There are plenty of adaptations of Greek and Roman mythology, from Disney’s Hercules to the BBC’s Atlantis. What you may not know is that there are plenty of pop culture giants that have been heavily influenced by these myths, but that may not seem as obvious. Adaora Elliott looks at three highly influential movies that were inspired by mythology from the Classical world.
Warning: contains mentions of suicide.
Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Their families hate each other. They plan to elope. Both die. A tale we’re all familiar with. To most people, Romeo and Juliet is the epitome of the star-crossed lovers trope, the original. Before Romeo and Juliet were even a glimmer in Shakespeare’s eye, however, there were Pyramus and Thisbe.
A tragic end to the young lovers in a way that’s eerily similar to, if not a little simpler than, the Shakespeare story
In 8 AD, over 1,500 years before Romeo and Juliet was written and almost 2000 years before Leonardo DiCaprio depicted Romeo on screen, the Roman poet Ovid wrote a great piece called Metamorphoses, detailing and reimaging many classic Greek myths. Included in that more than 78,000 word poem is the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.
Thisbe and Pyramus are neighbours who fall in love, but, forbidden marrying by their parents, resort to communicating through a crack in the wall between their two houses. They decided to elope and agree to meet at Ninus’ tomb but Thisbe gets there early. She sees a lioness approaching and flees, conveniently dropping her shawl, so when Pyramus arrives, all he sees is a lion and his lover’s shawl. He is convinced of her untimely death and promptly runs himself through with his sword. When Thisbe returns to find him dead she follows suit, bringing a tragic end to the young lovers in a way that’s eerily similar to, if not a little simpler than, the Shakespeare story.
The way to keep people appeased was through providing them with ‘panem et circenses’
The Hunger Games was also heavily influenced by Greek myth and Roman culture. Fans of the books and movies may have noticed that the setting, Panem, is named after the Latin for ‘bread’. During the birth of the Roman Empire and the fall of the Roman Republic, the way to keep people appeased was through providing them with ‘panem et circenses’, bread and circuses or gladiatorial games. Suzanne Collins clearly drew inspiration from these when describing the widely broadcast ‘Hunger Games’, made to entertain and control the population.
Furthermore, Collins has said that she drew inspiration from the myth of Theseus. Athens, at the mercy of King Minos of Crete, was forced to send seven boys and seven girls to Crete every nine years in order to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a terrifying half-bull half-man creature that lived in the labyrinth. That is until Theseus volunteered himself in place of one of the boys and defeated the beast. Likewise, Katniss Everdeen volunteered herself for the Hunger Games in place of her sister. The difference being that it is every year and 12 girls and 12 boys, one from each district, are selected to compete until there is one victor left.
Eliza has been metaphorically brought to life by the phonetics expert, Higgins
My Fair Lady (1964), starring Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle, was based on the 1913 stage musical Pygmalian which in turn was influenced by mythology. The Pygmalion myth is about a sculptor who, put off by women’s imperfections, sculpts the perfect woman out of marble but then falls in love with it. Aphrodite brings her to life and they get married and have a child. In the various My Fair Lady adaptations, Eliza has been metaphorically brought to life by the phonetics expert, Higgins, when she is taught how to speak an upper-class dialect and made into his idea of the perfect lady. She is the work of art that he created, he views her as an extension of his own skill.
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