Some say that there’s no new story under the sun – storytellers just tell the same stories over and over again while changing the details. While it’s difficult to say where one story ends and the next begins, there are storytellers who draw direct inspiration from older stories, revitalizing ancient tales with modern elements or interpretations. As technology changes how stories are told, there are additional resources and avenues for storytellers to utilize in order to bring stories to life; film as a medium has made it possible to take stories that were passed down orally or through writing and bring them to audiences visually and immersively. Black Orpheus (1959) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) both famously took ancient myths and synthesized their stories for the screen.
In recent years, filmmakers have not slowed down . The films selected for this list may or may not include specific characters, settings, or details from myths; in some, the myth serves as a reference point for a world, even if the story is original. All of these films do, however, explicitly deal with pieces of myths’ content, rather than simply taking rhetorical or structural inspiration from the stories.
Here are 14 Ways New Movies Reimagine Old Myths:
Thor (2011) – along with its sequels Thor: The Dark World (2013) and the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – follows the story of the Norse God Thor (Chris Hemsworth). While the films are based on the Marvel Comics, the comics draw inspiration from the ancient myths of the Norse, or Viking-era Scandinavians.
For the Marvel Universe, the characters of Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are reimagined. Instead of being Thor’s nemesis, in the myths, Loki is the god of mischief, and is a sometime-enemy, sometime-ally of Thor. The mythological Thor had a fiery temper and a stubbornness that made him fall for many tricks and traps – in one comedic story, his hammer was stolen by giants who demanded the goddess Freyja’s hand for its return. Loki helps Thor to get his hammer back, by disguising Thor as the goddess Freyja (complete with bridal veil to hide Thor’s giant red beard).
In the Marvel films, Thor has to save the day both in Asgard and in the modern world. The gods Thor, Loki, and Heimdall (Idris Elba) have also appeared in the Marvel Avengers films.
13. Pan’s Labyrinth
Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is either about a fantasy princess trapped in the world of humans or a child using her vivid imagination in order to escape from a brutally violent reality – depending on how you look at it. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is forced to move with her mother into the home of her new (and evil) stepfather (Sergi Lopez); however, unlike many classic fairy tales, this evil step-parent is a sadistic fascist in 1940s Spain. The story borrows from folklore as well as weaving in its own original fantastical elements and creatures, but the role of the “Fairy Godmother” takes a more sinister turn as the Faun (or in the title’s English translation, Pan).
In Greek mythology, fauns were half-human and half-goat. They were known for their bacchanal festivities and seduction of humans, animals, and nymphs. The god of the fauns, Pan, usually known as the son of Hermes, was known to enjoy wild pastimes, but also could become bestial and dangerous when angry.
12. The Secret of Kells
The Secret of Kells (2009) is an Irish animated film about a boy named Brendan (Evan McGuire) who lives in a monastery with his uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson). The film’s striking animation style is inspired by Celtic art, including the famed Book of Kells, which the monks in Cellach’s monastery are working to illuminate.
The Secret of Kells features elements of Celtic mythology, including faeries and the god Crom Cruach – whose name roughly translates to “crooked, bloody head”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Crom Cruach was known for desiring sacrifices, especially of the human variety. Very little evidence remains about Crom Cruach, but he does appear in a story with St. Patrick, in which the saint banishes the violent pagan god from Erin’s Isle.
11. Clash of the Titans
Clash of the Titans (2010) is a reinvention of the myth of Perseus (Sam Worthington), one of Zeus’s (Liam Neeson) many human sons. Perseus is perhaps most famed for using Athena’s mirror shield to kill Medusa, the gorgon whose hideous appearance could turn an onlooker to stone. In different versions of the story of Perseus, he also flew on Pegasus, the winged horse, and saved Andromeda from a sea monster.
The film actually covers the major plot points of the original myth, although it creates additional plot points and subplots, lengthening the steps that Perseus needs to take in order to destroy the Kraken and rescue Andromeda (Alexa Davalos). Hades (Ralph Fiennes) is also made into one of the story’s main villains, despite Hades not being involved in the original myth.
