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Helen of Troy (2003)



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I'm getting pretty sick of works of classic literature constantly -- mechanically, in most cases -- being revised with a feminist slant, regardless of whether it makes a better story. Are we, as a society, still so insecure about gender differences that we cannot tolerate fault in any single female character and must revise history to protect ourselves?

What Helen of Troy does to The Iliad is not as grievous as what The Mists of Avalon does to the Arthurian legends, but it doesn't improve the story, either. One of the things that makes the tragedy of The Iliad resonate as it does is that Paris and Helen were both selfish, traitorous characters. In this TV mini-series, Paris and Helen are romantic heroes. Numerous scenes are added for Helen, in particular, as the show pulls out all the stops to convince us that Helen is a strong character who makes her own decisions about love and has her own self-sacrificing schemes for setting things right. Of course, since the basic story arc is unchanged, none of these schemes are allowed to work, and the means by which each new scheme is foiled is either contrived or, more often, confusing. This skewing of characters bleeds into other aspects of the story, rendering them unconvincing: consider the scene when King Priam, wrathful upon learning his son has kidnapped Helen of Sparta and started a war prophesied to result in the destruction of all Troy, is assuaged when he learns that she came along willingly, and the Greeks were treating her poorly anyhow.

Worse than these logistical problems themselves is the superficiality of why they exist. Is it appropriate to alter a defining work of literature thousands of years old and an integral part of western heritage just to ensure that it will be inoffensive to the social values of a particular generation? Revisionism for this purpose never led to a better society, but it has a proven track record of clearing the path in the opposite direction.

But I must be cautious not to let this issue weigh unduly in a balanced assessment. The fact is that although the alterations made to the story weaken it, the end result still holds up, more or less. Strong performances keep us involved in the story, and the costumes and landscapes are lush and beautiful to look at. The 1997 mini-series of The Odyssey remains the best of its kind, but once one circumvents Helen of Troy's social agenda, it's close behind.

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