Recently, a number of prominent publications have featured a growing body of work on classical receptions in science fiction and fantasy, including Mélanie Bost-Fiévet’s and Sandra Provini’s collection L’Antiquité dans l’imaginaire contemporain (Garniers Classiques 2014), a special issue of the journal Foundation on “Fantastika and the Greek and Roman Worlds” (Autumn 2014), and our own collection, Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (OUP 2015).
This focus on science fiction, now an important part of popular culture, reveals much about how ancient classics are being received by modern audiences, particularly when it comes to the silver screen. For example, contributors to our collection wrote on topics including inorganic beings and tropes of disability in Blade Runner and ancient literature; how Forbidden Planet evokes mid-20th-century Aristotelian visions of tragedy; and modern Hollywood visions of imperial Rome in The Hunger Games trilogy. Still other examples were discussed at the recent “Once and Future Antiquity” international conference.
However, this burgeoning field is wide open for exploration not only by professional classicists, film theorists, and other scholars, but also by fans of all of these genres. In order to invite readers to join the ongoing conversation, we note the Top Sci Five Classical Receptions on Screen that we would love to see examined at greater length and depth.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film, developed in close collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, is a bald-faced classical reception. Kubrick deliberately chose the subtitle to suggest that this–a long and fantastic journey through the mystery and remoteness of space–is perhaps the modern Odyssey. Yet unlike some other notable examples of ‘incredible voyages,’ 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick 1968) is neither parodic nor vaguely monomythic, devoting as much attention to the disconcerting metaphysical implications of homecoming as to its spectacularly realistic depictions of travel through space.
As outer space and inner spaces overlap, ‘What is out there?’ becomes a way of exploring ‘What is in here?’ and ‘Who are we / am I?’ in ways readers of Homer and Virgil are apt to recognize. Although such questions can be attributed to the film’s modern sources of inspiration—above all Clarke’s own “The Sentinel” (1951) and Childhood’s End (1953)—they also resonate deeply with ancient themes, including Odysseus’s various self-descriptions when confronted with versions of his past and Aeneas’ question of what it means to pursue a new home by divine command.
Deleted scene: As if in unconscious evocation of classical antiquity, the film’s most iconic character, the artificial intelligence and archvillain HAL 9000, was originally going to be named Athena.
Although not strictly ‘classical’ in its involvement with Greece or Rome, Stargate (Emmerich 1994) is enthusiastic about ancient studies insofar as ancient Egyptian culture is, in the film’s central conceit, the result of an intervention by a technologically advanced visitor from another world. The film thus presents a variation of gods as extraterrestrials, a theme related to both the ancient theory of Euhemerism (stating that gods are post-humans) and the modern ‘Chariots of the Gods’ theory (after Erich von Daniken’s 1968 book.) Moreover, it envisions a universe in which the study of ancient language and culture is, paradoxically, a guide to humankind’s possible future.
Of course, the film operates under somewhat unexamined assumptions about American exceptionalism, as Egyptologist Daniel Jackson (James Spader) certainly conforms to assorted stereotypes of his academic field: e.g., he is white, male, heterosexual, bespectacled, physically unprepossessing, and allergic to seemingly everything. But Jackson nonetheless also embodies a kind of triumph of the intellectual over the merely physical, leading not only to military victory against the cruel alien masquerading as Ra, but also to cross-cultural understandings.
Bonus feature: The film inspired several television series of the same name, one of which centers on the lost city of Atlantis, reimagined as an ancient city-sized spaceship.
Ridley Scott’s two films in the Aliens series reveal a sustained interest in icons from classical myth that explore and articulate human suffering. In Alien (Scott 1979), the human crew of the spaceship Nostromo encounter the deadly xenomorphs on a planetoid identified as Acheron LV-426, a name that not only alludes to one of the rivers of the Underworld but anticipates the living hell the humans will experience. This makes Ellen Ripley, the film’s lone survivor, into a kind of science-fictional Greek hero who returns from the realm of the dead but now questions the very meaning and limits of humanity. Alien also complicates notions of humanity through the android Ash, who betrays the human crew in favor of his creators, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, hardening distinctions between the human and inhuman. Scott later complicates such thinking in Prometheus (Scott 2012), wherein the android David, once liberated from his human master Weyland, proves more sympathetic—and even more humane—than human characters themselves.
