Archive for ‘bechdel test: fail’

January 1, 2019

“Helena. Der Untergang Trojas” (1924)


Silent Movie
Directed by: Manfred Noa
Run Time: 219 minutes (Der Raub der Helena is 100 minutes and Die Zerstörung Trojas is 119 minutes)
Starring: Edy Darclea (Helen), Vladimir Gajdarov (Paris), Albert Steinrück (Priam)

Synopsis: Helena. Der Untergang Trojas – titled Helen of Troy in English although the German title translates to Helen: The Fall of Troy – is made up of two movies, originally released separately: Der Raub der Helena (The Abduction of Helen) and Die Zerstörung Trojas (The Destruction of Troy). As described on the DVD cover, the film is “an unjustly forgotten classic epic of the German silent cinema in a newly reconstructed and meticulously restored version. Shooting in Munich and its surroundings with an international cast, director Manfred Noa told the story of Helen of Troy and the decade-long war between the Greeks and the Trojans.”

My Thoughts: Finally, my silent movie obsession makes an appearance on this blog!

I get the impression that most people today have little experience with silent film beyond perhaps having watched one or two poorly preserved comedy shorts played at the wrong speed to mismatched music. Odds are those comedy shorts didn’t look or sound like that when they were originally released, and Helena. Der Untergang Trojas doesn’t look or sound like that either. It’s a big-budget, three-and-a-half hour serious epic with a cast of thousands. For some years, it was believed to be lost, as too many silent films have been, but I’m thrilled that it was found, reconstructed, restored, and provided with a new musical score. Since its 2016 DVD release, I’ve watched it four times.

My favourite thing about this movie is how it looks. Every costume, prop, and set is so detailed, and every frame makes such good use of foreground, midground, and background, that the resulting world feels populated and real. Although silent film is usually accompanied by music, it’s primarily a visual medium, and this movie demonstrates that extremely well. It’s full of gorgeous and moving shots like Hector approaching a hilltop altar against a background of decorated trees while Paris, who Hector thinks is dead, offers thanks to Aphrodite unseen on the other side, or Achilles praying desperately for Patroclus’s safety at a small shrine while women go about their daily chores behind him, or Priam ordering a huge crowd out of the throne room only to remain there alone, a small, helpless figure dwarfed by the room’s oversized architecture.

Helena also makes use of special effects to represent visions or nightmares. The bold use of light and shadow in the Judgement of Paris sequence or the scene where Helen and Paris first meet is reminiscent of more famous German Expressionist films. There are also some small moments taken straight from the Iliad, such as when Achilles pours dirt over his head at the news of Patroclus’s death. Viewers hoping for details accurate to the archaeological record may be disappointed – this movie moves both the Knossos throne and Mycenae’s Lion Gate to Troy – but I’m happy just enjoying the sheer visual richness on display. I suspect I could watch this movie twenty more times and still notice new things going on in the background.

Although Helena generally follows the usual story of the Trojan War, a decent amount of creative license is taken with the lead-up to the war and the relationships between the characters. I really enjoy the different dynamic that’s created by having Helen and Paris meet in a mysterious and isolated temple before either knows who the other is, and by having them arrive in Troy before Paris knows he’s a prince. I also think the way the Trojan royal family breaks apart as the end of the movie approaches is really interesting – Helen is torn between the Greeks and the Trojans, Paris is torn between Helen and Priam, and Priam loses his grip on his sanity as he’s forced to face the fact that his decisions have brought about the destruction of his city. The result is a series of dark and hopeless scenes that somehow makes the destruction of Troy feel even more final than usual.

The majority of the expected scenes are also executed well, but if I have one criticism of this movie it’s its portrayal of Achilles. Helena‘s Achilles constantly gets angry at the smallest insults. His motivations throughout the movie are his crush on Helen and the wreath he won in a chariot race that for some reason she still has eight years later. He agrees to return Hector’s body not because he and Priam reach a shared understanding, but because he wants to exchange it for the wreath. Achilles in this movie just comes off as so petty and petulant, which is not my preferred reading of the character.

The only other criticism I have is less a criticism and more a daydream. The musical accompaniment on the DVD is provided by a piano and a percussion section. This score is never bad or distracting, and in some places it’s quite good – I like the drums that accompany the Paris vs. Menelaus fight and the marimba (I think it’s a marimba?) that accompanies the more supernatural sequences like Priam’s nightmare. But surely an epic of this scale would be best accompanied by a full orchestral arrangement? I would absolutely love to see that someday.

Helena. Der Untergang Trojas is a fascinating, visually stunning adaptation of the Trojan War story and I absolutely recommend it. While of course I would love to see it grow in popularity among fans of Greek mythology on film, I especially hope that, now that it’s easily available, it will grow in popularity among silent film fans. I would love to one day hear it mentioned in the same breath as more famous German silent films like Metropolis (1927) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). I may be biased, since Helena is a retelling of my favourite story, but I daresay it can stand alongside them.

Watch it: At the time of this posting, Helena can be watched in full on YouTube, although with no subtitles available for the German intertitles.

Buy it: Helena is available on a two-disc DVD set from Edition Filmmuseum Shop or The intertitles are in German; subtitles are available in English and French. This is one of the best physical releases I’ve seen for a silent film outside of the Criterion Collection – it comes with a 20-page booklet (only a few pages of which are in English, but you can still enjoy the pictures), digital images of pamphlets from the 1920s when the film was released throughout Europe, and over an hour of alternate takes and different cuts of the same scenes. It seems Helena followed the silent film trend in that different versions of the movie were released in different international markets – and some of the versions are really different! I really enjoyed checking out all of these DVD extras.

Please note that the DVDs, although region-free, are PAL format. I couldn’t get them to work in my North American DVD player, but I was able to watch them on my North American laptop with VLC Media Player.

Screencaps: Below are five screencaps from the movie that I took to give you a small taste of what it looks like.

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November 5, 2017

Mario Camerini: “Ulysses”


First Released: 1954
Run Time: 115 minutes
Starring: Kirk Douglas (Ulysses), Silvana Mangano (Penelope, Circe), Anthony Quinn (Antinous), Rossana Podestà (Nausicaa)

Synopsis: This lush adaptation of Homer’s grand epic the Odyssey stars Kirk Douglas as the hero Ulysses. After victory in the Trojan War, Ulysses embarks on a ten-year journey back to his kingdom. But before he can reunite with his beloved wife (Silvana Mangano), he must defeat the brutal Cyclops, escape the spell of Circe who turns his crew into swine, and outwit the Sirens who lure sailors to their death. Peril is everywhere — even at home, where the arrogant Antinous (Anthony Quinn) plots to steal Ulysses’ wife before he can complete his final quest in this powerful tale of heroism.

My Thoughts: The eight-episode miniseries Troy: Fall of a City is due to hit the BBC and Netflix next year and I am pretty ridiculously excited. Thinking that I should stop wasting that excitement on constantly refreshing the series’ IMDb page, I decided instead to watch some of the older Trojan War-related movies that I hadn’t seen. First up, Kirk Douglas makes his second appearance on this blog (following his role as Peter in Mourning Becomes Electra), this time as the star of the 1954 peplum Ulysses.

