For the longest time, I couldn’t put my finger on it. Why do I like both of these adaptations, fairly equally, but for different reasons? I get the hate some people have for the 2004 film, and I get the hate some people have for the more recent BBC series, but I think they set out to do different things, and when you judge them not against each other, but by their own standards, I think you’ll find they come up not as competitors, but as friends, competing in different races.
The easiest comparison we can do, that leads to all kind of bickering, is which one is more accurate. Sure Achilles’ xanthos hair is probably, let’s be honest, an argument for an Indo-European with blond or red hair. But then again, Menelaus didn’t get killed either and Odysseus has a much richer and darker sub plot in Fall of a City than he does in (2004). Add to that—what’s more accurate—the gods not being shown to intervene in the war, or them intervening but, again, not being so Indo-European? The answer—I would argue—is, more accurate to what?
I think this question is the secret to what we enjoy about these adaptations: what are they accurate to? (2004) has the flavour of ‘history behind the myth’. The idea is something like, the gods might not be intervening directly in people’s lives or fighting on battlefields, but they still might be up there somewhere. What’s more important though are our own human struggles as we live our lives—whether they’re there or not. Fall of a City, on the other hand, gives a much closer reading of the texts themselves—and gives the gods as bickering characters and personalities who try to change world affairs as much as mortals. One is trying to reimagine the past in light of how we think in the present, and the other is trying to reimagine a myth from the past in light of how we think in the more recent present.
(2004) has a brilliant scene that was never in the Iliad but in my opinion is better than half of what is. It’s about Achilles arguing with Briseis—a priestess—about whether we should spend our lives worshipping gods we can’t see when we’re doomed to live mortal lives that could end at any moment. And the answer is: live your life your way, and let the gods be jealous of your freedom and the bitter-sweetness of a ticking clock. It’s fundamentally capturing a part of our modern culture’s spiritual scepticism bordering on nihilism and, moreover, an answer to it. Will the gods look after you when you die? Who knows? So make the most of the present. It captures one feeling of the modern world, one aspect of the zeitgeist, and it makes it a central tenant of the film.
Fall of a City takes another aspect of the modern world and, rather than trying to replicate it, tries instead to fix it in a projection into the past. Let’s reimagine a myth in a time that came before, where black people weren’t still persecuted by systemic injustice and latent racism—they were equally among the gods themselves and the best of warriors, and no one even thought for a moment about the colour of anyone’s skin. It’s a powerful goal to strive towards—real equality, one with no power differential underlying it making a farce out of perceived fairness. Fall of a City is trying to imagine—like a mythical Atlantis of old—an idyllic society trapped in myth that we might never reach in reality but can strive towards, and the more we normalise the goal, and the more we strive towards it, the better (hopefully) we’ll be.
But so far the question of ‘more accurate to what?’ has been answered relative to ourselves—to our inquiry into the past. And in one sense, that’s the process of history—we inquire into the past and depending on the questions we’re asking, we’ll get different answers because we’re looking in different places. But Troy is also a story and ‘more accurate to what?’ can also refer to which story we mean.
I would argue there’s two main stories surrounding the legendary sack of Troy. There’s the overall story of—Helen gets abducted by Paris, Greeks invade in revenge, war goes back and forth, Achilles kicks arse, Hector dies, Troy is sacked, Greeks have a tricky journey home—and then there’s a more focussed story of—Achilles’ woman gets taken from him, Achilles sulks, the Greeks start to lose, Achilles still sulks, Patroclus dies helping the Greeks, Achilles goes bananas, Priam asks for his son’s body, Achilles calms down a bit. The first one is more grand and all-encompassing, the second one is more personal. The first one is the collective Trojan cycle mythos, and the second one is the Iliad.
While both adaptations have approximately the same start and end, they focus on very different things. (2004) makes Achilles and his personal journey the focus, much like the Iliad and so it emphasises the scenes which affect Achilles. In Fall of a City, Achilles’ story still plays out, but the overarching story is Paris’ coming of age to be a man if it’s about anyone in particular. Fall of a City gives the overall mythos its greater due—though bear in mind it had a lot more screen time to give it justice. The actor who played Achilles in Fall of a City did a good job, in my opinion, but the emphasis wasn’t there—not for the whole series—and so Achilles’ arc felt more powerful to me in (2004), where they emphasised it. So ‘what are you more accurate to?’ is partly, which story are you more accurate to? Which character is this really about? If, like the ancient Greeks, you ultimately found the story of Achilles within the Trojan war to be the most powerful, then I can understand why you might gravitate more to the 2004 film. If Achilles seemed like a whingey child to you or you are interested in multiple character’s journeys, then I can understand why you might gravitate more to Fall of a City. It’s not just about what cultural issues we feel most relevant—that’s only part of it—it’s also about which part of the story we find most compelling. And maybe that changes with our mood as much as anything else. So maybe both are worth watching again and again, for ever do poets cry out for inspiration from the Muses of the Greeks, and ever, it seems, they answer.