Troy (2004) is based on Homer’s Iliad, which detail the Trojan War and the lives and deaths of great heroes, including Achilles (Brad Pitt), Hector (Eric Bana), Odysseus (Sean Bean), and Agamemnon (Brian Cox). After Paris (Orlando Bloom), the son of King Priam of Troy (Peter O’Toole) steals away Helen (Diane Kruger) from her husband Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), Greek heroes and armies unite in order to retrieve her and sack Troy.
The film includes many of the major events of the story, from Hector and Achilles’ duel to Odysseus’s strategy that leads to Troy’s demise (spoiler alert: it’s the Trojan Horse). One of the biggest differences between the film and the source material is that the film omits the Greek gods, which were of great importance to Homer’s rendition of the story. In the film, it is the wills and emotions of men that affect the course of history, rather than the whims of gods.
The Irish myth of the selkie has inspired a number of movies, including The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) and more recently Song of the Sea (2014). Perhaps the best known selkie adaptation to film, however, is Ondine (2009), which stars Colin Farrell as Syracuse, a fisherman in a small Irish town. One day, he catches a mysterious woman in his fishing net who calls herself Ondine (Alicja Bachleda-Curus).
According to legend, selkies were mythical creatures that carry two forms, a seal form and a human form. Female selkies could shed their skin and come to shore to walk among humans. Some fell in love with human men; others had their skins stolen and were forced to become the wives of the men who possessed their hides. Either way, these selkies often are overcome by a desire to return to sea. Ondine‘s modern interpretation of the legend incorporates contemporary elements that create a fresh take on an old story.
8. Percy Jackson and the Olympians
Young adult series often pull inspiration from mythology, from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010) and its sequel Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013) are based on a best-selling series of books of the same names. Percy Jackson is a schoolboy in New York City – who discovers that he is the son of Poseidon, the Greek deity of the sea and brother of Zeus.
The films weave together a number of different myths and deities in a new and modern story: the first film focuses on Percy trying to find Zeus’s missing lightning bolt after Zeus blames him for its disappearance; the second film involves a quest similar to Jason and the Argonauts, in which Percy and his friends must retrieve the mystical Golden Fleece.
Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006) is a visual feast that is based on Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s comics. Both the comics and the film draw from the Battle of Thermopylae, which was a real-life conflict between the Greeks and the Persians. The accounts of this battle were largely embellished by the Greek historian Herodotus that it became a myth. For instance, Herodotus wrote that there were millions of Persians fighting in the battle, while modern historians say that their numbers would have been in the low hundred-thousands. The forces of King Leonidas became legendary, in ancient Greece and beyond.
Plutarch recounts the legend that when King Leonidas (Gerald Butler) was asked to lay down his arms, he responded, “Come and take them.” In the movie, too, Leonidas shouts, “Come and get them!” in response to a Persian general.
6. The Mummy
Mummification was used in ancient Egypt as a burial practice meant to preserve the physical body after death. While mummies today are often associated with pharaohs and other ancient Egyptian elites, mummification was used by people of all ranks of society, although the wealthy were able to afford the best preservation techniques (including organ removal, embalming chemicals, etc.). The tombs and burial items of ancient Egyptians greatly varied depending on rank and social status. The ancient Egyptians believed that a person’s physical body was necessary for the afterlife.
In The Mummy (1999), a band of adventurers in the 1920s accidentally free the murderous mummy, Imhotep. Imhotep’s name, and part of his inspiration, comes from the Egyptian high priest and innovator Imhotep, who later was deified by a cult following. The film also works in references to the famed Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Biblical ten plagues of Egypt.
