The Blog

The Fall of Troy

Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, and Wolfgang Petersen take on the IIiad and lead Hollywood's assault on the classics.

12:00 AM, May 14, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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IF YOU SPEND ENOUGH TIME watching Inside the Actor's Studio and listening to DVD commentary tracks, you learn that, since they have very little other work to do, actors are forever agonizing over "choices." Of course everyone involved in the production of cinema makes choices and these thousands of choices must align just-so in order to create a good movie. The master film editor Walter Murch likened the making of these choices to playing a game of Negative 20 Questions:

[The game] involves, say, four people: Michael, Anthony, Walter, and Aggie. . . . When Michael leaves the room, the three remaining players don't communicate with one another at all. Instead, each of them silently decides on an object [in the room]. Then they call Michael back in. . . .

Michael asks Walter: Is the object bigger than a breadbox? Walter--who has picked the alarm clock--says, No. Now Anthony has chosen the sofa, which is bigger than a breadbox. And since Michael is going to ask him the next question, Anthony must quickly look around the room and come up with something else--a coffee cup!--which is smaller than a breadbox. So when Michael asks Anthony, If I emptied out my pockets could I put their contents in this object? Anthony says, Yes.

Now Aggie's choice may have been the small pumpkin carved for Halloween, which could also contain Michael's keys and coins, so when Michael says, Is it edible? Aggie says, Yes. That's a problem for Walter and Anthony, who have chosen inedible objects: they now have to change their selection to something edible, hollow, and smaller than a breadbox.

So a complex vortex of decision making is set up, a logical but unpredictable chain of ifs and thens. To end successfully, the game must produce, in fewer than 20 questions, an object that satisfies all of the logical requirements: smaller than a breadbox, edible, hollow, etc.

In filmmaking, Negative 20 Questions begins with a story idea and each member of the cast and crew then contributes a series of if-then choices. If these choices line up in an interesting and non-contradictory way, then a good movie is produced. (In case you're wondering, the original creator of Negative 20 Questions was not Murch, but physicist John Wheeler.)

AS A GAME of Negative 20 Questions, the movie Troy is fascinating. Written by Homer, adapted by David Benioff, and directed by Wolfgang Petersen, Troy begins with the Iliad as its source and then spins outward as the various players make their choices: If the Iliad is going to be a movie, then it needs a big budget. If it's going to be a movie with a big budget, then it needs a movie star as Achilles. If it's going to be a big budget movie with a star as Achilles, then Achilles and his attendant Patroclus can't be lovers. And so on.

There are two choices, however, which stand out above the rest. The first is the decision to cast the Greeks as villains and the Trojans as the movie's heroes. In Troy, Paris and Helen are madly in love, and she leaves Sparta with him of her own volition. Menelaus--a wife-beater if ever there was one--enlists Agamemnon's help to bring Helen back to him, so he can slit her throat. Agamemnon, a brutal, power-mad tyrant, agrees to go to war and is thrilled that Helen has given him a pretext to attack Troy, since he has long coveted the city. And Achilles is a brooding, philosophical hunk. No longer a tragedy in which heroic equals are pitted against one another by Paris's vanity, Troy is the story of the conquest of a good and noble people by an army of crafty barbarians.

Then there's Petersen's approach toward the gods: Troy supposes that they don't actually exist. You'll recall that the gods were somewhat integral to the Iliad. Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena go to Paris asking him to mediate their dispute, and it is Aphrodite who gives Helen to the young prince as a bribe, setting the tale in motion. The gods directly intercede in many battles during the long siege. Achilles' invulnerability comes from the fact that his mother--the divine sea-nymph Thetis--dipped him in the River Styx.

Yet in Troy the gods never make their presence known. All of the events are brought about by earthly actors. Although most of the characters proclaim their devotion to the gods, the more cynical among them seem to believe that the gods are a myth for the weak-minded. We meet Achilles' mother, who appears quite mortal, and besides which, it isn't even clear that Achilles is invulnerable. Troy is the Iliad told by agnostics; the gods are AWOL and those who believe in them are dupes.

If you work in Hollywood, then religious believers are idiots. Even if they're only pagans.

IN TRUTH, once you get past these two big revisions, Troy has much to recommend it.