Mythology and Hollywood: Gods, Legends and the Need for Better Movies

mythology Clash of the TitansI have one thing to say to those who keep churning out movies along the lines of Thor (2011) and Wrath of the Titans (2012), and it takes a page out of Pink Floyd’s book:

Hey! Directors! Leave those myths alone!

The fact is, we do need an education – an education on how to make great films based on international legends – and we’re not getting it. Why, I don’t know. Mythology is one of the most incredible untapped resources for filmmakers, and for some reason in Hollywood, it’s either a) avoided as subject matter or b) diluted or changed to the point of becoming unrecognisable … or worse: blasphemy. The nonsense between the gods in Thor. The ridiculous conflict between Hades and Zeus in Wrath. The very bad, nearly deity-free interpretation of one the world’s most famous sieges in Troy (2004).

I want to scream, “That didn’t happen!” But that connotes real life. What I really want to say is: “That didn’t happen – in the actual myths!”

I have a suggestion to Hollywood. Adhere to the source material more. It’s brilliant, and there’s a host of stories to draw from. Why not stick to them? Myths are generally witty and offer moral content. We could use added doses of both in the movies.

With that in mind, I’d like to propose a number of international mythological pantheons and collections that would definitely fit the cinematic spectrum. In this day and age of computer-generated imagery, nearly anything can be brought to the screen. Let’s see some of the following ideas in full force.

mythology Jason and the argonautsGreek mythology

OK, we’ve done Wrath and Clash of the Titans – the latter in both 1981 and 2010 iterations. We’ve had Jason and the Argonauts (1963). And we’ve had the execrable Troy. We’ve even had Agamemnon (incorrectly) battle a minotaur in Time Bandits (1981). But what about the death of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra’s hands, and the subsequent revenge by her son Orestes? Or the story of Oedipus and the sphinx? Or Bellerophon taming Pegasus? Or Theseus deserting Ariadne? Hmmm? There’s a boatload of stuff out there, and Greek mythology is among the richest. Plus, the myths speak for themselves – you don’t need to tweak ’em.

Norse mythology

Gosh, this is good stuff. From Ymir to Ragnarok, Norse mythology brings it. And unlike the Greek pantheon, the gods are mortal. They can die. They also feel guilt and betray each other miserably. All of this leads to the destruction of Asgard and of most of the deities. So why not do a whole movie or series of flicks dealing with this? You’ve got some great stories: Thor and Loki teaming up (yes, they do that) against the Jotuns … and Thor dressing up as a female bride to trick one of them. You’ve got the meeting of Odin and Loki and their ultimate falling out. You’ve got Tyr getting his hand bitten off by the wolf Fenris. Oh, and how about Thor being duped into wrestling with Old Age? You can’t get much more moral than that.

Egyptian mythology

Damn, this source material is wonderful. OK, Stargate (1994) posited that the Ra was an alien, but mythologists know better. He’s the father of the gods and associated with the sun. But he’s not the only deity in this pantheon. What about Osiris and Isis, whose romance and fate to rule the land of the dead are fascinating? Or their son Horus, who battles and defeats his father’s murderer, the evil Set? C’mon, Hollywood. These stories are made for the movies.

mahabharatadvdPeterBrookCeltic mythology

This is a collection that I’ve always thought to be particularly cinematic, especially the legends of the great hero Cuchulainn and his defence of Ulster. He fights his son without knowing it, for Pete’s sake! That’s the story of legend. You’ve also got tales of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancient Irish pantheon – some of whose members are alluded to in the very disappointing flick Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). The real stories, however, are much more interesting. Nuada of the Silver Hand. Balor of the Evil Eye. And the sons of Tuirenn, who go on a doomed series of quests for Lugh … whose father they killed. Man, these stories are great. Put them on the screen.

Indian mythology

I’ve always felt like Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata (1989) didn’t do the full spectrum of Indian mythology justice, as much as it tried. There’s a host of gods and monsters waiting to be cinematised here, including some sexy stuff that might bring in eyeballs. Shiva’s sometimes racy encounters with demons, for one. Then there’s the Churning of the Ocean. And you’ve got the story of Krishna, which could be a whole series of movies. Get in on this one Hollywood. It’s fantastic.

Japanese mythology

Oh, there’s erotic content here, for sure. Onmyoji 2 (2003) brought in the gods for a bit here and there, but the real myths are much cooler. How about the exploits of the brother-and-sister team Izanagi and Izanami, the legendary parents of Japan? Or the way Amaterasu, the sun goddess, is brought out of her cave by a suggestive dance performed by one of the other deities? Hot stuff. Might make a good movie.

mythology onmyojiChinese mythology

One of my formative experiences during childhood was seeing the Monkey King break out of his crucible during a performance of Peking Opera shown on TV. Fun as all git-out, and it has been turned into movies across the pond (2014’s The Monkey King, for one). But there’s a wealth of stories here, including some creation myths, like the tale of P’an Ku, and these could make for great filmmaking in Hollywood. Let’s see more of it.

