film and television
Summary and Keywords
Ancient Greece and Rome play starring roles as ideal sites for the iconic characters and plots that cinema and television use to depict the spectacle of the ancient world. The viewing audience is invited to experience the cinematic and televisual depiction of classical antiquity as it is deployed to accomplish a number of different objectives: the image of the ancient world on screen can be used to support contemporary political goals, to interrogate current social issues, or to engage in cultural debates about the modern world’s connection to the classical past. Since the ancient Greek and Roman worlds are frequently used as the visual and narrative backdrop for adventure and romance, the audience is often thrilled to view the luxury, decadence, and excess notoriously enjoyed by the uninhibited ancients. Viewers of films and television series about the ancient world remain engaged in a long and sometimes complex relationship with the representation of classical antiquity on screen, an engagement that has been well analyzed in the last few years by scholars and critics.
Screen Reception Studies
The study of films and television series that portray, adapt, and reinvent classical antiquity is a significant and rewarding critical subfield within the study of classical reception. Feature films and television series have the power to recreate the ancient Greek and Roman worlds in a variety of different ways, and filmmakers and television producers are adept at using many different classical sources—historical, literary, archaeological, and mythological—to serve as artistic, visual, and narrative inspirations. Screen recreations of the ancient world can essentially be divided into two separate, but not always distinct, categories: first, films and television series set in a more or less historically authentic classical antiquity; and second, films and television series that utilize more evocative modes of reception, in that they deploy and adapt classical mythological and literary plots, themes, and archetypes in non-classical settings, genres, or time periods.
Screen Productions Set in Antiquity
The most readily apparent recreations of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds occur in films and television series set directly in the ancient world. Recent successful recreations of this type include features such as Ridley Scott’s Academy Award-winning film Gladiator (2000), Zack Snyder’s blockbuster 300 (2007), and Brett Ratner’s popular hit Hercules (2014); on television, the most costly and critically lauded is the HBO premium cable series, Rome (2005–2007), and the most ambitious is the multiple-season run of the brawny STARZ series Spartacus (2010–2013). Such recreations—whether set in a more or less authentic historical antiquity or in something more akin to a generalized mythological past—transport the viewers immediately back into the ancient world, since many of them exhibit immense amounts of historical research and careful attention to visual detail. The best recreations not only offer the modern audience an impressive display of what is readily familiar and admired about ancient Greek and Roman culture, but they also invite the audience to enjoy the glamour and excitement inherent in viewing the distant strangeness of a bygone time and place.
From the very beginnings of the cinema in the early 20th century, the genre of films set in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds dominated the screen, offering multiple opportunities for representing the appealing spectacles of battles, chariot races, triumphal processions, magnificent banquets, and sumptuous costumes. Throughout the one hundred-plus-year history of films and television series that portray the ancient world, those set in Roman antiquity have been more prevalent than those set in Greek antiquity. This is most likely due to the relatively greater familiarity the modern Western world has with ancient Rome, and it was perhaps also influenced by the nascent aspirations of the powerful Italian and American film industries to identify their national projects with the classical, and especially imperial, Roman past. The birth of the ancient epic film is usually traced to 1908, with Italian producer Arturo Ambrosio’s successful feature film, Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (The Last Days of Pompeii) (clip here). There followed the fertile Golden Age of Italian silent cinema, which produced such important and influential films as Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? (1912) (clip here) and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) (clip here). These two silent films set the artistic cinematic gold standard followed by all subsequent filmmakers: that the epic film set in the ancient world should be a production of massive scale, elaborate special effects, and evocative historical details.
In the United States, pioneering filmmakers also began to produce films set in classical antiquity—with a predilection for biblical or religious themes and narratives—starting with the first film version of Ben-Hur (1907), directed by Sidney Olcott (clip here). Other notable American films of this early period include J. Gordon Edwards’ Cleopatra (1917) starring Theda Bara (fragments here), and his Nero (1922), as well as the second film version of Ben-Hur (1925), directed by Fred Niblo for the newly merged Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios (clip here). The 1920s saw the rise of the greatest director of the epic film genre, Cecil B. DeMille, whose films set in antiquity include the silent masterpiece The King of Kings (1927) (trailer here); in the sound era, DeMille produced the scandalous The Sign of the Cross (1932), set during Nero’s reign, and the conspicuously opulent Cleopatra (1934), starring Claudette Colbert (trailer here and clip here). It was during this period that the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code), adopted in 1930 and strictly enforced from 1934, focused its prurient eye on the more titillating elements of films set in the ancient world, such as Colbert’s seductive milk bath in The Sign of the Cross (images here), or the infamous “lesbian dance” scene in the same film (image here): this scene, along with some arena footage showing gladiatorial combat and nude women being attacked by animals, was censored and cut from the negative for a 1938 reissue and later restored in 1993 for the home video release.