Prometheus engages more obviously with the classics than Alien, evoking the ancient myth of Prometheus and his gift of fire to humankind in order to explore the unintended consequences of technoscientific discovery and reimagine the confrontation between humankind and its own creator. While Prometheus, at its outset, shares Stargate’s perspective that the study of ancient languages and cultures–in this case, archaeology and the myth of Prometheus–serves as a guide to for the future, the crew of the ship Prometheus soon discover that they have instead opened Pandora’s jar, as it becomes clear that humankind’s creators, the Engineers, seek to obliterate them with biological weapons (stored in actual jars).
Language selection:Prometheus includes a version of Proto-Indo-European, which the android David studies, with on-screen assistance from real-life linguist Anil Biltoo, in order to speak with the Engineers; one Engineer returns the linguistic courtesy by decapitating David.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
This cult favorite, based on a 1973 stage musical, is a science fiction/horror film ending in the revelation that the main characters are aliens from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania. And yet, amidst its rampant, Dionysiac transgression of generic and sexual boundaries, Rocky Horror (Sharman 1975) shows a marked interest in classical hard bodies, not only through the repeated appearance of neo-classical statuary but also in its focus on the mythic figure of Atlas.
Rocky, the creation of scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter, evokes in his physical appearance not Frankenstein’s monster (as we might expect) but the exquisitely sculpted Charles Atlas, the mid-20th century guru of masculine fitness and self-transformation. However, Rocky discovers himself not to be a self-made man like Charles Atlas, but rather a prisoner in a state of perpetual bondage like the mythic Titan Atlas, known for his perpetual suffering in holding the heavens upon his shoulders and depicted in stained glass over Furter’s bed. Rocky Horror thus mobilizes an ancient icon to cast doubts upon the promised liberation of the self through modern sex and science, hinting at the complex horrors inherent in practices of classical reception.
Easter egg: When Dr. Furter captures several of the characters towards the end of the film, he transforms them into statues using a weapon called ‘the Medusa transducer,’ whose sing-song name of course recalls the petrifying Gorgon.
The Transformers: The Movie
The last item on our list is, in a way, also the first—the 1986 film that first crystallized our interest in classical receptions in science fiction. Like all Transformers properties, the film depicts an enduring war between forces of good and evil in the forms of Autobots and Decepticons. As fans will know, important Autobots have Latinate names; their leader is Optimus Prime, who is later replaced by Rodimus Prime. Important Decepticons, in contrast, have Hellenic names; their leader is Megatron, who is later upgraded into Galvatron. That contrast alone would have been sufficient fodder for the Wacky Classics Movie Night we held in our Greek and Latin House at Reed College in the fall of 1997: Are Latinates/Romans thus ‘good’ while Hellenics/Greeks are somehow ‘evil’?
But the film goes further in its tagline, ‘Beyond good, beyond evil, beyond your wildest imagination,’ to envision a universe inhabited by sentient machines taking a wide range of forms and occupying an equally wide range of moral positions. Five-faced judges with monstrous animal helpers recall the multiple judges of the ancient Underworld and the guard dog Cerberus, while scavengers who live on the scraps of earlier cultures emphasize practices of recomposition in post-classical periods. Above all, there is Unicron—also known as the Lord of Chaos, the Chaos Bringer, and the Planet Eater—whose destabilizing presence seems to evoke third-century BCE Hellenistic politics or, later on, the ‘barbarian invasions’ from the north.
The news this week that Jeremy Clarkson’s contract with the BBC will not be renewed might be bad news for Top Gear fans but could it be good news for politics? Probably not…
I wonder what Jeremy Clarkson is up to as you read this blog. Could he be casting his eye over the jobs pages in the newspapers, possibly signing-up to some on-line employment agencies, or simply staring at his mobile phone in the hope that it will ring with the message that says ‘The BBC has changed its mind! All is forgiven’? The answer is ‘probably not’ but lets run with the idea for a moment and think of what a slightly grumpy Jeremy with time on his hands might do for his next big project.
I must at this point admit that the testosterone soaked, ‘man-fun’ focus of Top Gear has never quite rung my bell, but as a political scientist (yawn, yawn, yawn) I can’t help but think that there is something going on. Top Gear seems to be spreading as some form of international cultural craze. Indeed, its global reach appears unstoppable and so far includes over sixty countries from Argentina to Australia and Israel to Ireland. At the same time a quite different cultural craze that was popular in recent decades (i.e. democracy) appears to be in something of a retreat. This is reflected in a massive body of evidence and data that reveals increasing levels of public disenchantment with traditional politics.
