I remember sitting in my grandfather’s living room, alone. It was a Saturday night, 11 o’clock, and everyone was asleep.
I opened the TV (we didn’t have Netflix back then!) and stumbled upon a Hollywood movie. I expected one of the typical gun-fighting, car-chasing films they used to play past a certain time. Instead, I saw swords and horses, Greeks and Trojans. The title reads “Troy”.
For someone who grew up reading Homer’s epic poems in their original language, I have to say seeing the characters come to life on a screen is surreal. Even hearing names like Achilles and Zeus coming from actors like Brad Pit feels strange!
Hollywood always had an affinity for mythology. After all, these myths and legends represent archetypal stories and primal narratives that describe universal truths about the human condition.
You can weave your plot within the framework of mythology and create something truly beautiful. Hollywood movies based on mythology do just that. They aren’t always accurate or faithful to the original text but they still carry the spirit of the story.
In this blog post, we’re going to explore 6 Hollywood movies based on mythology that offer a new perspective to the old myths. And perhaps a couple of hours of fun!
As I mentioned, this movie had a big impact on me. I was still a kid when I first watched it and even though it has its flaws, I believe that you can recognize the soul of the Ionian poet in it.
An adaptation of the foundational work of ancient Greek literature, the Iliad, tells the story of a battle between Greece and Troy, over the beauty of Helene.
What’s interesting is that there is no one protagonist. You can argue that Achilles is the hero that drives the plot but multiple character arcs are occurring simultaneously.
- Hector sacrifices himself for Troy
- Paris, through a series of painful lessons, becomes a man
- Achilles’ hubris to the Gods is punished
- Odysseus realizes the cost of fighting for bloodthirsty Kings
- The people understand that no God or King is coming to save them
From mortality salience to posthumous fame, you can derive a lot of lessons from the epic poem of Homer.
In reality, history and myth are interconnected. Some historians believe that there was indeed a real war. And ancient Greeks believed that it was a defining moment of their history, the same way the two World Wars shaped our times.
An underrated movie based on one of the most famous Old English epic poems; Beowulf.
It’s about the tribulations and challenges a Geatish warrior has to face. Without spoiling the movie too much, we can break it down into three arcs:
A troll-like creature tormented and attacked the villages surrounding the moor area. Beowulf and his men, after King Hrothgar commands them, visit his cave and kill the monster. Once the hero returns, he’s celebrated by the King.
(In the North, myths and legends about trolls hiding in caves up in the mountains aren’t uncommon. A few Scandinavian landmarks are associated with these creatures; folklore suggests that they turned into gigantic stones if the sun hit them!)
2.2. Grendel’s Mother
When she finds her son mortally wounded in his cave, he swears revenge. The same night, he kills all of Beowulf’s men.
When our hero realizes what has happened, he returns to the cave. But he’s seduced by Grendel’s mother, who turns out to be a water demon. She promises to make him King in return for a son.
(Water spirits appear in many mythological stories. In Celtic folklore, the Fae would seduce wandering men into their dream-like realms. In British folklore, Nix were shapeshifters who appeared human and populated small ponds and rivers)
2.3. The Return to the Cave
50 years after the incident, Beowulf is King but also an estranged husband. After his encounter with the demon, he became impotent. Meanwhile, a dragon appears in the area and the warrior already knows that this is the doing of the demon.
I won’t spoil the end. Let’s just say that there’s redemption in the end… but not without a cost!
Beowulf is an extraordinary myth that draws inspiration from many different cultures. From the tale of Odysseus and his encounter with the nymph Calypso to the Monomyth, there’s a distinctive narrative that underlines the whole story.
3. Thor (2011)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (and the original comics, of course) has created a parallel, Norse mythology, where Gods adopt modern characteristics and behaviors.
For some people, humanizing Gods, making them act like mortals, appears silly. Yet, it’s probably very faithful to the way they were perceived in the past, without all of the abstraction and symbolic interpretation we do today.
It’s the story of a concerned father that believes his son has to learn many lessons before he’s ready to be a King. The most important one being love!
The plot, delivered by Stan Lee, is ingenious. After a falling out with this father, Thor is placed on Earth where he slowly opens up his heart to a mortal woman. In the meantime, machinations against Odin’s rule are taking place in Asgard by the Frost Giants.
While this has very little to do with the original myth of Thor, we find a lot of the traits of the God to drive the plot of the movie. The inability to lift the Mjolnir until he’s worthy echoes throughout the movie.
The Norse God has a lot of similarities with other Indo-European deities, including Zeus and Indra.
4. The Devil’s Advocate
When most people think of Hollywood movies based on mythology, their minds immediately go to the aforementioned movies. Yet, they forget that Christianity has a rich history that goes back 100s of years!
Some of its myths and legends are so deeply embedded in our culture we don’t even recognize them as part of “mythology”.