Douglas’s Ulysses is hard to get a handle on. We first see him for just a split second during a flashback to the fall of Troy. Then we see his meeting with Nausicaa, where he has lost his memory. (I’m not sure why the filmmakers introduced this idea and I’m not even sure what the in-story reason for it is supposed to be. His memory returns with equally little reason.) After a bit of that, we get a flashback to Ulysses and his men as they almost humourously stumble upon the cave of the Cyclops. This movie gives us three different introductions to its main character and he acts differently in each one. This is a problem that continues throughout the movie — sometimes Ulysses wants to go home, sometimes he wants to go on an adventure, sometimes he’s desperate to keep moving, sometimes he’s content to stay in the same room for months. Not to say that you can’t have a Ulysses with contradictions — of course you can — but this movie feels like a highlight reel of the Odyssey, jumping from scene to scene with little care taken to ensure that they fit together as a whole. Ulysses doesn’t seem to change because of his personality or his experiences; he changes to suit the filmmakers’ plans for whatever scene is up next. The editing is abrupt, Greek names are mixed with Roman names (Zeus and Athena but Ulysses and Neptune), and the Cyclops scene doesn’t even include the “Nobody” ruse, which was an odd surprise.

Another thing that stood out to me is how much in this movie happens offscreen. It’s true that I don’t really need to see the Cyclops’ eye being stabbed, but when Ulysses shows up in Ithaca talking about how he just spoke with Athena? That feels like an odd scene to leave out. Definitely the biggest offender comes in the very last moment of the movie, when Ulysses is about to finally embrace the wife he hasn’t seen in twenty years, and — he steps offscreen. End movie. Roll credits.

What kind of movie gives the hero his happy ending but doesn’t let you see it?

Thinking about this scene made me curious, so I went back and rewatched the two scenes where Ulysses and Penelope converse, and I discovered that the two characters are only in the same frame for a grand total of about eight seconds. And it happens at the end of the scene where she doesn’t even know it’s him! I don’t know if this has something to do with the fact that this movie was filmed with Douglas (and Quinn) saying his lines in English and everyone else saying their lines in Italian, but it’s baffling! We don’t even get one nice shot of the reunion to cheer us up after the bloody homecoming scene.

Perhaps I shouldn’t rag on this movie so much when almost everything above is something I thought of after I finished it. I enjoyed it while I was watching it! The story moves quickly and the sets and costumes are well done; I especially liked Circe’s sparkling outfits. The effects used to make the Cyclops are also pretty good, if a little uncanny valley at times. Silvana Mangano plays both Penelope and Circe, which is an interesting idea. I thought the Siren scene was surprisingly good — just one long take of Ulysses as he panics because he believes he’s sailing away from Ithaca — and Ulysses’ reunion with Telemachus was as moving as his reunion with Penelope should have been. Rossana Podestà, who would play the title role in Helen of Troy two years later, brings a calm but youthful energy to Nausicaa that I really liked, although the English language version of this movie can’t decide how to pronounce her name. I also liked Anthony Quinn’s scheming Antinous and wouldn’t have minded seeing a little more of him.

So that’s Ulysses. Pretty uneven, but not awful. Although to be honest, I think it’s the type of mindless movie where, if I hadn’t watched it with the intention of reviewing it, I already would’ve forgotten about it.

Buy it at:,

July 21, 2017

Mini-Reviews #3

Torn from TroyPatrick Bowman: Torn from Troy

YA Novel
Pages: 199
First Published: 2011

My Thoughts: Torn from Troy, the first book in the Odyssey of a Slave trilogy, tells the story of Alexi, a poor Trojan orphan. When Troy falls, Alexi is taken as a slave, accompanying Odysseus and his crew through the events of the Odyssey.

The main thing that stood out to me when I read this book was Bowman’s depiction of Troy at war. Not only is this book not at all about the Trojan royal family (only Cassandra – here called “Cassie” for some reason – puts in a brief appearance), but Bowman commits to writing his protagonist as a poor boy who’s lived nearly his whole life in a city under siege. The casual tone Alexi uses to talk about the terrible things he’s witnessed makes sense for the character in a way that I was absolutely not expecting from a book I found in the children’s section, so praise for that. The bruality of Alexi’s world continues after he’s taken as a slave by Odysseus – here called “Lopex” for some reason – although apart from that, there aren’t too many surprises in the narrative.

When I finished Torn from Troy, I figured I would continue with the trilogy, and so I read the first several chapters of the second book, Cursed by the Sea God. Unfortunately, this is where the trilogy fell apart for me. I have a pretty strong dislike for stories where the characters travel from one place to another, only spending enough time to get a superficial understanding of each one-dimensional place before moving on. (Is there a name for this kind of story? Let me know because I have no idea what to call it.) The story of Odysseus’s return home does more or less fit into this category, but the Odyssey plays enough with its structure and has enough other things going on that I think it’s one of the best examples of it.

In the first few chapters of Cursed by the Sea God, however, Bowman’s Odyssey retelling becomes everything I dislike about these travel stories. The characters arrive on Aeolia, an island with a dangerous secret! Well don’t worry, because it only takes Alexi about fifteen minutes to discover the secret and solve the problem. The solution is extremely simple and one of the first things you would think to try, and yet the people of Aeolia have suffered from this problem for years. Thank goodness Alexi came along and was able to solve it with the information he spent five minutes gathering.

This kind of story can work when you’re talking about heroes in mythology, but as a section in a trilogy that until that point had made an effort to be a realistic portrayal of the life of a slave in antiquity, it was very disappointing. There was no depth or complexity to the Aeolia chapters and it took me out of the story completely. But if you’re a fan of this kind of travel story – or if you’re in this trilogy’s target demographic – you’ll probably enjoy Odyssey of a Slave more than I did.

Buy it at:,


Shin Toroia MonogatariTakashi Atoda: Shin Toroia Monogatari

Japanese Title: 新トロイア物語
Pages: 689
First Published: 1997

My Thoughts: (I admit it’s a bit weird to post about a Japanese novel on an English language blog when that novel has not been translated into English. Read on if you’d like a glimpse inside this retelling from another part of the world …)

Shin Toroia Monogatari – the title can be parsed as either The New Story of Troy or The Story of New Troy – follows Aeneas from his childhood to his death, covering both the events of the Trojan War and the quest to build a new Troy. For the longest time, the uninspired cover image, the dry lecture of an opening paragraph, and my mistaken belief that Atoda usually wrote non-fiction had me believing that this novel would be little more than a by-the-book retelling of the Trojan War myth. Now that I’ve finally gotten my Japanese to a level where I was able to read the whole thing (with a dictionary to help me here and there), I was happy to discover how wrong I was. Atoda plays with the story plenty, and for the most part this book was a really surprising, really interesting read.

There are light SPOILERS in the paragraphs below!

My favourite thing about this book, believe it or not, is its Paris. Paris is not usually one of my favourite characters, but I loved him here. His decade-long absence from Troy is made into something of a mystery – did Priam send him away as punishment for something, or did he leave because he wanted to? – so that you’re not quite sure what to make of him when he reappears. And he’s a bit of a jerk at first, flat-out telling a young Aeneas that Aphrodite has only been declared Aeneas’s mother because Aeneas’s father paid the oracle to say so. But as soon as I got to the brutally honest ramble in which he lists all his flaws and compares them to Hector’s virtues, making Aeneas promise that he’ll choose Hector if he ever has to choose between the two of them, I was sold. This Paris is just as imperfect as he usually is, but just having him be aware of it and honest about it really endeared me to him.