Native American mythology

One of the issues with creating movies out of Native American mythology is that there are a host of beautiful stories passed down from different tribes – often containing similar or the same characters – and it might be difficult to boil down the most cinematic ones. I’ve always been partial to the tale of Raven creating Real People, though, and I think this would be a lovely, humorous flick. Talking animals. Hollywood’s already gone there. Why can’t it do so again?

I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot more pantheons. I’m open to suggestions. I hope Hollywood directors are, too.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn189827. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

13 thoughts on “Mythology and Hollywood: Gods, Legends and the Need for Better Movies

  1. Great theme. Unfortunately, while there are creative people in LA who know who Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus are, none of them make the executive decisions. The execs are just business majors who don’t even recognize the plot of Hamlet when they’re pitched it.

    • Thanks! That may well be the case, but you never know what might slip through. Recently, the story of the 47 Ronin got play, so I’m hopeful that Hollywood will go deeper than the usual subject matter to find different content.

  2. I think that a fairly interesting work on Greek mythology would be an animated version of, say, Ovid’s Metamorphoses or a similarly-structured compendium of myth (the Metamorphoses kind of rattled off a series of myths in one extended chain.) The Greek concept of daimones would be extremely interesting to see, as would be a film based on Greco-Egyptian magic of the early AD centuries. As far as magic, a film on Pythagoras as “shaman” (the author of a sourcebook I own describes him as such) could be moody and brilliant. Of course, Medea made for a nuanced and embittered play, so it could make for some interesting stuff.

    The Celtic hero Cu Chulainn would be awesome to see, as he sometimes has earthly power warp through his body and turn him into a rampaging monster.

    The strange story of El and Ba’al in Canaanite mythology could be turned into a really great film, I think.

    As far as China goes, I think I would rather see a real Western adaptation of Romance of Three Kingdoms than something really mythological.

  3. I think that asking/expecting filmmakers not to take artistic license is futile – particularly in the case of mythology, which one could argue (in a sociological sense) should be adapted to the current times and place. If we can’t keep them on script with books, which are generally fall less slippery and version-ridden than myths…

    That said, I agree that there is a huge, untapped reservoir of great stories. It would be nice if they’d stop remaking stuff like Clash and get on to the other stories. There hasn’t even been a feature-length Gilgamesh film (though one is finally in production)!

    • You know, it’s interesting–I’ve never been partial to mythological interpretations taking place in contemporary times; I feel they just lose their original context. But I’m glad to hear about Gilgamesh … that’s a legend I love, and I wonder what they’re going to do with it. Very intriguing.

  4. You’ve identified plenty of good material here. Maybe once Marvel is finished with their run in 2028, there will be some room. Of course by then we’ll all be watching via the chips implanted into our brains.

    • One can hope there will be room, Jon. And if we don’t have chips implanted in our brains by then, perhaps we’ll all have undergone the Ludovico technique conditioning us to like Joel Schumacher movies. 😀

  5. I agree with you. There’s a lot of great stories to take from mythology, and all they manage to do is pull some popular characters from mythology and give them ridiculous plots. Clash and Wrath of the Titans were just bad, and now there’s a movie coming out with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson playing Hercules and it looks awful. The Thor movies, however, are based on Marvel comic books, which is why he’s part of The Avengers, etc. If they did a whole series of movies involving the actual mythology about him and Asgard now it would just be out of place and confusing.

    • Thanks, Justine. Yes, that Hercules movie, I suspect, will be atrocious. And you’re right about the Thor movies being based on the comic books; that context frames them. I just wish there were more films made that directly reflected the original Norse myths (among others), which have much better storylines, in my humble opinion.

      Separately, am I the only one who was peeved by the seemingly continual references to “Hercules” rather than “Heracles” in Jason and the Argonauts? I know it’s a trivial point, but still. Just sayin’.

  6. I am with you on this one Simon. The thing is, do the audiences know the source material in the first place? When I was young, we made some study of Greek Mythology, and read things like The Odyssey and The Iliad. I don’t think that happens so much now, so potential film audiences will have less issues with the way these legends are told, or how the characters are portrayed.
    Nice idea though, and a good campaign.
    I’m sure you know though, that it is never going to happen…
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete. It’s definitely true knowing the source material is a help, and I think that’s why we have those Clash/Wrath of the Titans movies, as well as Troy, Jason and the Argonauts and so on supposedly devoted to the Greek pantheon. When I was growing up, I also learned about Greek mythology, but I think there’s definitely room to expand to other cultures’ legends in Hollywood. I’m not holding out hope … but it would be nice.

Leave a Reply