Rise of the Golden Age
Next came a fallow interlude during the later 1930s and early 1940s in which few films set in antiquity were produced, a result of the extreme financial exigencies exerted by the Second World War, as well as the gloominess of the European and American national moods. But the postwar economic boom and an upsurge in audience popular interest in the classical world led to the reinvigoration of the ancient epic genre, especially in the Hollywood film industry. Starting in the early 1950s, the Golden Age of the Hollywood ancient epic “toga film” was spurred on by viewer demand, but an even more crucial factor was the pressure of competition coming from the new medium of television, which began drawing paying customers away from the movie theaters in this period. Hollywood responded with a host of extravagant epic spectaculars set in classical antiquity, and mainly shot on location in Greece and Italy, including many of the most popular and recognizable film titles of the era. These include such films as MGM’s formidable version of Quo Vadis? (1951), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and starring Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr (trailer here); 20th-Century Fox’s The Robe (1953), directed by Henry Koster (clip here), the first CinemaScope film shown in widescreen projection, and soon followed by Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), directed by Delmer Daves (trailer here); United Artists’ Alexander the Great (1955), directed by Robert Rossen, and starring Richard Burton (clips here); and Warner Bros.’ Helen of Troy (1955), directed by Robert Wise (trailer here).
But the undeniable zenith of the gilded decade was reached with MGM’s luminous remake of Ben-Hur (1959), directed by William Wyler, shot at the venerable studios in Cinecittà, Rome, and starring Charlton Heston in the title role (see Ben-Hur, reception of). Wyler’s Ben-Hur was a critically lauded and commercially successful film that scored eleven Academy Awards, and initiated a new generation of films set in antiquity (chariot race clip here). During the period of the 1950s, a number of Italian films set in the ancient world were also produced on location around the Mediterranean and seen by American audiences, including Due Notte con Cleopatra (Two Nights with Cleopatra, 1953), a comedy directed by Mario Mattoli, starring Sophia Loren (clip here); and Ulisse (1954; Ulysses, 1955 US release), directed by Mario Camerini, starring Kirk Douglas (clip here). Also from Cinecittà Studios came the wildly entertaining action epic Hercules (1957), directed by Pietro Francisci and starring American bodybuilder Steve Reeves (trailer here): this film spawned the immensely popular and prolific genre of Italian sword-and-sandal films that flourished well into the middle of the next decade.
In the post-Ben-Hur era, a few American-made epic films set in antiquity tried valiantly to keep the genre alive, including Universal Studios’ Spartacus (1960), directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas, perhaps one of the most groundbreaking and important films ever made (trailer here); Fox’s The 300 Spartans (1962), directed by Rudolph Maté (trailer here); and Columbia’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963), directed by Don Chaffey and enlivened by the visual effects designed by the legendary master, Ray Harryhausen (clip here). But the ancient epic genre was to be dealt a fatal blow from the financial and critical fiasco of Fox’s Cleopatra (1963) directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and starring real life romantic couple and controversy magnets, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (clips here). After that catastrophe, it was clear American viewers were finished with the four-hour, multimillion dollar spectacular set in antiquity, and Paramount’s critically hailed but also prophetically titled The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), directed by Anthony Mann (trailer here), never found a contemporary audience. What the popular mood of the time did respond to were satires of the epic genre, including United Artists’ rowdy film version of the Broadway play, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), directed by Richard Lester (clips here); and the British produced farce Carry on Cleo (1964; 1965, US release), directed by Gerald Thomas (trailer here). Much later, the satiric impulse to ridicule ancient epics on screen was bitingly resurrected in the controversial film Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), directed by Terry Jones and starring the members of the British comedic troupe in several different roles (funny scenes here); and Mel Brooks produced, directed and starred in a manic spoof of the epic genre, History of the World, Part I (1981) (Roman empire scenes here).
While the serious, theatrically released feature film set in antiquity languished in the period from the late 1960s through the 1970s and 1980s, a major popular development occurred when the industry’s focus turned to producing made-for-television films or miniseries aimed specifically at television audiences. The most outstanding early example of this entertainment trend was the BBC’s production of the thirteen-episode miniseries I, Claudius (1976), directed by Herbert Wise, a critically hailed adaptation of the novels of Robert Graves that was shown in the United States on PBS stations (trailer here). This was soon followed by several more extended made-for-television films or miniseries, such as Franco Zeffirelli’s eight-hour Jesus of Nazareth (1977) (trailer here); Boris Sagal’s six-hour Masada (1981) (trailer here); Peter Hunt’s six-part The Last Days of Pompeii (1984) (trailer here); and Stuart Cooper’s twelve-episode A.D. (1985), a pricey yet unexceptional miniseries that stymied the genre for the next several years (network promo here). During the heyday of these television miniseries, their financial success prompted the production of a handful of bigscreen feature films, such as MGM’s Clash of the Titans (1981), directed by Desmond Davis, with visual effects by Ray Harryhausen and starring Laurence Olivier (trailer here); and another Italian version of Hercules (1983), directed by Luigi Cozzi and starring American muscleman Lou Ferrigno (trailer here).
