus. Who, as far as I know, is actually much older than him, and Achilles is really his boyfriend, but no one wants to admit that because Achilles is supposed to be the strongest man in the world.

The people in the Iliad don't want to admit that?

No, the people in classical scholarship don't want to admit that. But Patroclus is really his pimp daddy.

So what you're saying is that Achilles is not the top.

As far as we can tell, yes. They did that in Ancient Greece, you know, the older man and the younger man would hook up, and then you'd get married when you were in your middle-ages and then when you were old you would get a younger boyfriend. Some people say that Achilles was supposedly 15 when they got to the war in the first place, and was 25 by the end of it -- he's supposed to be pretty young. And so when he won't go into the war and Patroclus goes into the war and gets killed, it means a lot more to him than it does in the movie, where Patroclus is this 16-year-old cousin who you have no connection to, instead of both his lover and his father figure. So that's why he gets so mad and goes on a rampage and whatnot. So that's his true love. Briseis is not. Briseis just is the woman he sleeps with.

Would there have been crazy threesome action in Greek times?

No, I think they kept their women and their men pretty separate. It was really a very ritualized relationship between the men -- it was just so embedded in culture.

Other impressions about the movie? What would you have done differently?

It would have been great if the story could have been closer to the original -- because it didn't survive for three thousand years because it was terrible. But you really expected them to Hollywood it up, and Brad Pitt totally nixed the having-a-boyfriend thing.

Are you serious?

Yeah, he said he wouldn't do it. So that was one of the ways to get him on the movie, was to not have that. And so they give him this girlfriend. It's also awfully condensed. But they did keep stuff in -- like in the book, Helen HATES herself almost to the point of suicide, and in the movie you do get an aspect of that, so that's good.

It was really just the Achilles thing that they messed up, because they were so afraid of portraying him badly, even though he really is just petty and rageful and doesn't really have any other qualities.

The first line of the Iliad, which they kinda drop into the movie, is "This is the story of the rage of Achilles" -- so that pretty much sets up that he's full of rage and rageful. And he's 25, so he's not that mature, and he's not a thinker like Odysseus or anything -- so he's just this spirit of rage. Plus, he's half-god -- OH, THEY TOOK THE GODS OUT OF THE MOVIE. We can talk about that.

Oh, we should totally talk about that.

But anyway, he's just this essence of machismo sorta guy -- he's just totally barbarous. He just fights things, and then he eats, and then he has lots of sex, and then he fights things. And that's just what he does. But you really can't have that be your sympathetic main character, because it's more about embodying what the morals are then actually being a character.

Does he ever change?

No. In the Iliad he comes back because Patroclus gets killed and then he fights them...

Would that be a change from fighting for no reason to fighting for...

Purpose? Yeah. But he's just angry the whole time -- he's like a two-year-old.

Is that whole "I wouldn't have killed Patroclus, except that I thought he was you because he was wearing your armor" thing in the book?

Yeah, Patroclus wears Achilles' armor, but it's not like Hector WOULDN'T have killed him if it wasn't him...

Yeah, that was when I was like, "Dude, why are you apologizing for killing your enemy in the middle of a war?" I mean, it's... WAR. But another question -- do you think there's a way to make the Iliad into a movie with Hector as the protagonist?

Yeah, Hector is the most obvious protagonist by modern standards, and Achilles would EASILY translate into a bad guy -- but we can't make movies without making moral judgments on people.

Part of the problem is that in the Iliad there's this whole fate-vs-free will thing which they sorta put in, because Julie Christie's thing, for the two minutes she's in the movie, is all "if you go, you'll die, but if you don't go you won't die famous."

Let's talk about the gods...

Yeah, because in the book the gods do EVERYTHING -- the people don't really have much of a say. They're just pawns, really. It's really the gods' war, because it all starts when the three goddesses go to Paris with the golden apple and so forth and he chooses... uh...

Aphrodite, I think. He's a shallow dude.

Yeah, and then Athena and Artemis, they're on the Greeks' side -- and that's a whole other reason for the war. The gods control what happens. So taking that out, though they did leave in a bit of the fated thing, where "if you go you're gonna die, but immortality is way more important."

That was another thing I really didn't get from the movie, because Achilles was talking the entire time about immortality, saying stuff like "Immortality! Take it! It's yours!" and then all of a sudden he's like, "I kinda like the seventeen-year-old virgin I just hooked up with -- I think I'll become a man of peace, and screw immortality!"

Yeah, they just killed the character, because he's so confused and I mean, Brad Pitt's a pretty good actor but what's he supposed to do with that? There's no cohesion, and that's why the character change doesn't work, because immortality really was so very important to him, and that was why he was fighting the war -- why everyone was fighting the war.

That's why they would do those one-on-one battles where everyone would just stand around and watch, like when Patroclus fought Hector, because it's so important who you are. And that's why in the Iliad you have just chapters listing names and so and so was killed by so and so. It's more about remembering the people who died -- they find immortality in the book.

So if we were to rewrite Troy, the dialogue would consist a whole lot less of "This battle will be remembered forever" and more "I want this battle to be remembered forever."

Yeah, it's so culturally important. It is a snapshot of a culture and their values and so I suppose the movie would be successful if they were able to get across the culture and their values, since that's the big interest in reading it. But their idea of being a hero and our idea of being a hero is, y'know, different.

What was being a hero back then?

Well, y'know, immortality. That's why the one-on-one battles and so forth.

Which is what Achilles wants throughout the entire story. Thus, by fucking Achilles, they ended up fucking the movie.

(laughs) Something like that.