I also really liked this book’s version of the death of Achilles. Achilles is killed in the night, and Aeneas has every reason to believe that Paris did it as revenge for Hector’s death. But when Aeneas goes to ask Paris about it, Paris laughs it off as the work of the gods. His refusal to take credit for the best thing he ever does for his city – for the brother he knew was the better person – is excellent, I love it. New favourite Paris.

My second favourite thing about this book will come as no surprise: I really enjoyed the scene where Aeneas visits Helenus and Andromache after the war. The way their excitement at seeing each other again transitions into tension between Aeneas, who believes Helenus is duty-bound to go with him to rebuild Troy, and Helenus, who has put Troy behind him and started a new life, is fantastic. I love how Aeneas seems to think that “You’re a prince of Troy” is the only reason Helenus should need for joining Aeneas on his journey, and how he never seems to fully understand why Helenus turns him down.

Unfortunately, after Aeneas and Helenus parted ways, my enjoyment of the book slowly but steadily declined, to the point where I had to force myself through the last hundred pages. I think the main reason for this is that Atoda’s Aeneas is a pretty empty character. He is “pious Aeneas” but not much else. During the first half of the book, where he acts as our viewpoint character for the events in Troy, he reacts so little to what happens around him that I often forgot he was there. On top of that, it really feels like all of the potentially interesting challenges Aeneas encounters are quickly wrapped up with an “Ah well, I’m sure I did the right thing.” As the story goes on and the more interesting characters are left behind, we enter Atoda’s version of the Latium conflict, where all of the new characters are either completely good or completely evil. It doesn’t help that everyone in this section speaks in such overly polite language that the scene in which Aeneas confesses his love to Lavinia felt to me like some kind of parody. I’ve read a few Japanese reviews of this book and none of them have mentioned this section at all, so it may very well be that it didn’t work for me because I’m not a member of the culture that it was written for – in the author’s note, Atoda does admit that he feels his Aeneas is a modern Japanese man dropped into the ancient world – but I found it pretty tough to get through. (Not that that stopped me from tearing up a little when the last pages of the book started echoing the first pages of the book …)

Although the last hundred pages did diminish my enthusiasm for Shin Toroia Monogatari, overall I did really enjoy it and all the surprises it offered. So far it’s the only Japanese retelling of the Trojan War I’ve found that allows its author some creative license. I’ll keep my eye out for another.

Buy it at:, BookLive (where you can also preview the first fourteen pages in your browser)

November 22, 2014

Mini-Reviews #2

In Search of the Trojan WarMichael Wood: In Search of the Trojan War

Documentary Series
First Released: 1985
Run Time: Six 60-minute episodes.

My Thoughts: In In Search of the Trojan War, historian Michael Wood travels through Europe and Asia in an attempt to answer the question of whether or not the Trojan War really happened. I really have nothing to say about this documentary except that it is absolutely the best documentary I have seen on the subject of the Trojan War and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in anything related to Greek mythology or archaeology. I’ve seen it enough times that I’m sure I could sing you the synthariffic theme song and I still find it a great watch. The series is almost thirty years old and its age does show (I especially love the parts where Wood has to push several buttons AND A LEVER in order to change the picture on a computer screen), but it still has a ton of great information presented in an interesting and enthusiastic way. In an interview filmed for the DVD, Wood talks about how he didn’t want to just tell viewers his conclusions – the series really is set up like a search, and one of my favourite things about it is how Wood shows how details that seem not to be related at all can sometimes turn out to be a major source of information.

Of course I also enjoy all the shots of the archaeological sites, and I especially love the parts where Wood isn’t afraid to use his basic Greek on camera!

Also, at one point there’s a shot of our young host lying shirtless in bed, and it makes me laugh every single time I see it because yes, this is a documentary with fanservice.

Buy it at:,


Mourning Becomes ElectraDudley Nichols: Mourning Becomes Electra

First Released: 1947
Run Time: The full cut seems to have been 175 minutes; I watched the 159-minute version released on DVD.
Starring: Rosalind Russell (Lavinia), Michael Redgrave (Orin), Katina Paxinou (Christine), Kirk Douglas (Peter)

My Thoughts: I loved Rosalind Russell in The Women and His Girl Friday and I loved Michael Redgrave in Dead of Night, so when I learned that they had starred together in the film version of the Eugene O’Neill play based on Aeschylus’ Oresteia I immediately had huge expectations. The first time I watched the movie, it didn’t live up to those expectations at all. The main thing that bothered me is that there is so much talking. I’d probably have an easier time accepting this from a stage production, but in a movie I guess I expect more showing and less telling, and it certainly didn’t help that a lot of this dialogue is delivered in the most overdramatic fashion possible. Luckily, I rewatched the movie about a month later, and enjoyed it rather more than I had the first time. The overdramatic dialogue was much easier to accept when I knew it was coming, although I still wish the movie had taken better advantage of being a movie. To me, one of the most effective sequences is the nearly silent stretch at the beginning when Lavinia is spying on Christine.

Like the Oresteia, Mourning Becomes Electra is made up of three parts, in this case titled “Homecoming,” “The Hunted” and “The Haunted.” Easily my favourite of the three is “The Haunted,” in which Lavinia and Orin attempt to move on from all that has happened. Although there are no Furies to torment this version of Orestes, it’s hinted quite strongly that Orin, who has just returned home from fighting in the Civil War, is suffering from PTSD; I really like the early scene in which he talks about his belief that war involves killing the same man over and over again. Later in the movie, the portraits of Orin and Lavinia’s ancestors take on the role of the Furies, and even the house itself seems to become a source of danger and evil. I loved all of this; it allows the events of the movie to remain realistic while preserving the supernatural spirit of the story it’s based on.

In the end, I like this movie all right, and it was interesting to see how O’Neill played with the story, but I remain hopeful that one day a really great movie version of the Oresteia will be released. I would also like to gain access to the parallel universe where I can watch the version of Mourning Becomes Electra that stars Olivia de Havilland as Lavinia. I wonder which of these wishes is the more realistic.

Watch: the first forty minutes, two minutes from “The Haunted”

August 2, 2014

Yukio Ninagawa: “Troilus and Cressida” (DVD & screencaps)

Ninagawa x Shakespeare X

In August 2012, I was fortunate enough to be able to see Yukio Ninagawa’s all-male production of William Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” in Saitama, Japan. The post I wrote afterwards, which contains more information as well as my thoughts about the production, has baffled me by becoming one of the most popular posts on this blog. I was going to post about it again anyway, but now I feel slightly more justified in doing so!

The DVD: Ninagawa’s “Troilus and Cressida” was released on region-free DVD in 2013 as part of the box set Ninagawa x Shakespeare X (“X” because this is the tenth in the series). The set comes with three DVDs: one for “Troilus and Cressida” (172 minutes), one for a production of “Cymbeline” (188 minutes), and one with bonus features, most notably twenty-one minutes of footage from behind the scenes of “Troilus.” None of these DVDs include subtitles of any kind, although Shakespeare’s text can be used to figure out what’s happening in “Troilus”; I don’t think there are any changes large enough that they would throw someone off. (I haven’t watched “Cymbeline” yet, but I’m looking forward to it!)

Watch: Troilus, Cressida, Pandarus and Diomedes in clips from V.ii and V.iv (please note that the footage on the DVD is higher quality and better edited), the cast at a press conference

Buy it at:, CDJapan

Screencaps: So I originally meant to only screencap the things I wanted to show you when I wrote my previous post, but of course I went a little overboard. Read on for thirty-nine screencaps (and four photos)!