The Devil’s Advocate is a film that highlights the eternal presence of the allegorical “Satan”, in the context of Christian dogma, and raises a visual map of what corruption looks like.
It’s a very simple and human story. One that, perhaps, occurs every day which is why the movie is so impactful.
An ambitious lawyer is invited by John Milton (named after the author of Paradise Lost) to join the big leagues in New York and leave behind the modest life he had built with his wife in Florida.
Once they move in, the couple has to adapt and navigate the city and its temptations. Milton, i.e. Lucifer, takes young Kevin Lomax under his wings and shows him all sides of the city. The glamour, the underbelly of NYC, and all the fun he’s been missing in married life.
Faust and a Deal with the Devil
We soon realize that there’s a Faustian bargain underlining the plot, with Lomax slowly abandoning the principles that have brought him joy in the past, in favor of Satan’s temptations and selva oscura. The question is, will he give in completely?
The concept of free will and illusion hints that Milton adheres to the Gnostic concept of the Demiurge. Instead of shaming the human condition, with all its flaws and shortcomings, he embraces it as an integral part of what makes the world spin.
In my opinion, instead of a dry “good vs evil” story, we’re facing an intense dialectical discourse between opposing worldviews. Who thought that the Devil would have such convincing arguments?
After all, we were taught that Satan looks nothing like a human, right? He’s more of a beast, so it’s easy to escape his machiavellian tactics.
Well, it turns out that he’s hiding in every little decision we make…
(One thing the Devil’s Advocate does great is portraying the Luciferian aesthetics. The imagery the director uses is inspired by Dante’s Inferno and William Blake’s paintings)
5. Lord of the Rings
Continuing with the unorthodox recommendations, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a modern, mythopoeic saga based on the world of Tolkien.
If you think that humans stopped creating myths and legends, you’re mistaken!
Tolkien created maps, languages, Gods, heroes and folklore that continue to influence our collective unconscious decades after his death. In many cases, his Legendarium revived many of the forgotten archetypes of ancient mythology.
Inspired by European folklore, the author was able to incorporate stories from many different cultures in the world of Arda, but express them through his own lens.
Dragons, dwarves, the Hero’s journey, powerful artefacts, etc hint at Arthurian legends and British/Germanic mythology.
The three movies managed to retell the original story in a unique manner, resembling the way oral tradition was slightly altered every time it was transmitted from generation to generation.
Even though we won’t see Tom Babadil or learn about the Valar and Morgoroth, we do get to see Tolkien’s vision come to life, shaped and refined into a phenomenal adaptation.
If you want to dive deeper into the mythology of Lord of the Rings, check out this blog post here.
6. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Last but not least, this modern retelling of Homer’s second epic poem gives us new and unique insights.
The mythological adaptation is filled with winks and hints that inform the viewer that they’re watching the “Odyssey”. Let’s take a look at some of the similarities:
- The protagonist is named Ulysses Everett McGill, which is the Latinized name of Odysseus.
- He escapes prison to go back to his family, the same way Odysseus left Troy for a long journey back home.
- Sheriff Cooley torments the hero during the whole duration of his escape, the same way Poseidon did in Oydessey.
- A singing of a group of women bewitch Ulysses and his crew, resembling the enchanting song of the Sirens.
- Penny is Ulysseys’ wife. Penelope is Odysseus’ wife.
- The symbolic role of the cyclops Polyphemus is played by Big Dan Teague, who happens to have a patch over his one eye, and ends up getting killed by a large, wooden cross.
There are many more parallelisms. Waldrup tries to marry Penny – the same way the potential suitors of Penelope did – and the railroad conductor prophesizes the future like the blind prophet Tiresias.
It’s an intriguing movie by the Cohen brothers that proves mythology is very much alive! Can you spot more similarities?
Mythology in the Modern Era
In recent years, we’ve seen a rising interest in modern-day heroes and mythopoeic sagas. From the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the remakes of Batman movies, we crave new, epic stories.
I believe that this is no coincidence. Our times demand the traits of the archetypal Hero. Their courage, conviction, and resilience are required to navigate the challenges of tomorrow.
As a collective, we’re in a position where we have to step up and take the reins. And this is reflected in the stories we tell ourselves.
Next time you watch a Hollywood movie based on mythology, keep that in mind. Pay attention to the plot, the challenges, the problem-solving. Be mindful of the qualities of the characters involved, their inner thoughts and turmoil. You might find a reflection of your ideal self in them.
P.S – Which movie are you going to watch tonight?
George K has been immersed into the world of myths and dreams for a very long time now, attempting to find the numerous symbolisms and meanings attached to them. He is a prolific writer along with being an independent researcher. Contributing his knowledge and learnings to several magazines and blogs, he has the unique ability to simplify and explain even the most intricate subjects.