Is Troy destined to fail?

By Yanmin Zhuchen

Netflix and BBC’s new adaptation of Troy: Fall of a City revives Homer’s timeless story to the modern screen, promising to be an 8-part series packed with battle, passion, and flare. Written by David Farr and Nancy Harris (of The Night Manager fame) and boasting a strong cast of both new and established actors, it seems that the story of Troy might finally be revived in a way that is both authentic and applauded.

Or does it? The stories from Classical past are notoriously hard to adapt – look at any production of a Greek tragedy. How can you keep the Classicists and lovers of Homer happy, ready to correct every digression from the original narrative? Even harder still, how do you make these ancient poems exciting and fresh to those members of your audience just there for a good hour of television drama? Should you even try?

The short answer is: yes, but very carefully.

The unspoken rule of adapting ancient texts is that sacrifices must be made. It’s choosing the right ones that make or break the production – you want to keep the authenticity, but not alienate your viewers. It must be said, not all of the choices the producers have made in Troy work as well as they might have wished. The flashbacks to the past are only really carried through by the strength of the acting. I also doubt that Helen and her attendants spent each night getting high and dancing sensuously in a linen-draped room in Sparta. It falls prey to the stereotype of historical dramas – sets must be grandiose, costumes extravagant, battles bloody, and sex scenes and nudity gratuitously scattered in.

Some changes are phenomenal and translate so well onscreen. Previous adaptations of the famous myth have shied away from the divine element that features so heavily in Homer’s original, but this one delights in the challenge. The gods and goddesses take centre stage, and we witness their struggle as much as we do the mortal characters. Delving into the Homeric world in such a way gives us a good idea of how and why such events came to be. The fact that such a production has even occurred shows a shift in TV production since Game of Thrones stormed onto the scene. High budgets are now needed to draw an audience to historical dramas, because the standard has been set. Whilst not every show can be Game of Thrones (nor should they try to), this does mean that more interest about these eras is being generated by these high-quality programmes. This, surely, can only be a good thing.

Some changes are a bit more rogue, but they still work – nowhere in Classical literature does it mention an engagement between Hermione, Helen’s daughter, and Paris. Hermione is voiceless in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, but in this adaptation, however, Farr has chosen to place her as the potential wife of Paris, and therefore, he is able to give her a voice. He portrays Hermione as a young girl with wisdom and perception that outstrips that of her parents and elders. She is sharp, witty and wilful – and the fact that such a character has been written into the story is something that we should applaud. Some critics have taken issue with the fact that black actors portray ‘Greek’ heroes and gods, but I think they’re missing the point. It’s less of an attempt by the BBC to PC everything on our screens, but more a chance to challenge our perceptions about an interesting dynamic in the ancient world.

Troy does not look to be a critical success, or even resonate well with its viewers, currently holding IMBD rating of 2.4. The Classicist in me winces more often than I’d like, but I do respect the work that Farr and Harris have done in rewriting this ancient text for modern times. The city of Troy was always destined to fall, and although this production too might flail, the fact that it was even built in the first place is a cause for celebration.

Photograph: Kamil Porembiński via Flickr

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