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May 13, 2014

Wolfgang Petersen: “Troy”


First Released: 2004
Run Time: 163 minutes (Director’s Cut: 196 minutes)
Starring: Brad Pitt (Achilles), Eric Bana (Hector), Orlando Bloom (Paris), Diane Kruger (Helen), Peter O’Toole (Priam), Sean Bean (Odysseus)

Synopsis: Brad Pitt picks up a sword and brings a muscular, brooding presence to the role of Greek warrior Achilles in this spectacular retelling of the Iliad. Orlando Bloom and Diane Kruger play the legendary lovers who plunge the world into war, Eric Bana portrays the prince who dares to confront Achilles, and Peter O’Toole rules Troy as King Priam. Director Wolfgang Petersen recreates a long-ago world of mighty warships, clashing armies, the massive fortress city and the towering Trojan Horse.

My Thoughts: May 14, 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of Troy’s theatrical release. Enough reviews of this movie have already been written that I honestly considered never posting about it at all, but I can’t pass up an anniversary. I do, however, want to keep this short; I could talk about this movie for days but I’ve chosen two things I like and two things I don’t like and am going to do my best just to stick with them.

Also, I am making absolutely no attempt in this entry to avoid SPOILERS.

· Thing I Like #1: Achilles’ Fight Scenes

Troy is the only movie I’ve seen so far that actually tries to bring the greatest warrior of the Trojan War to life on the battlefield, and just for that I’m glad it exists. I know nothing at all about fighting, but the DVD extras discuss the creation of Achilles’ fighting style in a way that makes me feel like it was impressive undertaking, and I am more than happy to believe that. The scene where he’s fighting on the beach shows an Achilles who can take on multiple enemies at once, who can predict their movements based on very little information, who uses every advantage he has and who knows exactly what to do to win a battle as quickly as possible. My favourite part comes at 2:24 in the linked clip, where he throws his shield onto his back less than a second before it’s pierced by an arrow. I like this scene so much that I am even willing to forgive the moments where the editing or special effects are way too obvious. I do have some problems with Achilles in this movie, but just in terms of his battle scenes, in terms of portraying him as a man who was born for war, Troy is a huge improvement over every other Trojan War movie I’ve seen.

Related, I also love how the fight between Hector and Achilles has them alone together on the battlefield. There honestly might not be anything I would change about that scene.

· Thing I Don’t Like #1: Patroclus

It honestly doesn’t bother me that Troy makes Achilles and Patroclus cousins. What does bother me is that, for all that we are constantly told how close they are, they never seem to be close at all. The actors who played them are twenty years apart, they fight in every scene they have together, Achilles’ relationship with Briseis is given priority, and when Patroclus goes onto the field in Achilles’ armour, Achilles doesn’t even know. I would be okay with this distance between them if it were the movie’s intention to create distance between them, but based on Achilles’ reaction to Patroclus’s death I would say it clearly isn’t. Every time I watch Troy’s Achilles swear to revenge Patroclus’s death, I find myself thinking, “But Achilles … did you even like that guy??”

It also really, really irritates me to think that a major reason Troy creates so much distance between Achilles and Patroclus is because of the political climate at the time the movie was in production. Like it wasn’t enough to make them cousins – Troy also has to make sure these two men don’t even act like friends, just to make sure no one can accuse them of having a homosexual relationship. The thought that this movie weakened its own story in order to appease a certain demographic drives me up the wall.

· Thing I Like #2: Odysseus

Troy’s Odysseus is definitely a watered-down Odysseus in that, apart from his imagining the Trojan Horse, his cleverness only shows itself through one-liners. The film attempts to portray him as the man of many turns, but isn’t terribly successful. For example, in his first scene in the director’s cut, he convinces Agamemnon’s messengers that he’s someone else only to immediately admit he’s bluffing – why?? Even so, I’m glad that this Odysseus is in the movie. All the other characters are so serious that I think Odysseus and his wry comments are almost necessary. I also really love his friendship with Achilles and, no matter how many problems I have with the movie that precedes it, I never fail to tear up at his ending monologue.

· Thing I Don’t Like #2: Agamemnon

I don’t have much to say about Troy’s Agamemnon because there isn’t much to him. He’s completely one-dimensional and has no redeeming qualities. Even doing my best to accept this character as the one-note villain of a summer blockbuster, I kind of hate every scene he’s in. Surely they could have given him a little nuance? It’s like one minute this movie is quoting Homer and casting Peter O’Toole in one of the most famous scenes in Western literature, and the next minute Agamemnon is shouting about how evil he is. In the end I don’t quite know what kind of movie Troy wanted to be.

Related, I also wish this movie had taken care to be a little bit subtle about the whole glory aspect of the story. The search for glory is a huge part of the Iliad and I think the questions it raises both directly and indirectly are still extremely relevant today. Is it worth trading your life for fame? Does a life have meaning if it’s forgotten once it’s over? I love this aspect of the story and I hate how Troy deals with it. The scene where Agamemnon and Achilles argue about which one of their names will be remembered is, in my mind, the worst offender. It’s so busy hitting you over the head with the point it’s trying to make that it forgets to be at all compelling.

· I will be honest with you: in the end, Troy is my favourite of the Trojan War movies I’ve seen so far, although this has less to do with how it handles the story or the characters and more to do with the fact that, at the moment at least, it’s the only Trojan War movie made on a Hollywood budget during my lifetime. Actually, I think this is also why I get so irritated by the parts of it that I don’t like – because it’s the only one of its kind, I can’t seek out others that I might enjoy more, like I constantly do with Trojan War novels. For all its faults, though, I have watched this movie at least twice a year since it was released, and I’m sure I’ll continue to watch it at least twice a year until Hollywood decides it’s time to remake it.

Watch: the trailer

Buy it at: (regular edition), (director’s cut), (director’s cut collector’s edition), (regular edition), (director’s cut), (director’s cut collector’s edition)

May 4, 2014

Valerio Massimo Manfredi: “Heroes”

Heroes The Talisman of Troy

He walked away, and Telemachus scampered after him. ‘Tell me,’ the boy said, ‘have you seen him of late? What does he look like? What does my father look like?’
Diomedes stopped for a moment. ‘He looks like you imagine him. When you see him, you’ll recognize him.’

Original Title: Le Paludi di Hesperia
Alternate Title: The Talisman of Troy
Pages: 275
First Published: 1994 (in Italian), 2004 (in English)

Synopsis: A castaway tossed onto a deserted beach is the last survivor of a world that no longer exists. He has a terrible, fascinating story to tell – the true reason for which the Trojan War was fought … The protagonist of this tale is Diomedes, the last of the great ancient Greek Homeric heroes, who seeks to return to his beloved homeland after years of war against Troy. But destiny has other plans for him. Betrayed by his wife, who plots to murder him, and persecuted by hostile gods, he has no choice but to turn his sails west, towards Hesperia, the mysterious mist-shrouded land that will one day be called Italy. He ventures boldly into this new world, for he carries with him the magic Talisman of Troy, a mysterious, powerful idol that can make the nation that possesses it invincible …

‘A goddess once mounted my chariot and fought at my side,’ he said. ‘Do you believe me?’
The girl came closer. ‘If you believe it then I believe you,’ she said.
‘No, you don’t believe me,’ said Diomedes. ‘For the man you see before you is not the same, and this land is not the same and not even the sky is the same.’