The made-for-television genre was robustly revived in the 1990s with the rise of cable television, bringing forth a new crop of syndicated series, many of which focused on Greek mythological heroes and narratives, aimed at younger audiences. The most lucrative was the multifaceted Hercules project conceived by filmmaker Sam Raimi, who produced five made-for-television films (all in 1994) starring Kevin Sorbo as Hercules, and followed up with the hugely successful television series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995–1999) (clips here). The series ran for six seasons and spawned a spinoff also set in the ancient mythological world: the enormously popular cult television series Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001) (clips here). It is likely that this extremely profitable revival of the Hercules hero figure on television inspired Walt Disney Pictures to produce one of its most successful animated feature films, Hercules (1997), directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (trailer here). Encouraged by these achievements, the American television production company Hallmark Entertainment produced three made-for-television miniseries at the end of the decade: the Emmy Award-winning The Odyssey (1997), directed by Andrei Konchalovksy and starring Armand Assante (trailer here); Cleopatra (1999), directed by Franc Roddam (trailer here); and Jason and the Argonauts (2000), directed by Nick Willing (trailer here).
Rebirth of the Ancients
The release of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000, from partner studios DreamWorks and Universal, not only signaled the rebirth of the ancient epic feature film, but also triggered a new wave of scholarly investigation into the enduring influence of the ancient world on modern popular culture (trailer here). The colossal critical and commercial success of Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe in an Oscar-winning performance, also made it safe for Hollywood producers to reach back once again to hallowed antiquity for their subject matter. Warner Bros. soon released two ancient world epics for the new millennium: first Troy (2004), directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Brad Pitt, based loosely on Homer’s Iliad (trailer here); and Alexander (2004), directed by Oliver Stone and starring Colin Farrell as the illustrious Macedonian general (trailer here). While Troy eventually matched the financial success of Gladiator, Alexander was considered a box office failure, and neither film accrued the critical acclaim of the earlier film. Warner Bros. released another ancient epic, 300 (2007), directed by Zack Snyder and starring Gerard Butler (trailer here). A sleek, high-tech film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel narrating the Spartans’ last stand at Thermopylae, 300 shattered numerous box office records and was tremendously profitable, yet it was not without controversy for some of its alleged political subtexts. That the film 300 collided with the zeitgeist was immediately borne out by the release of a popular parody Meet the Spartans (2008), directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, which opened number one at the box office despite scathing reviews (trailer here). Warner Bros. released an inevitable follow-up, 300: Rise of an Empire (2014), directed by Noam Murro, which focuses on other important battles of the Persian Wars (trailer here). Although a financial success, the film received mixed reviews: critics praised Eva Green’s brilliant performance as the naval commander Artemisia, but criticized the muddled screenplay.
A number of subsequent epic films were set in later classical antiquity. Several feature films explored the Roman experience in ancient Britain in the early centuries ce, with much of the narrative activity delineated by Hadrian’s Wall: Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur (2004), starring Clive Owen as a Roman officer, Artorius Castus, who becomes king of the Britons (trailer here); Doug Lefler’s The Last Legion (2007), starring Colin Firth, set during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (trailer here); Neil Marshall’s Centurion (2010), starring Michael Fassbender, chronicling the struggle of the Roman Ninth Legion in Caledonia (trailer here); and Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle (2011), starring Channing Tatum as a young Roman soldier trying to recover the golden standard lost by his father in Northern Britain (trailer here). Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s historical drama Agora (2009) tells the story of the astronomer Hypatia, played by Rachel Weisz, who is engulfed by religious unrest in late 4th-century ce Roman Egypt (trailer here). While Agora did well in Spain, the film had difficulty finding wide release internationally due to contemporaneous controversies about the depiction of religious fanaticism in the film.
