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Monday, September 7, 2009

Myth Interpretation (originally published 8/97)

If you went to see the new, animated version of “Hercules” expecting to see the deeply troubled hero of Greek mythology, I can only assume that you didn’t notice the name “Disney” on the poster. As they have since the days when Uncle Walt himself was still alive, the Disney people continue to recast classic stories in more contemporary storytelling molds. In this case, the harrowing tale of the penitential labors of Hercules has been replaced by the story of a callow youth in a god’s body gradually growing to emotional maturity. To make the story even more accessible, the original setting in ancient Greece has been retained in name only. We see instead an ancient setting overlaid with an anachronistic modern veneer of language and customs, similar to the interweaving of modern technology with the Stone Age setting of “The Flintstones.”

Not surprisingly, this cheerful irreverence toward the original myth is seen by many as an offense against our literary heritage. Well, maybe it is, but if so we shouldn’t send Disney to the pillory all alone. Plenty of other filmmakers have also played fast and loose with Greek and Roman mythology. Here are a few non-Disney titles, all available on video, in which ancient myths are revamped, updated, and generally given a narrative face lift.

“Pygmalion” (1938). The familiar story of “My Fair Lady,” in which Professor Henry Higgins transforms a cockney urchin into a respected lady by coaching her in proper speech, is in fact a modern version of the myth of Pygmalion. In the original myth, a sculptor named Pygmalion fell in love with a statue he had created. The goddess Venus, taking pity on him, endowed the statue with life so that they could be married. This early film version is based on George Bernard Shaw’s non-musical play, the inspiration for “My Fair Lady,” in which the mythological origins of the story are acknowledged in the title.

“Down to Earth” (1947). Rita Hayworth stars as Terpsichore, the Greek muse of dance. A theatrical producer, played by Larry Parks, is staging a show based on the muses, but Terpsichore doesn’t care at all for the “low and vulgar manner” in which she is being portrayed. She receives special dispensation to take on human form to try and rectify the unfortunate situation. This musical comedy was remade in 1980 as “Xanadu,” with Olivia Newton-John as the muse.

“One Touch of Venus” (1948). When a department store window dresser impulsively kisses one of his mannequins, she is magically changed into the personification of Venus, the goddess of love, for 24 hours. The role of Venus went to Ava Gardner, Hollywood’s reigning sex symbol of the period. The film was based on a play by S.J. Perelman featuring songs by Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill. Those who are familiar with the play say that the film doesn’t begin to do it justice. That’s probably true, but for those of us who don’t know what we’re missing, the film remains an entertaining diversion.

“Black Orpheus” (1959). Director Marcel Camus’s fascinating updated version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice was the talk of the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. In the original myth, Orpheus pursues his dead wife into the underworld to try to bring her back. Camus’s version changes the setting to modern-day Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. The surreal mood created by the revelers’ outlandish costumes allows the supernatural story of the myth to blend seamlessly with the contemporary setting.

“A Dream of Passion” (1978). Melina Mercouri plays a Greek actress who is rehearsing to star in a stage production of “Medea.” As a publicity stunt, she meets with a woman, played by Ellen Burstyn, who has been convicted of murdering her own children, just as Medea did. Inevitably, the actress becomes absorbed by the story of the woman who has lived out the myth of Medea in real life. The film explores how the interaction of these two women feeds into the interpretation of Medea that emerges on the stage.

That kind of interaction with mythology is, in a sense, what all of these films represent. From Disney to Shaw, each has peered into the myth and seen themselves, then retold the myth in their own way. Whether that’s a desecration or an enhancement is, I’m afraid, too weighty a debate to resolve here.