My Thoughts: The above is a bit of an odd summary in that it ignores the novel’s entire second storyline. I feel I should at least let you know that Clytemnestra, Menelaus, Orestes and Pyrrhus have important roles in this book, and Helen and Aeneas also make decently sized appearances.

· First, my compliments to the translator, Christine Feddersen-Manfredi. The style of this book is solid and includes some really beautiful lines. If I hadn’t already known it was a translation, I don’t think I ever would have guessed.

· I can be really picky about dialogue, and when I first started this book I was a little irritated by how characters often said more at once than is realistic. It took me longer than it should have to realize that Manfredi, in these longer speeches, is imitating Homeric dialogue. And then I realized that he actually does it quite well! Again, the style of this book is pretty great.

· There’s a number of scenes near the beginning of the book that include strong supernatural elements, many of which are pretty creepy. It’s been a while since I read a Trojan War novel with such overt fantasy in it and I enjoyed these scenes. Unfortunately, they show up less and less as the story progresses – which would be fine, except for all the unanswered questions this leaves. One supernatural event that I thought was going to drive the plot was instead just abandoned without explanation.

· I really liked this book’s discussions of how the world around these characters is changing and how sharply their current way of life contrasts with the way they lived in the past. There’s a great scene where Diomedes is excited to run into a Trojan because he’s been longing to find someone who’ll follow the rules of the world he used to inhabit, the rules that make sense to him. As someone with an interest in culture shock, I found this fascinating. There are also hints here and there that, as the years pass, the characters begin to feel like nothing they did at Troy ever even happened. That was also really interesting.

· So Penelope is introduced with the line “her breasts were high and firm like all the women of Sparta.” Yes, unfortunately this is another book where female characters are rarely introduced without a description of their breasts. Anyway, if this ~all Spartan women have the same breast shape and placement~ thing is a part of the mythology of Sparta that I just haven’t heard of till now, I’m okay with ignoring it, but if this is Manfredi’s invention then I wonder why he picked a body part notorious for changing size and shape due to age, menstruation, pregnancy, nursing, exercise, clothing, and basically everything ever.

· This book begins with Aigialeia betraying Diomedes and Clytemnestra killing Agamemnon; they then team up and try to convince other queens to turn against their kings. I don’t have a problem with this storyline in theory but I’m not a fan of the way this book handles it. There’s no real exploration of these characters’ motivations, no real insight into their thoughts or actions. They’re little more than one-dimensional villains. This also sets up a bit of a dynamic where female characters who follow and obey male characters are portrayed as good and sympathetic and female characters who don’t are portrayed as evil. The only female character who does her own thing and isn’t vilified for it doesn’t even get a name. I would have appreciated a slightly more nuanced approach to the women in this novel.

· There are two revelations, both related to the aforementioned “true reason for which the Trojan War was fought,” that come near the end of the book. I could tell that the novel was leading up to them for a while and so I expected them to have a major impact on the plot. But … they didn’t. They were mentioned, accepted, and forgotten about and I’m not sure what the point of either of them was.

· I don’t want to be too hard on this book because I don’t think it’s that bad and I can see someone enjoying it. But it just really wasn’t my kind of book. It took me a long time to get interested in the story because so much of the first half featured Diomedes wandering around aimlessly, which is not a type of story that I really enjoy. I started to get into it in the second half, when more was happening and more characters were involved, but the closer I got to the end the more rushed everything became and the more unanswered questions I realized I was going to be left with. I suspect the final scene was supposed to be solemn and moving but I found myself laughing while reading it because it happened so quickly and, to be brutally honest, it made me wonder what the point of the novel was. Like, I’m not sure what the point of reading so many pages of aimless wandering was if that was going to be the conclusion. I didn’t hate this book but I didn’t love it, either. It was neither a joy nor a slog to read. I think in the end I just feel indifferent towards it.

Buy it at:,

Diomedes hid his face in his cloak. ‘Oh great Atreid!’ he murmured to himself. ‘Watch your back! We are no longer beside you, we are no longer … we are no longer.’

March 23, 2013

Elizabeth Cook: “Achilles”


Listen. Achilles never wanted to die.
Don’t think because Patroclus is dead he wants to die.

Pages: 107
First Published: 2001

Synopsis: Born of god and king and hidden as a girl until Odysseus discovers him, Achilles becomes the Greeks’ greatest warrior at Troy. Into his story comes a cast of fascinating characters—among them Hector, Helen, Penthiseleia the Amazon Queen, and the centaur Chiron; and finally John Keats, whose writings form the basis of a meditation on the nature of identity and shared experience. Achilles is an affirmation of the story’s enduring power to reach across centuries and cultures to the core of our imagination.

This armour fits three men and no one else:
Achilles, for whom it was made; Patroclus (who nevertheless cannot lift the great ash spear that goes with it) and … who else? What did you say?

My Thoughts: I enjoyed this book quite a bit when I read it for the first time in 2009. Unfortunately, I didn’t love it as much the second time around. This could be because since then I have started this blog and thus started reading Trojan War-related works with a slightly more critical eye; it could also be because since then I have read The Song of Achilles, which covers roughly the same story but produced a much stronger emotional response from me. Achilles is a bit of an odd book; more a long prose poem than a short novel, and not so much about Achilles as the title would have you believe. Hopefully it is not too much of a spoiler to say that the last Achilles-focused chapter ends on page 70; following that is a chapter about Helen, a chapter about Chiron, and a chapter about … John Keats?? Allow me to devolve into point form and come back to that particular point later.

· I call Achilles a prose poem because of the structure of the book, but also because of the poetic style of the writing. I will confess that I’m not much for poetry and occasionally I find this kind of style grating, so most of my favourite passages are the less poetic ones. However, I did enjoy the connections that Cook’s more metaphoric language allowed her to make, and I also found it interesting when she broke away from conventional narrative writing (as in the short passage quoted above), so while I am glad I don’t have to read it all the time, I can’t say I dislike Cook’s style.

· It seems Cook expects her readers to already have a fairly solid knowledge of the Trojan War. While certain characters get a proper introduction, others do not, even in cases where a knowledge of their background is necessary to understand their actions. The book does include a Glossary of Classical Names, but it’s difficult for me to imagine anyone enjoying having to flip to it, especially when it sometimes only repeats the information already provided by the text. For example, the entry for Antielus reads: A Greek; one of those in the wooden horse. His only scene shows him inside the horse, so this is not exactly a surprise. Cook also occasionally mentions mythology that she doesn’t explain; for example, in describing Penthiseleia: Two breasts – the rumours aren’t true … This is a reference to the idea that the Amazons cut off their right breasts to allow their fighting arms a wider range of motion. Maybe this idea is better-known than I think it is, but either way it’s the sort of thing that Cook lets pass without explanation. As a result of all this, I find it difficult to recommend this book to people who don’t already know the story fairly well.

· Speaking of Penthiseleia (which I’m going to spell as Cook does for simplicity’s sake). I decided not to talk about her in my post on Olympos because in that book she was just one more example of the author treating his female characters terribly. But now please allow me to state for the record that I find the whole Achilles-falling-in-love-with-Penthiseleia-as-he-kills-her (or after-he’s-killed-her) thing really disturbing in a way that is not at all pleasant. I have no interest in reading a scene where a man admires a woman’s beauty as he takes her life and I really hope I don’t have to explain why. I know it’s a part of the mythology, and I think I could accept it if it were presented as evidence of how far gone Achilles is – if it’s told as part of the story of the undoing of Achilles’ good character – but I have yet to see it presented as such. So it does affect my opinion of this book that this scene is included but not treated as the completely messed up situation that it is.