Following these historical films came a wave of features inspired by Greek mythological heroes and narratives, no doubt influenced by the deluge of superhero movie franchises that were being bankrolled starting in the 2010s. Clash of the Titans (2010), directed by Lewis Leterrier and starring Sam Worthington as Perseus, a remake of the 1981 original, was a box office hit but received generally negative reviews (trailer here); this was followed by its equally poorly reviewed sequel, Wrath of the Titans (2012), directed by Jonathan Liebesman and again starring Worthington (trailer here); in between came the dark and brooding deicide story of Immortals (2011), directed by Tarsem Singh, with a plot loosely based on the myth of Theseus, played by Henry Cavill (trailer here). The Hercules franchise was also revived in this period with two films: first came The Legend of Hercules (2014), directed by Renny Harlin, an origin story of the hero’s youth that was intended to appeal to young audiences but bombed at the box office (trailer here). This was followed by Bret Ratner’s Hercules (2014), starring the charismatic and talented Dwayne Johnson, which opened to stronger reviews and proved to be a moderate hit (trailer here). Japanese director Takeuchi Hideki’s time-traveling hybrid historical-comic films, Thermae Romae (2012) (trailer here) and Thermae Romae II (2014) (trailer here), utilize the epic cinematic site of ancient Rome to confront Japan’s empire nostalgia by both interrogating and satirizing its current relationship with its memories of imperialism. The critical and financial disaster of Paul W. S. Anderson’s unoriginal film Pompeii (2014) (trailer here) had the chilling effect of blocking all classical world projects in production, except for those with conspicuous religious themes: these included producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s Jesus biopic Son of God (2014) (trailer here), and director Kevin Reynolds’ biblical drama Risen (2016), about a Roman soldier’s search for the body of the resurrected Christ (trailer here). Burnett and Downey’s ill-advised remake of Ben-Hur (2016) (trailer here), directed by Timur Bekmambetov, was the biggest box-office bomb of the year, criticized on every conceivable aspect of casting, dialogue, design, and editing, although some critics praised the vigorous reimagining of the marquee action sequences, such as the Roman naval battle and the famous chariot race.
On television, the ancient world continued to be popular and even expanded its reach in the early years of the new millennium. British network ITV, anticipating the Roman Britain trend in feature films, produced Boudica (2003, shown on American PBS stations as Warrior Queen), directed by Bill Anderson, a biopic of the queen of the Iceni tribe who rebelled against the Roman legions of Emperor Nero (trailer here). American cable network TNT produced the Emmy-nominated miniseries Julius Caesar (2003), an impressive and star-studded effort directed by Uli Edel (trailer here). Soon afterwards, ABC produced two low-budget and poorly reviewed miniseries: Helen of Troy (2003), directed by John Kent Harrison (trailer here); and Empire (2005), directed by John Gray and Kim Manners (clip here); at the same time NBC and Hallmark Entertainment released the miniseries Hercules (2005) (trailer here), directed by Robert Young, which was a misfired attempt at redeeming the hero’s legend.
In stark contrast, in terms of historical authenticity, rich production values, and exceptional writing and acting, was creator Bruno Heller’s series Rome (2005–2007) (trailer here), produced jointly by the BBC, the American premium cable network HBO, and the Italian public broadcaster RAI. Rome, shown in two separate seasons totally twenty-two episodes, established a new and higher production standard for any subsequent film and television series set in the ancient world. The four seasons of STARZ Spartacus (2010–2013) (trailer here), another television series produced by a premium cable network, sought to capitalize on the renaissance of high-budget antiquity themed narratives on screen by combining the spectacular visual opulence of classic midcentury epic cinema with the graphic sex and gritty violence of modern R-rated action films. In the reinvigorated post-Gladiator entertainment environment, both HBO Rome and STARZ Spartacus were extremely successful in engaging with earlier onscreen receptions of the ancient Roman world, while each series broke its own kind of new ground in portraying the familiar historical events and figures of the Late Roman Republic.
Screen Adaptations and Evocations
The other major way in which the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome are recreated on screen comes about when filmmakers and television producers take ancient themes, narratives, and myths and adapt them into plots set in the modern day, or in a temporal setting far removed from antiquity. Classical literary plots and ancient mythological archetypes have been successfully deployed in many contemporary films such as Clint Eastwood’s Iliadic meta-Western Unforgiven (1992) and Joel and Ethan Coen’s Odyssean romp, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000); also, modern television has utilized the classical hero archetype in series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) and Heroes (2006–2010). In viewing these films and television series, the audience enjoys the essence of an ancient literary work or myth distilled to its most basic narrative and archetypal elements that resonate most powerfully with the modern world. At the same time, scholarly spectators are heartened to witness the core evidence of what keeps the field of Classics alive: these films and television series ably demonstrate what makes a classic myth or literary work relevant to new generations of viewers. And because these films are not bound by any obligation to recreate the actual ancient setting and precise historical context, the filmmaker or television producer can take a more modern, innovative approach to the timeless themes and characters.
