Saturday 9 August 2014

Hercules and the Infantilisation of Modern Audiences

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The New Paramount/ MGM Hercules is given only a 12A rating with good reason. Hercules is a trained killer. But not one, as the ancients held, so disturbed by his isolated ordeals of violent combat that he became incapable of civilian life and killed his wife and children.

Far from it. Sophistication in public storytelling has moved steadily backwards. This 21st-century Hercules instead has his family destroyed by A Bad Guy. 

Heracles slaughters wife and sons
Where the audience of Euripides' extraordinary tragedy Heracles watched the mighty warrior come round from a psychotic fit to learn that he was a domestic killer, the audience in Gloucester Cineworld is reassured that the world consists only of Good Guys Who Love their Families and Bad Guys Out to Get Them. There is no such thing as  Moral Complexity.

In the fifth century BC, the citizen audience could digest the advanced ethical philosophy of a scene in which the bereaved father and husband is physically restrained, by two men who love him, from suicide, discusses whether lack of intent affects culpability,  and agrees to accept help in a survival plan despite what he has done. In 2014, however, Hercules gets to slay the gratuitously camp Bad Guy before flexing his depilated pectorals at good-looking individuals of both sexes.

Beware Greeks Bearing Screenplays?
The screenwriter responsible is Evan Spiliotopoulos, a Greek American whose previous credits include Pooh’s Heffalump Movie. When asked in interview which was his favourite Herculean labour, he answered, “The Belt of Hippolyta. Amazons. Bondage. ’Nuff said.”

It is not that I am a killjoy. I like mass market entertainment and outrageous adaptations of classics. I quite enjoyed the film, especially Ian McShane’s louche and mordant prophet Amphiaraus. But there is something about Hercules/Heracles, the archetypal Hero who allowed the ancients to think through their contradictory ideas about masculinity, violence, friendship, fatherhood, social alienation and psychopathology, that makes him resemble many disturbed ex-servicemen and deserve so much more than comic-strip ethical reductivism.

Would you trust this prophet? McShane Nearly Saves the Movie
The elementary level of our era's social morality was summed up in a line from one of Hercules' comrades just before the showdown: "What are you standing there for? KILL SOMEBODY!" If only it were that easy. Even the warlike ancient Greeks knew better. ’Nuff said.

1 comment:

  1. I think we're just harvesting what has, over the past decades, been sown. If you read a book about classics or ancient history, targeted at the greater audience, it is inevitably a simplified story. You never hear why a historian has chosen this or that approach. The hermeneutic game is never explained.

    Everything that makes the classics interesting, the puzzle itself, is kept away from the reader. Nobody can seriously claim that the the classics are an intellectually challenging activity. The infantilisation started some thirty years ago and is killing the classics.