This highly enjoyable take on Greek mythology departs in fascinating ways from its sources
Typical Hollywood. The Greek myths might be bizarre, exciting, violent and dramatic, but that didn’t stop the creators of the highly enjoyable Clash of the Titans film making their plotline even more extravagant than the source material. And that goes for both the ancient Greek myths and the original 1981 movie.
Spoiler alert: here’s a brief plot recap. The 2010 version has Perseus, as a baby, found in a chest with his dead mother by a fisherman (Pete Postlethwaite). He grows up to witness the destruction of a mighty statue of Zeus outside Argos (which is given a coastline location; actually, it’s inland). His adoptive father and family are killed as a sort of collateral damage incident by Hades, who rises up from the depths to take revenge on this insult to the gods. He is taken to Argos where he discovers that king Cepheus is determined to overthrow the gods themselves, who are sustained by the prayers of mortals.
In heaven, Zeus is persuaded by Voldemort, sorry, I mean Hades (Ralph Fiennes) that the mortals can be brought back in line by unleashing the Kraken, the creature which the Olympian gods created to defeat their old enemies, the Titans. Cepheus’s queen, Cassiopeia (Polly Walker, who has previous form in this kind of thing – she was Attia in HBO’s Rome) boasts that their daughter Andromeda is more beautiful than the gods. Hades appears to the court and tells them that Andromeda must be sacrificed to the Kraken. Perseus, having discovered he is the son of Zeus, takes on the job of defeating Hades. Adventures ensue, featuring a winged horse, three appropriately hideous witches, and the Gorgon Medusa. Perseus has a kind of spirit guide, Io (a woman condemned to eternal youth having refused the sexual advances of a god).
What’s so interesting about the 2010 plotline is the idea of men wishing to overthrow the gods; and, as a counter-presence, an idealistic religious fanatic in Argos who believes the gods should be appeased at all costs. This is an incredibly un-Greek idea – though, of course, it resonates with modern debates about fanaticism and atheism. Yes, Socrates was condemned to death in 399BC for failing to respect Athens’s gods (or for introducing new gods), but the fact that the charge appears at all is suggestive, of course. We might also remember that his last words, according to Plato, were advice to his friends to sacrifice a cockerel to the god Asclepius. Even the arch-revolutionary rational thinker Socrates had conventional religion on his mind just before his death.
The perils of competing with the gods, of trying to outdo them or arrogantly comparing oneself one to them – as with Cassiopeia’s boast in the film that Andromeda is more beautiful than Aphrodite – now that’s very Greek. Arachne, for instance, boasted that she was a more skilful weaver than the goddess Athena. For that, she was turned into a spider. And indeed, this bit of the story is present in antique sources, though separated from the overarching idea of defeating the Olympians.
In the ancient sources, Perseus’s quest to kill the Gorgon is a test set by his adoptive father, Polydectes, who is written out of the 2010 film. He chances upon the chained Andromeda, awaiting to be sacrificed to a sea monster. But he does snatch the Graiais’ (witches) single eye, use his mirrored shield to help him kill the Gorgon, employing her snaky head to turn the sea monster to stone. In the Greek stories, Perseus’s helper is the goddess Athene, which obviously wouldn’t quite work with the film’s “overthrow the gods” theme.
None of this is complaint – I rather loved the film. The Greeks themselves were adept rewriters and reshapers of their own myths for dramatic purposes. That, in essence, is what all Greek tragedies do, creatively retelling stories from the past to reflect on the present. Clash of the Titans continues that honourable tradition.