Adaptations in Early Cinema
In the early days of cinema, while Italian filmmakers focused their energies on producing ancient historical epics, filmmakers in France showed a preference for more literary, theatrical, and mythological themes. These early productions helped to initiate and develop a creative cinematic process for adapting and revising ancient themes into non-ancient settings. Pioneering French director Georges Méliès filmed hundreds of short films from 1895 to 1913, including a number of mythological titles such as Pygmalion et Galathée (1903) and L’île de Calypso (1905) (clip here). From the French film company Pathé came a series of films adapted from ancient topics, including the contemporary battle story Hercules in the Regiment (1909), as well as one of the first cinematic explorations of The Legend of Orpheus (1909). In the United States, a handful of updated mythological films were made in this early period, including Theodore Wharton’s modernized fantasy Neptune’s Daughter (1912) (image here), and Gilbert P. Hamilton’s comedy The Golden Fleece (1918), introducing a Jason set in the present day (image here).
The 1920s, however, saw only a few ancient myth revisions: one notable example was Alexander Korda’s comical romance The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927), a well-reviewed domestic satire told in contemporary setting (movie here). Among the various interpretive critiques of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) (trailer here), the controversial film also admits a reading against the backdrop of the myth of the culture hero Prometheus, with its juxtaposition of Olympian plutocrats and oppressed human workers in dire need of a savior. The late silent era masterpiece, G. W. Pabst’s mythically titled Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929), stars It-Girl actress Louise Brooks as the beautiful Lulu, who suffers a patriarchal punishment for her unbound yet unproductive sexuality (clips here).
With the sound era in the 1930s came a new range of cinematic possibilities, including the boisterous genre of movie musicals. Director Frank Tuttle’s time-traveling musical Roman Scandals (1933) (clip here), starring Eddie Cantor as a modern-day American who journeys back to ancient Rome, features several elaborate production numbers designed by famed choreographer Busby Berkeley. The 1940s saw a wartime development of viewer interest in dramatic adaptations of ancient literary works, including RKO’s critically lauded film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1931 play cycle Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), directed by Dudley Nichols, an updated version of Aeschylus’ tragic Oresteia trilogy set during the American Civil War (clips here). Musical adaptations of mythological subjects on film remained popular in the 1940s, such as Columbia Pictures’ musical comedy Down to Earth (1947), directed by Alexander Hall, and starring Rita Hayworth as the Muse Terpsichore who interferes with a modern Broadway play (clips here). This film was later updated and remade as the musical fantasy Xanadu (1980), directed by Robert Greenwald and starring pop singer Olivia Newton-John (trailer here); although the film was a box-office flop, the double-platinum soundtrack album was a worldwide sensation.
Adaptations at Midcentury
In the 1950s, filmmakers employed ancient mythological themes to explore more serious contemporary issues and concerns. One of the most significant and influential films in the history of cinema is French director Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), an existential transformation of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus into a profound modern statement about poetry, death, and immortality (clips here). In the same decade, another French director would delve into the Orpheus theme: Marcel Camus’ Academy Award-winning Black Orpheus (1959) was an equally revolutionary film (clips here). Filmed in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival week, starring mostly Brazilian actors, and scored by groundbreaking jazz music, Black Orpheus breathed new lyrical life into the ancient myth. The myth of Pygmalion, the Greek sculptor whose ivory statue of a woman comes to life, was also deployed across several film genres to examine current anxieties about modern science and the construction of the female, from Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense thriller Vertigo (1958) (trailer here) to Georges Franju’s sophisticated horror film Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes without a Face, 1959) (trailer here). A lighter note is struck by Stanley Donen’s high-spirited Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) (trailer here), which follows the gender and genre conventions of the classic Hollywood musical while also utilizing the ancient Roman legend of the Rape of the Sabine Women to interrogate male unease and female ambivalence about the state of midcentury American marriage. The decade also witnessed the Golden Age of the American cowboy movie: films such as Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) (clips here), George Stevens’ Shane (1953) (trailer here), and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) (clips here) all utilize the classical epic themes of masculinity, heroism, and honor to explore the American foundational myth as shaped in the cinematic western.
In the 1960s and 1970s, European master filmmakers produced several provocative and often controversial films adapted from ancient literature, including Federico Fellini’s Fellini Satyricon (1969) (trailer here), a dreamlike revision of Petronius’ fragmentary novel; and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s meta-historical film versions of the Greek tragedies Edipo Re (1967) and Medea (1970) (clip here). Greek Cypriot filmmaker Michael Cacoyannis directed three award-winning adaptations of Euripidean tragic plays, all featuring celebrated actress Irene Papas: Electra (1962) (clip here), The Trojan Women (1971) (trailer here), and Iphigenia (1977) (clip here). Also emerging in this period were artistically avant-garde films of ancient myths or dramas retold in modernized settings. These include American director Jules Dassin’s Phaedra (1962) (trailer here), and A Dream of Passion (1978) (images here), both updates of Greek tragedies starring his wife, Melina Mercouri; Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966) (trailer here), a violent, campy Hollywood retelling of Aeschylus’ play Eumenides; and Liliana Cavani’s Year of the Cannibals (1971) (trailer here), featuring a futuristic but still rebellious Antigone. Arthur Allan Seidelman directed a contemporary comic-action reworking of the Hercules myth, Hercules in New York (1970) (trailer here), starring a then unknown Austrian bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The cinematic anthology Winds of Change (1979) (trailer here), directed by Takashi, was a Japanese fantasy animation that recreated five stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses set to contemporary rock music.
