"I like the gods,” my friend novelist and movie blogger Barbara Nachman says as we exit the new “Hercules,” starring Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, in the title role.
I do, too. The Greek gods were among my childhood companions, offering thrilling stories and transcendence without the guilt trip of modern religion. (A well-known classicist, who shall remain nameless here, once told me she would take the Greek gods over the Abrahamic one any day of the week and twice on Sundays, so to speak.)
This being the age of post-modernism, the gods are nowhere to be found in the new “Hercules,” and that’s too bad, because they’re such an entertaining lot and because the ancient Greeks believed in them – or at least the stories they could spin off of them – so passionately. (Certainly, the Greco-Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great did. He saw Hercules – Heracles in Greek, Hercules in Latin – as one of his paternal ancestors.)
Making a movie about an ancient Greek legend when you imply that the legend is really part PR campaign, part empowerment exercise, well, it doesn’t quite cut it, does it?
Otherwise, the new “Herc” is a not-bad movie that fits The Rock, er, Dwayne Johnson, like the skin of the slain Nemean Lion Herc sported. Working from the Steve Moore-Admira Wijaya graphic novel “Hercules: The Thracian Wars,” director Brett Ratner of the “Rush Hour” movies and screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos have fashioned an up-from-his-sandal-straps hero, who has an easy, wisecracking rapport with his family of misfit sidekicks, including the mercenary Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the war victim Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), the Amazonian archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), PR front man Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) and, perhaps most amusingly, the prophet Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), who keeps predicting his own death and then seems disappointed when it doesn’t happen.
They understand as the ancient Greeks did – and as the characters in my new novel “Water Music” come to learn – that narrative really is everything. And he who controls the narrative, controls public opinion. So it doesn’t matter if Hercules is a demigod. It’s useful to think of him as one.
All of that’s fine until “Hercules” descends into a bit of a wellness infomercial:
“People need heroes,” Herc says in one of his few big speeches. “They need someone to believe in. Someone to remind them that they can become a hero themselves.”
OK, let’s leave off that the sentence should be “Someone to remind them that they can become heroes themselves” – agreement in plurality, people. If it’s true that we can become our own heroes, doesn’t that mean first owning everything in our personalities, including their less heroic aspects? In the new book, “The Art & Making of ‘Hercules’” (Harper Design, 176 pages, $35), graphic novelist Moore writes “…in the ancient stories, Hercules was a murderer, a rapist, a womanizer, subject to catastrophic rages and plainly bisexual, and I’ve tried to accommodate all those aspects in my characterization.”
But this being a Paramount-MGM production, the film has been sanitized so that spoiler alert) Hercules’ horrific slaying of his wife Megara and their children is now the murderous act of power-hungry Athenian King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes, looking more and more like big brother Ralph).
In the elevator after the movie, Barbara and I met a couple on their way to see the James Brown film, “Get On Up.”
“He was horrible to women,” the woman said. Still, she was going to see the movie, because “it’s James Brown.”
“We are such complex creatures, aren’t we?” I said.
Hercules, however you slice the narrative, is the story of a complex man. Even the ancient Greeks, however, explained away his less savory aspects. He was driven mad by the goddess Hera, who couldn’t stand being reminded that Hercules was another of wandering hubby Zeus’ out-of-wedlock children.
Yet we don’t believe in the gods. And so, we no longer have them to blame.