'Hercules,' part deux


Like Hollywood interpretations, “Hercules Obtaining the Girdle of Hippolyta” by Dutch Old Master  Nic  olaes     Knüpfer   portrays a more conventional hero than the Greek myths suggest.

Like Hollywood interpretations, “Hercules Obtaining the Girdle of Hippolyta” by Dutch Old MasterNicolaes Knüpfer portrays a more conventional hero than the Greek myths suggest.

Following a train of thought, I thought I’d expand on the previous post concerning the new movie “Hercules.”

I suppose there is a segment of society that won’t see it – or admit to seeing it. But to me pop culture is culture, too, and thus a starting point for intellectual discussion. Indeed, the film sent me scurrying to my bookshelves for a childhood favorite, Philip E. Slater’s psychoanalytic “The Glory of Hera” (Beacon Press), a book so old that it cost $3.95.  (Actually, it’s not that old. It was published in 1968.)

Slater paints a portrait of a complex character – a man who is at once gay and straight, masculine and feminine, a lover of family and its destroyer, mother-identified and mother-loathing, victim and victimizer, monster and martyr, all-too-human being and transcendent god. Hercules – Heracles in Greek – is all this, because his myth changed as Greece evolved. He is a metaphor then for the birth of a nation. And more:

“It is plausible to suggest that Heracles was originally the adolescent consort of Hera the mother-goddess,” writes Slater, whose book title is what “Heracles” means in Greek. “This alone would explain the ambivalence, which is undisguised in the later myths.”

You can see how this kind of thinking would be Kryptonite to Hollywood, with its need to satisfy the tween and teen boy audience that is key to the success of its action movies. So Herc becomes a conventional, wisecracking (heterosexual) hero.

But there’s something else going on that you could see in earlier films like “Troy” and “King Arthur,” and that is a demystification of legend, an elimination of the ancient gods and in their place the addition of a rational, biographical, historical explanation for the extraordinary. It’s part of our post-modern, reality-show culture, anti-religious society.  What happens, though, when you turn myth into reality is that you sacrifice poetry and magic.  

Perhaps that’s why so many films seem so limited and why many of us – OK, some of us, including me – prefer books. A book can at least explore subjects in greater depth, because it’s organized in time, not in space like a movie. But a book can also go where a movie for a mass audience might fear to tread, because books are subtler. Reading something violent, for instance, is often a lot easier than seeing it.

Not that books are always poetic. But they do at least offer the possibility of complexity.