Ah, Hercules. A delightful entertainment specimen from Disney’s Renaissance, to be sure. You got gospel-singing muses, action figures of Greek heroes, Danny DeVito as a cranky satyr, and a workout montage. And an almost Forrest Gumpian Venus de Milo creation joke. Oh, and don’t forget all the classic Disney staples: a musical number about not belonging, an animal companion who externalizes other characters’ thoughts, and obligatory wordplay cheese (“I thought you were going to be the all-time champ, not the all-time chump”). It really pulls out all the stops.
And yet, when Disney tried to slate an open-air premiere for Hercules in Greece, the nation’s government rejected the idea. The reason? In short, by not portraying Hercules as a bastard, Disney had bastardized Greece’s culture.
Ok, that’s not the reason entirely (though Greek mythology certainly suggests cultural fondness for love children). But there’s truth to Greece’s sentiment about the matter; Hercules has about as much to do with the Grecian hero Heracles as No Child Left Behind has to do with education. So for fun, let’s get a few facts straight, however minimally.
It would seem that Disney could only muster the research powers to get Dionysis right, which makes one wonder about the screenwriters’ states of mind when they conceived the film. But in any case, it’s probably not wise to write a children’s film featuring a chief father figure whose favorite pastimes include abduction and rape. It’s understandable that adjustments need to be made. And it’s a modern adaptation, so there’s always an excuse for envisioning old characters and stories in new, audience-sensitive ways. Disney is a business, after all, and they have to be mindful of their surroundings (that is, zeitgeists and audiences).
The question is, what are the marks of a good adaptation? Spike Jonze’s (though perhaps more aptly Charlie Kaufman’s) Adaptation deals with the subject a good bit, showcasing, on the surface, the influence of authorship on adaptations of source material and vice versa. The conflict emerges from desiring faithfulness to the source material, but inevitably catering the adaptation to some value set. Often this value set emphasizes traditional, accessible stories. Hercules is a perfect example; the film’s audience consisted primarily of American families. As such, the classical Greek myth got turned into a typical Bildungsroman Disney story with Christian overtones. And it was a commercial success. And an undeniably amusing film, at the very least. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good adaptation.
So, yes– adaptations cannot help but deviate from their source material. In fact, they must do so by the very nature of being something besides the source material. But perhaps the finest mark of an adaptation is that it highlights aspects of the source material that motivate an audience to learn about the source, to engage in etymological inquiry instead of accepting the adaptation as supplantation for its origins. In effect, watching the film Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door (not to be confused with the movie about a pornstar living next door) should spark audience’s interest in Jack Ketchum’s novel, which in turn should perk ears towards the events that the novel is based on (the torture and death of Sylvia Likens). If an adaptation interested you in an event, story, myth, or character so deeply that you felt you had to compare it to the source material to better educate yourself, a) you are just that sort of nerd or b) the adaptation is WORKING ITS MAGIC.
Of course you could just avoid the weird calculations involved in gauging your respect for source material and desire to create new things from it and just write an original story. CRAZY, RIGHT? Just a thought.
But the thing is, children’s movie adaptations bear the burden of educating and entertaining without causing undue offense. The “without causing undue offense” clause brings about a whole maelstrom of censorship opportunities, and many times these just flit about so awry that your resultant broth is rendered flavorless. Take the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, for example. In deference to Christian audiences coming to see the film with their children, the book’s core value–iconoclasm–was completed subverted by the filmmakers. Iconoclasm was the whole point of the story! You take that out, and it’s like Sex and the City without the sex or the city (I am scrambling for a better, less embarrassing analogy, but nothing’s coming).
In the case of the original Herculean myths, their core value lies in overcoming bastardy. Hera, as the slighted wife of a philanderer, despises Hercules and constantly vies to torment him. In essence, he spends a great deal of time trying to appease her (his Greek name, Heracles, an attempt at such in that some thought including Hera’s name in Herc’s would chill her out). With regard of trying to win “parental” blessings, confidence, and so on, the Disney film is surprisingly spot-on. The facts are all wrong, but ultimately, the notion of being a hero as a way of making your superiors proud remains constant. As such, Disney’s Hercules is not a total adaptation fail.
And just a small aside:
Kratos is not a demigod. You silly, silly God of War fanatics. It’s a fun, honest-to-goodness good game–just make sure you don’t assume the game’s mythos reflects actual tenets of Greek mythology or that playing the game will crown you an expert in Greek mythology.