Adaptations on Later Screens
Within the dominant medium of television starting in the 1960s and 1970s, ancient mythological and literary themes and archetypes manifested themselves more subtly in the narratives of made-for-television programs. An outstanding example was the influential science fiction series Star Trek (1966–1969), created by Gene Roddenberry, which evinced a deep and abiding interest in adapting classical motifs into its futuristic setting (clips here). In recent decades, the television genres of fantasy and science fiction series tend to exhibit ubiquitous classical and mythological allusions, from programs such as the space fantasy Battlestar Galactica, both the original series on ABC (1978–1979) (series promo here), and the exponentially more epic reimagined series on the SyFy network (2003–2009) (trailer here); as well as the popular adventure series Lost (ABC 2004–2010) (trailer here), with its intricate narrative mythology and supernatural elements. Premium cable HBO’s densely plotted series, Deadwood (2004–2006) (trailer here), follows the rough denizens of a frontier mining camp who constantly pepper their speech with allusions to classical history, literature, and mythology, as well as Latin words and phrases. Creator David Milch initially wanted to develop a series set in ancient Rome, to establish how civilization comes out of chaos, but decided instead to examine the way the wild Western frontier of America made itself into a community in the image of classical antiquity.
Feature films in recent decades have also reinvented ancient literary motifs and plots by situating them in more modern contexts. Themes and images from Homer’s Iliad can be traced in Ridley Scott’s dystopian Blade Runner (1982) (trailer here), Oliver Stone’s Vietnam war drama Platoon (1986) (trailer here), Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) (trailer here), and George Miller’s action film Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) (trailer here); while the theme of nostos (homecoming) as well as characters and episodes from Homer’s Odyssey can be found in films as diverse as Philip and Belinda Haas’s gothic drama Angels & Insects (1996) (trailer here), Victor Nuñez’s poetic film Ulee’s Gold (1997) (trailer here), Joel and Ethan Coen’s caper O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) (trailer here), Anthony Minghella’s Civil War tale Cold Mountain (2003) (trailer here), and Pedro Almodóvar’s melodramatic Volver (2006) (trailer here). Greek tragic themes continue to inform cinematic explorations of weighty social and cultural issues, including the elements of mystery and transformation from Euripides’ Bacchae that punctuate Neil Jordan’s surprise-ending thriller The Crying Game (1992) (trailer here); the Sophoclean Antigone plot of natural vs. manmade law developed in Tim Robbins’ capital punishment drama Dead Man Walking (1995) (trailer here); the isolation of the tragic Philoctetes figure in Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000) (trailer here); and the relentless Oedipal exploration of the limits of human knowledge in Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man (2009) (trailer here). The Orpheus motif remains well suited to the musical film and found recent articulation in Baz Luhrmann’s operatic Moulin Rouge (2001) (trailer here), while the darker katabatic elements of the myth can be detected in George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau (2011) (trailer here).
Greek mythological themes and narratives continue to inspire onscreen entertainment intended for younger audiences. The blockbuster Percy Jackson films, inspired by the popular young adult novel series by author Rick Riordan, track the escapades of the titular teenaged demigod as he makes his way in the modern world: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010) (trailer here), directed by Chris Columbus, and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013) (trailer here), directed by Thor Freudenthal, offer a mash-up of mythological characters and plots as Percy, the son of the Greek god Poseidon, has adventures such as visiting the underworld and fetching the Golden Fleece. Even bigger in terms of record-breaking box office success is the Hunger Games series of four science fiction dystopian adventure films, based on the novels by Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games (2012) (trailer here), directed by Gary Ross, and Catching Fire (2013) (trailer here), Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014) (trailer here), and Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015) (trailer here), all directed by Francis Lawrence. The films follow the exploits of young hero Katniss Everdeen, a warrior whose struggle against a ruthless system where adolescent sacrificial tributes are sent to fight to their deaths is loosely based on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, set within the visual and thematic backdrop of Roman gladiatorial cruelty and spectacle. Biggest of all is the massive critical and commercial success of the first – but surely not the last – cinematic version of Wonder Woman (2017) (trailer here), directed by Patty Jenkins, the superhero film based on the DC Comics character, which tells the origin story of Diana, daughter of Zeus and Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, who leaves her mythical land of Themiscyra on a mission to save human beings in the present day from the ravages of war.
Films and television productions use both modes of adaptation to project a connection between the ancient sources and modern screens, in order to illuminate some of the most powerful recent incursions of the classical world into the popular consciousness. In the twenty-first century, feature films and television series represent some of the most visible, omnipresent, and compelling expressions of contemporary classical reception.