(Of course, there is always the question of how much should an author change a myth in order to suit current ideas. I am usually very interested in discussing this topic, but the story of Achilles and Penthiseleia creeps me out so bad that in this case I don’t think I can.)

· Achilles fights the river Scamander in this book, which I mention just because this might be the only novel I’ve read where it happens. I mean, the scene is fine and all, but mainly I just love that it exists.

· This might be a spoiler so I’ll put it in white and you can highlight to read it: The fall of Troy is told mostly from Helen’s point of view, and interspersed with scenes from Theseus’s visit to Sparta. In this way, two major traumas from Helen’s life are told to us simultaneously. Cook’s language is poetic, but here it is also quite explicit, and uses unsettling metaphors to tie the two events together. While the nature of the events don’t exactly make for a pleasant read, I was really impressed by the way Cook connected them, and used them to portray Helen in a new light. This time around, this was my favourite section of the book.

· So the last chapter is about the poet John Keats, and I will confess right now that I don’t understand why. This chapter, which comes complete with quotes from Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” Chapman’s translation of the Iliad, and Keats’ own poetry, discusses the act of reading and what it is that connects us to the characters we read about. The ideas are interesting enough but the jump from Chiron’s chapter to Keats’ is such a jarring transition and I don’t know why Cook didn’t present these ideas through someone a little closer to Achilles. Does anyone want to read a book where the last chapter introduces an entirely new cast of characters? Maybe I expect this book to act more like a novel than Cook meant it to, or maybe my almost non-existent knowledge of Keats is preventing me from seeing an obvious reason for his inclusion, but as it is it’s difficult for me to see this chapter as anything other than an unrelated and disappointing end to the book.

· All in all, I’m not sure whether I recommend this book or not; the aspects I like are pretty evenly balanced out by the aspects I don’t like. I suppose that if it sounds like you’ll enjoy it, you should give it a try.

Buy it at:,

Always, throughout his life, bright faces moving away, disappearing behind curtains: his mother taken back in a curtain of water, Iphigeneia wrapped in flames, Patroclus’ face as it speaks to him these nights, folded in darkness. When Polyxena’s form is swallowed by the curtain at the entrance to the temple, he must go after. Layer on layer are here. Following this girl he follows them all – his mother, Iphigeneia, Penthiseleia, Patroclus – yes, and Hector too. He will pursue them all to the vanishing point but he must not lose sight of her.

September 1, 2012

Yukio Ninagawa: “Troilus and Cressida”

Troilus and Cressida

Japanese Title: トロイラスとクレシダ (Toroirasu to Kureshida)
Performed: 2012, Japan
Starring: Yusuke Yamamoto (Troilus), Yuki Tsukikawa (Cressida), Shun Shioya (Diomedes), Kei Hosogai (Ajax), Takehiko Ono (Pandarus)

Synopsis: Twenty-sixth in director Yukio Ninagawa’s series of Shakespeare plays and sixth in his series of Shakespeare plays with all-male casts, “Troilus and Cressida” tells the story of a Trojan prince who falls in love with a woman whose father has defected to the Greek side. Or that’s the one-line synopsis, at least, as the play is more of an ensemble piece that also features the Greeks’ attempts to get Achilles back on the battlefield. Often categorized as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” due to its inconsistent tone and characterisations, “Troilus and Cressida” is a “systematic hollowing-out of the Troy legend” (source), a version of the Trojan War story in which the characters we’ve come to know as heroes are deeply flawed and frustratingly human.

This production of “Troilus and Cressida” finishes its run in Saitama on September 2nd, 2012. After that, it will be in Osaka from September 7th to September 10th, Saga for September 22nd and 23rd, and Aichi for September 29th and 30th. If you’ll be in the area with three hours to spare, I wholeheartedly recommend going. Tickets are here!

My Thoughts: I first heard of Yukio Ninagawa a couple years ago when I came across his version of Euripides’ “Orestes” on DVD. While I definitely enjoy his work, I suspect that most of that enjoyment comes from the simple fact that his choices of material allow me to watch plays that I never thought I’d see performed. I cannot overstate how excited I was to find out that he would be directing “Troilus and Cressida” – especially because I would be in Japan and able to see it live! I was lucky enough to see it twice near the beginning of its run in Saitama, and long story short, it was amazing. Knowing that it’s bound to come out on DVD, I’ll try to keep the length of this post within reason – a difficult task as I could seriously talk about this play forever.

First, a disclaimer: understanding a Shakespeare play in Japanese is still quite a task for me, and I really apologize if this leads me to write something that’s not quite accurate. Feel free to let me know about any mistakes you catch! Hopefully if I’ve made any grievous errors, I’ll be able to remedy them after the DVD release.

· This production ran three hours and five minutes (including a fifteen-minute intermission). I noticed a few things that had been cut, such as all of the dialogue between Pandarus and Paris’ servant at the beginning of 3.1, the section of 3.3 that includes Achilles’ fantastic “the magnanimous and most illustrious six-or-seven-times-honoured captain-general of the Grecian army, Agamemnon,” and Patroclus and Thersites acting out a visit to Ajax in the same scene.

· Thersites recited the Prologue, and soon after that Troilus made his first appearance hiding behind a cluster of sunflowers (the stage was littered with them!), throwing pieces of his armour up into the air in irritation. A way more dynamic start to the play than I’d expected!

· I loved watching 1.2, the scene where Pandarus describes the Trojan soldiers to Cressida as they come in from the day’s fighting. Now, I’m sure that about 98% of the reason I loved it is because I’ve been in love with this story for over a decade, and just seeing the Trojan royals returning from the battlefield, swords in hand, wounds wrapped, boldly looking out over the audience, gave me a ridiculous thrill. For basically the same reason, I also enjoyed any time the Greek generals stormed down the aisles to the sounds of trumpets and drums.

· Ajax in this production was young and attractive, and I feel like that’s such a rarity for him that even though he definitely does not have the best personality here, this is kind of my new favourite Ajax.

· Starting with their first appearance and lasting for most of the play, neither Achilles nor Patroclus wore the long blue cape that every other Greek character wore. I really liked this – “Troilus and Cressida” starts after Achilles has already withdrawn himself and his men from the battlefield, and the lack of the bright blue cape immediately set him and Patroclus apart from the other Greeks. Only after Achilles decided he had to get back onto everyone’s good side did he and Patroclus appear wearing them.

