Summer movies: action flicks that sack and pillage the classics
Summer is upon us, and perspicacious followers of mass-market entertainment know that means only one thing: a deluge of multi-hundred-million-dollar budget movies raining down on our local multiplexes like the elements in "The Day After Tomorrow." (Summer used to mean two things, actually, the second being that television was a vast, rerun-filled wasteland, but new scheduling practices on cable channels and Fox seem to be changing that, so we're down to just the one thing.)
Some of the first entries out of the gate in the summer sweepstakes are what the executives like to call "high-concept" and the literary critics used to like to call "epic." These are long and intense tales filled with action and often featuring the exploits of complex and flawed heroes against remarkable and difficult obstacles (sometimes villains, sometimes not.)
The first two major summer movies - "Van Helsing" and "Troy" - both fit the pattern, and the latter is even based on the granddaddy of all epics, Homer's "Iliad." ("Van Helsing" has a literary pedigree of its own, of course; the eponymous vampire hunter is inspired by a character from Bram Stoker's Dracula, though I'm sure the gentlemanly Victorian doctor would have some difficulty recognizing himself in Hugh Jackman's flowing leather jacket and mechanized weapons of mass monster destruction.)
Both movies seem to be critical disappointments, though each have their own undeniable computer-generated thrills. Given the nature of the source material, you might wonder: how could the movies go so wrong, when the originals still manage to maintain their power centuries, or even millennia, after they first thrilled readers? How is it that they can take great stories and turn them into something simply mediocre?
While it's hardly fair to blame Wolfgang Petersen and David Benioff, the director and writer of Troy respectively, for not being Homer, one can, I think, justifiably blame them for changing Homer's story insensitively. This is different from the purist's complaint of changing the story at all (though I have to admit that, in an Oedipus-like fashion, I wanted to tear my own eyes out at the movie's end, which does more violence to Greek myth than the Greeks did to the Trojans). There are occasional changes, like introducing Achilles before the true action begins on the shores of Troy, that actually make it easier to follow the story.
In general, though, the changes wreaked on the epic - for instance playing up the love story far beyond its literary importance, and playing down Achilles' links to family and to his beloved Patroklos (who is not, as the movie intimates, his cousin, but a gay lover). The changes also transform almost all of the grand sentiments and emotional complexities that characterize the masterwork into the kind of typical Hollywood emotional shorthand that stunts character rather than expresses it. This is truly the tragedy of "Troy", not that of the wrath of mighty Achilles.
One of the few scenes that remains powerful in "Troy" is one that Benioff takes, essentially unchanged, from the "Iliad" itself. (If you haven't read "The Iliad" or seen the movie, you may want to skip the rest of this paragraph. You may also want to read "The Iliad.") Priam, the king of Troy, sneaks into the Greek camp at night and visits Achilles in his tent, hoping to recover the body of his son Hector, who Achilles has not only killed, but whose body he has desecrated.
Priam falls to his knees before the young warrior, kisses his hands, and says, "I have done what no man on earth should have do: I have put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children." Seeing Peter O'Toole do this, you feel a shudder from across the millennia, a height rarely matched throughout the rest of the movie.
A similar moment is present in the Dracula story, where Van Helsing, the vampire hunter who has tried to put all else aside in his hunt for the fiend, recognizes that Dracula has managed to turn his daughter into a vampire: and what was once Gothic melodrama deepens, for the moment, into tragedy. There are no equivalent scenes in "Van Helsing," and for all its strutting and fretting, its monsters dazzle the eye without touching the heart.
Don't get me wrong: there's nothing bad in the world about a hundred million dollar B picture that starts out that way and firmly intends to remain so. (To help me get that sense back, I'm going to see "The Day After Tomorrow" the day after tomorrow; a good disaster picture is pretty much the B picture's apotheosis.)
It's when you take A-picture material and drag it down that you get the kind of feeling that Aristotle wrote so eloquently about, a mixture of pity and fear - pity on yourself for having seen the mighty fall so, and fear that the studios are going to do it again with some other work you love.