Discussion of the Literature
The most comprehensive study of cinematic classical reception is Jon Solomon’s pioneering work The Ancient World in the Cinema, an exhaustive survey of lively commentaries on over four hundred films, accompanied by plentiful images and illustrations. For an engaging exploration of how antiquity is portrayed on screen to reflect contemporary issues, see Jeffrey Richards’ review of several major films in Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds, while Martin M. Winkler’s Cinema and Classical Texts: Apollo’s New Light presents a theoretical examination of a number of American and European films as visual texts that engage with ancient literature and mythology. For a contemporary analysis of the cinematic epic, see Robert Burgoyne’s The Hollywood Historical Film, and Joanna Paul’s incisive monograph on the power and endurance of the epic genre, Film and the Classical Epic Tradition. Kirsten Day’s Cowboy Classics: The Roots of the American Western in the Epic Tradition offers a groundbreaking study of the epic narrative mode in the contemporary western film.1
On the depiction of ancient Greece and Greeks on screen, see Gideon Nisbet’s keen discussion of the category in Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture; see also the valuable contributions in the volume edited by Irene Berti and Marta García Morcillo, Hellas on Screen: Cinematic Receptions of Ancient History, Literature and Myth. On the depiction of ancient Rome and Romans in film, see Maria Wyke’s Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History, which focuses on how individual figures and events from Roman history have been depicted in cinema since the early 1900s; and the contributions to the volume edited by Sandra R. Joshel, Margaret Malamud, and Donald T. McGuire, Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, which cast a wider net around various popular genres; while Monica S. Cyrino’s Big Screen Romethoroughly explores the narratives, production histories, and themes of nine major films that recreate Roman antiquity. Two general surveys are indispensable for teaching onscreen classical reception: the volume edited by Dunstan Lowe and Kim Shahabudin, Classics for All: Reworking Antiquity in Mass Culture, and the volume written by Alastair J. L. Blanshard and Kim Shahabudin, Classics on Screen: Ancient Greece and Rome on Film.2
Scholars also focus on specific myths as deployed in film and television, such as Paula James’ exploration of Ovid’s Myth of Pygmalion on Screen: In Pursuit of the Perfect Woman, and the wide-ranging contributions to the volume edited by Monica S. Cyrino and Meredith E. Safran, Classical Myth on Screen. The volume edited by Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos, Ancient Greek Women in Film, presents essays that consider both historical and mythological female figures in cinema, while the contributions to the volume edited by Marta García Morcillo, Pauline Hainsworth, and Óscar Lapeña Marchena, Imagining Ancient Cities in Film: From Babylon to Cinecittà, look at the construction and design of cinematic urban antiquity.3
For studies of specific films, see the volume edited by Paul Cartledge and Fiona R. Greenland, Responses to Oliver Stone’s Alexander: Film, History and Cultural Studies; the quartet of volumes edited by Martin M. Winkler on Gladiator: Film and History, Spartacus: Film and History, Troy: From Homer’s Iliad to Hollywood Epic, and The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History; Ruth Scodel and Anja Bettenworth’s book, Whither Quo Vadis? Sienkiewicz’s Novel in Film and Television; and Jon Solomon’s Ben-Hur: The Original Blockbuster. Several volumes concentrate on specific television series that evoke the ancient world: on the critically acclaimed HBO-BBC cable television series Rome, see the two collections of essays edited by Monica S. Cyrino, Rome, Season One: History Makes Television, and Rome, Season Two: Trial and Triumph. On the compelling four-season series Spartacus, see the recent volume edited by Antony Augoustakis and Monica S. Cyrino, STARZ Spartacus: Reimagining an Icon on Screen. All the various strands of onscreen classical reception studies are now joined together in the expansive new volume edited by Arthur J. Pomeroy, A Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome on Screen.4
Augoustakis, Antony, and Monica S. Cyrino, eds. STARZ Spartacus: Reimagining an Icon on Screen. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.Find this resource:
Berti, Irene, and Marta García Morcillo, eds. Hellas on Screen: Cinematic Receptions of Ancient History, Literature and Myth. Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2008.Find this resource:
Blanshard, Alastair J. L., and Kim Shahabudin. Classics on Screen: Ancient Greece and Rome on Film. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011.Find this resource:
Burgoyne, Robert. The Hollywood Historical Film. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.Find this resource:
Cartledge, Paul, and Fiona R. Greenland, eds. Responses to Oliver Stone’s Alexander: Film, History and Cultural Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.Find this resource:
Cyrino, Monica S. Big Screen Rome. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.Find this resource:
Cyrino, Monica S., ed. Rome, Season One: History Makes Television. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.Find this resource:
Cyrino, Monica S., ed. Screening Love and Sex in the Ancient World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.Find this resource:
Cyrino, Monica S., ed. Rome, Season Two: Trial and Triumph. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.Find this resource:
Cyrino, Monica S., and Meredith E. Safran, eds. Classical Myth on Screen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.Find this resource:
Day, Kirsten. Cowboy Classics: The Roots of the American Western in the Epic Tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.Find this resource:
James, Paula. Ovid’s Myth of Pygmalion on Screen: In Pursuit of the Perfect Woman. New York: Continuum, 2011.Find this resource:
Joshel, Sandra R., Margaret Malamud, and Donald T. McGuire, eds. Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.Find this resource:
Lowe, Dunstan, and Kim Shahabudin, eds. Classics for All: Reworking Antiquity in Mass Culture. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.Find this resource:
Morcillo, Marta García, Pauline Hainsworth, and Óscar Lapeña Marchena. Imagining Ancient Cities in Film: From Babylon to Cinecittà. New York: Routledge, 2015.Find this resource:
Nikoloutsos, Konstantinos P., ed. Ancient Greek Women in Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:
Nisbet, Gideon. Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture, updated 2nd ed. Exeter, UK: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2008.Find this resource:
Paul, Joanna. Film and the Classical Epic Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:
Pomeroy, Arthur J., ed. A Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome on Screen. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.Find this resource:
Richards, Jeffrey. Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds. New York: Continuum, 2008.Find this resource:
Scodel, Ruth, and Anja Bettenworth. Whither Quo Vadis? Sienkiewicz’s Novel in Film and Television. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009.Find this resource:
Solomon, Jon. The Ancient World in the Cinema, rev. ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.Find this resource:
Solomon, Jon. Ben-Hur: The Original Blockbuster. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.Find this resource:
Winkler, Martin M., ed. Gladiator: Film and History. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.Find this resource:
Winkler, Martin M., ed. Troy: From Homer’s Iliad to Hollywood Epic. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.Find this resource:
Winkler, Martin M., ed. Spartacus: Film and History. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.Find this resource:
Winkler, Martin M., ed. The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009.Find this resource:
Winkler, Martin M. Cinema and Classical Texts: Apollo’s New Light. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.Find this resource:
Wyke, Maria. Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History. London: Routledge, 1997.Find this resource:
(1.) Jon Solomon, The Ancient World in the Cinema (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001); Jeffrey Richards, Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds (New York: Continuum, 2008); Martin M. Winkler, Cinema and Classical Texts: Apollo’s New Light (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Robert Burgoyne, The Hollywood Historical Film (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008); Joanna Paul, Film and the Classical Epic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Kirsten Day, Cowboy Classics: The Roots of the American Western in the Epic Tradition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).
(2.) Gideon Nisbet, Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture (Exeter, UK: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2008); Irene Berti and Marta García Morcillo, Hellas on Screen: Cinematic Receptions of Ancient History, Literature and Myth (Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2008); Maria Wyke, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History (London: Routledge, 1997); Sandra R. Joshel, Margaret Malamud, and Donald T. McGuire, Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001); Monica S. Cyrino, Big Screen Rome (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005); Dunstan Lowe and Kim Shahabudin, Classics for All: Reworking Antiquity in Mass Culture (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009); and Alastair J. L. Blanshard and Kim Shahabudin, Classics on Screen: Ancient Greece and Rome on Film (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011).
(3.) Paula James, Ovid’s Myth of Pygmalion on Screen: In Pursuit of the Perfect Woman (New York: Continuum, 2011); Monica S. Cyrino and Meredith E. Safran, Classical Myth on Screen (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos, ed., Ancient Greek Women in Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Marta García Morcillo, Pauline Hainsworth, and Óscar Lapeña Marchena, eds., Imagining Ancient Cities in Film: From Babylon to Cinecittà (New York: Routledge, 2015).
(4.) Paul Cartledge and Fiona R. Greenland, Responses to Oliver Stone’s Alexander: Film, History and Cultural Studies (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010); Martin M. Winkler, eds., Gladiator: Film and History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004); Winkler, Spartacus: Film and History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007); Winkler, Troy: From Homer’s Iliad to Hollywood Epic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), and Winkler, The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009); Ruth Scodel and Anja Bettenworth, Whither Quo Vadis? Sienkiewicz’s Novel in Film and Television (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009); Jon Solomon, Ben-Hur: The Original Blockbuster (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016); Monica S. Cyrino, ed., Rome, Season One: History Makes Television (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008); Cyrino, ed., Rome, Season Two: Trial and Triumph (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015); Antony Augoustakis and Monica S. Cyrino, eds. STARZ Spartacus: Reimagining an Icon on Screen (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017); and Arthur J. Pomeroy, ed., A Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome on Screen (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017).