· Another result of the lack of capes leads into this bullet point about the portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship. As Achilles and Patroclus first appeared wearing neither the capes nor full armour, the only costuming on their torsos was leather straps and jewelry. This meant that whenever one of them leaned on the other – and they were pretty much constantly leaning on each other -, it was bare skin against bare skin. Uh I feel really weird being excited about a thing like this, but having recently read The Song of Achilles I was really, really stoked to see a visual medium portraying Achilles and Patroclus as more than just friends. (Not that it hasn’t happened before, just that this was the first example I’ve personally seen.) And there was more than enough touching/hugging/kissing to make it clear that they were a couple. Achilles’ lines in 3.3 that begin with “The beauty that is borne here in the face” were turned into a description of Patroclus; just before that, he and Patroclus appeared in the background of the scene playing hide-and-seek with Patroclus’ necklace. (In a move reminiscent of Troy, Achilles carried that same necklace onstage after learning of Patroclus’ death.) And I completely did not anticipate how the beginning of 2.3 would be staged: Patroclus, hearing Thersites grumbling outside Achilles’ tent, came onstage wearing nothing but a towel, and was soon followed by Achilles wearing nothing but the sunflower he held in front of his crotch (which definitely got a laugh from the audience).
     As amazing as all of that was, I’m definitely hesitant to praise it any higher than “yay Achilles/Patroclus.” In the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of “Troilus and Cressida,” line 5.1.15 (Thersites’ “Thou art thought to be Achilles’ male varlet”) comes with the following note: “Classical writers frequently mention an erotic bond between Achilles and Patroclus … though usually without Thersites’ characteristically cynical, even debased, attitude towards it. Productions since the 1960s have typically exploited this aspect, sometimes ludicrously, sometimes with great sensitivity.” Reactions from the rest of the audience made me think they were viewing the relationship more on the ludicrous side than I was, although why I don’t entirely know. Thersites’ “male varlet” was translated as “okama” (a not always kind word for a gay man). I don’t see anything funny about that line, but it got a laugh here. (Thersites’ next lines – in which he lists the diseases he believes homosexual activity leads to – were completely cut. I confess I have no complaints about that.) Before that, in 3.3, Patroclus reacted to Ulysses’ “‘Tis known, Achilles, that you are in love with one of Priam’s daughters” by grabbing the nearest sunflowers as if to strangle them. This, too, got a sizeable laugh. Again, I’m not entirely sure what I missed here, but I guess these laughs clued me in that perhaps this portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus wasn’t meant to be totally serious. (Maybe Patroclus greeting the Greek kings in nothing but a towel – amazing as that scene was – should have clued me into this earlier.) I mean, yes, it does fit the character of the play to make fun of them and their relationship, but … I don’t want to? Not in this way, at least. And I definitely wonder if this same portrayal would get laughs if played in North America. I guess it would depend …

· Cassandra was AMAZINGGGG, and I am saying this as someone who has kind of gone off Cassandra in recent years. Her facial expressions were really intense and I loved how her dialogue was a mixture of whispers and shouts, some of them unintelligible. Her costume had her barefoot, with long reddish hair and a ripped-up skirt. She also had perhaps the most interesting make-up in the play: a long streak of red running down the inside of each of her legs. While I feel like this could come with the implication that “women are crazy when/because they menstruate,” which I definitely don’t care for, I’m going to do my best to ignore that because just as a make-up choice I thought it was pretty cool.

· At the end of her first scene, Cassandra exited by way of the set’s middle door, which was wider than the others, allowing the audience to see the endless darkness she was walking into. The door closed while she was bending backwards, as if to take another look at us. To me, it was kind of reminiscent of what I remember being Cassandra’s last appearance in Michael Cacoyannis’ The Trojan Women, where she leans backwards out of the cart that’s carrying her away.

· I wish I could say my love for the other female characters in this production was as strong as my love for Cassandra, but unfortunately I found myself really disappointed with them. One problem I had – which I could look past were it the only problem – was the way the female characters held themselves. Cressida especially constantly had her arms poised as if she were a princess at a Disney park. I would have much preferred to see men playing characters who happen to be women, but for the most part I felt as though I saw men playing stylized women who happen to be characters, and it was frustrating enough to take over this and the next two points:

· I think my least favourite thing about this production was the way that Cressida delivered almost all of her lines in monotone. Through the entire play she sounded so distanced from and uninterested in everything. As I’ve read about a million times over the past month of researching this play, Cressida is a difficult character to read, but surely you shouldn’t deal with that by not trying to read her! In this production it was only during her final scene that I felt she was emoting; there was a part earlier where she fell to her knees but by itself I’m not sure that counts. After reading about the many different productions that have attempted a feminist reading of the play, it was disappointing to watch a production whose main female character was barely there.

· Though she is frequently spoken of, Helen’s only appearance in “Troilus and Cressida” is in 3.1 … and I was really disappointed with this scene too. Inspired by what I’m not entirely sure, when I read the scene I pictured a Helen and Paris with a good amount of intelligence to them. I imagined them both knowing why Pandarus has come to visit, but pretending they don’t in order to tease and fluster him. I also imagined a Helen who, while completely in love with Paris, enjoyed flirting with Pandarus, again just to bother him. Whether or not my interpretation is supported by the text I’m not actually sure, but this production definitely took a different approach. A good amount of dialogue was removed from this scene, and the lines Helen kept were all delivered – in a tone that resembled a whine – as she and Paris made out. I felt like this production’s Helen was completely one-dimensional, when a slightly different approach to the character could have avoided that.

· 2.1 ended with the stage dark and Achilles and Ajax speaking their lines while walking down the aisles in the audience. 2.2, the first scene in the Trojan palace, began with the onstage doors bursting open and Priam and his sons all walking onstage at once. It was a really awesome and immediate change in tone that was echoed in 4.4: Troilus and Cressida, having said their private good-byes, were embracing when a door flew open, the romantic background music stopped, and the party to collect Cressida entered in all their war gear. Then a silent moment passed before Troilus managed to pull himself away and greet Diomedes – which was really interesting to me because when I read the play I hadn’t imagined it being so clear to Diomedes that Troilus and Cressida were in a relationship.

· The ~everyone ignores Achilles~ portion of 3.3 was exactly as hilarious as I’d hoped it would be. Menelaus acting like he was going to shake Achilles’ hand, only to pull his hand back and use it to smooth his hair? Fantastic. But even better was when Achilles greeted Ajax and Ajax replied with a way overenthusiastic “HA?!?!,” complete with a hand cupped around his ear. New favourite Ajax!!

· The staging in the part of 4.5 where Hector is greeting the Greek kings was pretty amusing. He gave Menelaus a hug in a “heyyy man it’s great to see you again” sort of way, then turned back to Aeneas to quietly ask, “Who is this??” Not sure why Shakespeare decided that seven years of fighting wouldn’t be enough time for Hector to figure out who the Greek leaders were, but anyway.

· Troilus’ shouting breakdown after Cressida’s betrayal, Hector almost choking him during their last argument, Hector’s killing Patroclus onstage but unobserved by anyone else, Pandarus’ increasingly sickly appearance, and the sombre music that played from the final scene through to the end of the bows … I felt that this production really emphasised the loneliness that’s present at the end of the play. Relationships break down, beloved friends are killed, nothing is resolved. The last lines are Pandarus promising to “bequeath [us] [his] diseases.” It’s such a strange, empty ending but I’m glad they didn’t try to change it. (Though I do feel the need to add that Troilus and Cressida left hand-in-hand after the bows. This production ships them way harder than I do hahaha.)

· In conclusion, even weeks after the fact I remain completely stoked that I was able to see this play, and if you are also interested in watching a Japanese version of a Shakespeare play based on ancient Greek mythology, you should absolutely check it out!

Update: Check out my post about the DVD (with screencaps!).

Visit: Ninagawa x Shakespeare (the official blog)

July 27, 2012

Madeline Miller: “The Song of Achilles”

The Song of Achilles  The Song of Achilles

‘You have eked out ten more years of life, and I am glad for you. But the rest of us–‘ his mouth twists. ‘The rest of us are forced to wait for your leisure. You are holding us here, Achilles. You were given a choice and you chose. You must live by it now.’

Pages: 352
First Published: 2011

Synopsis: Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.

‘May I give you some advice? If you are truly his friend you will help him leave this soft heart behind. He’s going to Troy to kill men, not rescue them.’ His dark eyes held me like swift-running current. ‘He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.’