5. My Fair Lady
The classic film My Fair Lady (1964) has a complicated source history. The film is based on a musical of the same name; the musical was adapted from the 1938 film version of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. Shaw’s title helps to illustrate how the story has ties to ancient mythology. In Greek mythology, including in a story from Ovid’s Metamorphses, Pygmalion was a sculptor. He sculpts the perfect woman out of ivory, and then falls in love with his creation. After praying to the goddess of love, Aphrodite, Pygmalion discovered that his statue had come to life.
George Bernard Shaw’s reinterpretation of the story, which trickles down to My Fair Lady, tells the story of a professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) who decides to use his knowledge of language and speech to turn a poor flower seller with a thick Cockney accent, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) into a respectable and well-spoken lady. Higgins discovers that while he can mold the way that Eliza speaks, he can’t control how she acts.
Disney’s Hercules (1997) is one of many adaptations about one of Zeus’s many human sons. The animated film pulls from many Greco-Roman myths, including the twelve labors of Hercules. The film also incorporates myths of the afterlife, the fate of the Titans, and famous gods and characters from across the mythos.
Strangely enough, the film’s major antagonist is Hades, the brother of Zeus and uncle of Hercules. While in modern films Hades is often made into a villain, perhaps because of his association with the dead, he did not bear any ill-will to Hercules, and largely kept to himself.
In fact, it was Hera, Zeus’s wife, who hated Hercules, because he was the product of one of Zeus’s many affairs with mortal women. Hera was so jealous, in fact, that she drove Hercules to insanity and he murdered his children and wife, Megara; his twelve labors were meant to be penance for these horrible crimes. However, that part of the story probably didn’t seem appropriate for a children’s movie, so in the film, Megara (Susan Egan) is the name given to Hercules’s (Tate Donovan) mortal love interest (spoiler: he doesn’t murder her).
3. Wonder Woman
Marvel isn’t the only comic-to-film adaptation that pulls from mythological sources: Wonder Woman (2017), or Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), is an Amazon and a human daughter of Zeus. Both her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt General Antiope (Robin Wright) get their names from famous Amazons in Greek mythology and her first name, Diana, is the Roman name for Artemis, the goddess of the moon and the hunt. Artemis was also the goddess symbol of the Amazons. Hippolyta’s famous girdle even evolved into the Lasso of Truth.
The Amazons were a fierce tribe of warrior women; they scorned men, except once a year when they would seek out men from neighboring tribes in order to procreate. Any male children that resulted from these unions were either murdered or sent to live with their fathers. In some myths, Amazons would cut off one of their breasts so that they could better shoot their bow and arrow. Their brutal and uncompromising toughness frames Wonder Woman in a different light than how she is often portrayed, and how this influence is utilized could make for a very exciting film.
2. Gods of Egypt
Gods of Egypt (2016) takes some major players from Egyptian mythology – the jealous Set (Gerard Butler) wants to rule in the place of his brother Osiris (Bryan Brown), and it later overthrown by his vengeful nephew, Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
In the original myth, Set killed his brother and cut him into pieces so that he could not be brought back to life. Osiris’s wife, Isis, gathered these pieces of her husband and reconstructed him; Osiris became the god of the underworld, and Horus, his son, returned to challenge his uncle for the throne of pharaoh. Gods of Egypt modifies this story, simplifying many of its less appealing elements (including the fact that Osiris and Isis are both husband and wife and brother and sister), and adding significant roles to mere mortals.
1. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) is the Coen brother’s adaptation of The Odyssey. However, instead of the Roman hero Ulysses (or the Greek Odysseus) journeying home after the Trojan War, it’s Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) trying to make his way home after being arrested and being forced into a chain-gang in the Depression-era American South. Along with Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), the smooth-talking Everett has to evade the Lotus Eaters (performing baptisms in a river), Sirens (singing women who draw them in), the Cyclops (Big Dan, the one-eyed villain played by John Goodman) in order to win back his wife Penelope (or Penny, played by Holly Hunter).
The film brilliantly incorporates folk music in order to create a completely new – and hilarious – take on the classic story.
There are countless myths and old stories that have been transformed into new films – did we miss one of your favorites? Tell us in the comments!
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