My Thoughts: My copy of this book is so coated in quotes from gushing reviews that my first impression was “There’s no way this book is going to live up to all this.” And for the first few chapters, I continued to believe that. But once the story got going, it turned into a book that I stayed up too late reading, and picked up again as soon as I got home from work. While you won’t hear me say that this book is perfect, I am definitely willing to say that I loved it. More specific comments in point form:

· If I’m to be totally honest, I have to say I’m not a fan of Miller’s writing style, but it’s difficult for me to pinpoint why. Perhaps because it’s a little too vague sometimes, or the descriptions are a little too over-the-top sometimes, or perhaps it just annoyed me that I only saw one contraction in the entire book. I also couldn’t figure out why, when most of the scenes were written in past tense, there would occasionally be a scene written in present tense. But at the same time, almost every chapter had at least one paragraph that was written so beautifully I had to reread it once or twice before moving on, and I also really loved the way she wrote the battle scenes — like every fight was just a mess of people running around and crashing into each other on the field. So in the end I guess I feel like my comments on Miller’s style all cancel each other out.

· This book fails the Bechdel test, which is interesting to me because the reason it fails is not because it doesn’t have female characters speaking about things other than men — it fails because not enough of those women have names.

· Let’s talk about a scene that really bothered me! Potential spoiler, so I’ll put it in white and you can highlight to read it: Achilles is unable to prevent Iphigenia’s death even though he is standing right there, and even though in every other scene where speed is required of him he responds by being, as usual, impossibly fast. Miller goes to great pains to have both Odysseus and the narrative explain why Achilles wasn’t able to react in time, but it all boils down to “he wasn’t fast enough,” a reason I find hard to accept when in the rest of the novel it is made perfectly clear that Achilles is never not fast enough. In a similar vein, I’m pretty sure the scene where Patroclus pulls a Bella Swan and spends a month doing nothing but being miserable was only necessary because the story’s timeline wouldn’t have worked out otherwise. So that was a little annoying.

· I’ve never been a fan of Achilles and Briseis being in love, so I really liked their relationship here. I actually really enjoyed how the characters in this novel seem at times to be at odds with the way they are usually portrayed. I was constantly thinking, “Wait — Character A just said he believes X, even though in the Iliad he says he believes Y, and follows through on it when he does Z. How is Z going to happen if he believes X instead???” I was happily surprised by the way Miller gets her revamped characters to hit their marks. With the exclusion of the scene I mentioned above, it never felt forced in any way, and in fact I often felt like the new character motivations allowed me to see the events of the war through a new perspective. Maybe it was because of this that, as I read this novel, I felt like I was rediscovering why I love the Trojan War story so much. So … that was awesome.

· Another relationship I enjoyed was that between Odysseus and Diomedes. Frustrating that they were only allowed like three scenes of banter!!

· This is a pretty nerdy thing to get so excited about, but I don’t care; I LOVED the foreshadowing in this book. If I have one complaint about Trojan War novels in general, it’s that their foreshadowing is usually ramped up to DEAFENING; usually Cassandra or a prophecy is put in charge of telling us exactly what’s going to happen, and that’s that. Of course there is a certain amount of pathos in watching characters stumble towards a fate they are aware of but are still unable to avoid, but I think I prefer foreshadowing that at least attempts to be subtle. Yes, prophecies abound in The Song of Achilles, but there is a bonus layer of foreshadowing on top of them that is subtle, clever, and heartwrenching — the kind that twists the knife if you already know how the story goes. It was so good I don’t even want to talk about it anymore, lest I ruin it for someone who hasn’t read the novel yet.

· … Some of you might be interested to know that I very nearly typed The Song that Killed Achilles in the above paragraph. TWO GREAT BOOKS THAT TASTE GREAT TOGETHER?!

· I love how this book doesn’t steer away from the questions raised by its story, but deals with them head-on. Who is more important, a friend or a stranger? What, if anything, is worth trading your life for? Is fame worth fighting for, even if you’ll be remembered as a villain? There was a lot more discussion in this book than I expected, and I really enjoyed it.

· I also enjoyed the parts where Miller made certain ancient Greek words a part of the story, but I found Patroclus’ explanations of them confusing. Who is he explaining them for? Who is he telling the story to? I was willing to ignore this until the end of the book left me even more confused about it. At the same time, though, I’m not sure how else she could have gotten away with using Greek words, and I do like that she used them.

· I think I’m a little picky about how the gods are portrayed in Trojan War retellings. I mention this only to say that I loved the way the gods are portrayed in this book. Apollo is much creepier here than I’d ever seen him before, but it works perfectly. I loved all his scenes, and the way the plague was described in order to clue you into his involvement was fantastic.

· If the summary didn’t give it away, the focus of The Song of Achilles is the romantic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Everything I’ve read about sexuality in ancient Greece (admittedly not much) has suggested that the ancient Greeks didn’t categorise sexuality the way we do now, and that it was pretty common for an adult man to have slept with both men and women. In The Song of Achilles, however, it’s made quite clear that both Achilles and Patroclus are gay in the twenty-first century sense of the word. It is also made clear that they feel the need to be careful about who they reveal their relationship to. As a result, it was difficult for me not to feel that a modern interpretation of sexuality was being applied to a story that was otherwise very carefully set in the Bronze Age. The reasons for Achilles and Patroclus to hide their relationship are mentioned a few times — several people mention that Patroclus would not be seen as being good enough for Achilles, and Odysseus says that it’s common for boys to sleep with each other only until they reach a certain age — but I still feel unsure as to whether the novel’s portrayal is accurate to what we know of Bronze Age society. Maybe I just have to read up on this a bit more. Either way, I guess it’s kind of neat that here’s a book whose title character is gay and spends several chapters dressed as a woman … but could still kill you just by looking at you.

· This book is narrated in the first person by Patroclus, which made me wonder how the last few chapters of the book would be handled. In the hope of avoiding spoilers, I will just say that they were done better than I anticipated. I was also very surprised by how strongly they affected me. I seriously tear up at everything, so if I had just teared up at the end of this book I wouldn’t even be mentioning it. Fair warning, friends: I cried off and on through the last four chapters, and then bawled for ten minutes straight after reading the last page. I genuinely think the last time I reacted to a book this way was when I read Inside the Walls of Troy … when I was thirteen. I wish I could say why this book affected me so strongly. Because I somehow managed to forget just how dark Achilles’ story gets? The last few chapters were so raw and intense and lonely, the last few pages such a heartbreaking mess of despair and hope. If you’ve made it through the almost 2,000(!!) words of this post you know that I have a few criticisms of this book, but they are not half enough to stop me from recommending it. Unbelievably, the gushing reviews of this book did not build it up too much; The Song of Achilles is easily my favourite of the Trojan War novels that I’ve blogged about so far.

Buy it at:,

Achilles turns to me. He is breathing quickly, the tips of his ears pinking with excitement. He seizes my hand, and crows to me of the day’s events, of how his name was on everyone’s lips, of the power of his absence, big as a Cyclops, walking heavily amongst the soldiers. The excitement of the day has flared through him, like flame in dry grass. For the first time, he dreams of killing: the stroke of glory, his inevitable spear through Hector’s heart. My skin prickles to hear him say so.
‘Do you see?’ he says. ‘It is the beginning!’
I cannot escape the feeling that, below the surface, something is breaking.