Take the United Kingdom as an example. With just weeks before the 2015 General Election the latest ‘Audit of Political Engagement’ from the Hansard Society suggests that just 49% of the public says they are certain to vote. In relation to 18-24-year-olds the picture of democratic desire is more bleak with just 16% saying they are certain to vote, but nearly twice as many saying that they definitely will not be voting. Those who claim to be a strong supporter of a political party is down to just 30% and the general picture is one of decline.
The number who believe themselves to be registered to vote? Decline. Those that feel they have some influence over local issues? Decline. Satisfaction with the overall system? Decline. Petition to reinstate Jeremy Clarkson? Surpasses one million voters.
Hold on a minute! Have I spotted something? Politics and politicians appear to be in big trouble; Clarkson appears to be surfing a wave of popular support that most politicians could never dream of. Add the fact that Jezza has a bit of unexpected free time on his hands and ‘hey presto’ — Jeremy Clarkson MP.
Such simple and outlandish (or should that be ‘out-laddish?) calculations would be funny if it were not for the fact that Jeremy Clarkson has already threatened to stand for election to Parliament. In September 2013 he used the Internet to tell his followers ‘I’m thinking I might stand in the next election as an independent for Doncaster North, which is where I’m from. Thoughts?’ he wrote.
A cruel twist of fate and a lack of hot food in a Northern hotel now makes this question all the more interesting.
What are my thoughts?
This is, of course, all hypothetical but there is a devil in me that would quite like to see Clarkson stand and there is little doubt that he could give Ed Miliband a run for his money in a town where my family is also from. But would this really be good for democracy? Would it make Jeremy or break Jeremy? The answer is that we will never know but there is a broader question about celebrity politics and the power of populism.
With comedians like Al Murray, Russell Brand, and others increasingly entering the political arena and posing as joke candidates, making ‘mockumentaries’, or attempting to make some sort of political intervention our political reality seems to be becoming somewhat warped or distorted: politics as a farcical parody of itself. Let’s remember that the celebrities are themselves, whether they admit it or not, a form of social elite. Swapping one elite for another does not sound like a way to cure the political disengagement that appears so pronounced. So Jeremy, just jump in your car and keep on driving…
Performances by dogs are a persistent feature of contemporary cinema. In recent years, audiences have been offered a wide range of canine performances by a variety of breeds, including Mason the collie in the remake of Lassie, Jonah the labrador retriever in Marley & Me, the akita in Hachi: A Dog’s Story, the dogo argentino in Bombón: El Perro, Uggie the Jack Russell terrier in The Artist, and numerous others.
However, a number of recent films aimed at children present performances by dogs in which a new phenomenon is visible. Films such as Cats & Dogs (and its sequel), Underdog, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, and Marmaduke combine the traditional canine actor with digital effects. Unlike films in which animal characters are wholly constituted through computer-generated imagery, the animals which feature in this group of films are composite beings, in which the bodies of the animal actors used during the shoot work in tandem with the virtuosity of visual effects personnel in post-production.
Supplementing real dogs with digital animation produces performances that have benefits on many different levels. Firstly, they are much more effective dramatically because they can become more anthropomorphically expressive to suit the needs of the story. Economically they are less time-consuming and therefore less expensive because the performance is no longer determined by the unpredictable or intractable volition of real animals, however ‘well-trained’. The problems that arise even when working with ‘professional’ dog actors can be exasperating, as Lance Bangs’ short film The Absurd Difficulty of Filming a Dog Running and Barking at the Same Time (shot on the set of Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are) makes abundantly clear. The technological mediation of dog actors’ performances by digital effects allows contemporary filmmakers to overcome such problems and present, should they so wish, dogs flying and talking at the same time.
While the Palm Dog, a fixture at the Cannes Film Festival since 2001, has been awarded to both live (such as Lucy, from Wendy and Lucy) and animated dogs (such as Dug, from Up) – it is now the case that much popular children’s media features performances by dogs in which the distinction between real and animated animals is blurred. Two Great Danes, Spirit and George, are credited for the lead role in Marmaduke (with Owen Wilson providing the voice), but the characterization owes as much to the expertise of various modellers, riggers, texturers and compositors as it does to either of the dogs. A ‘digital muzzle replacement’ enables Marmaduke to appear to address the spectator directly, while the digital manipulation of the dog’s eyebrows and ears allows for a range of facial expressions that coincide with the inflections of Wilson’s vocal performance (the flatulence was presumably also added in post-production). While computer-generated visual effects are used throughout the film to ‘animate’ the various dog actors’ faces in ways that support the human actors’ vocal performances, they are also deployed in certain comic sequences. For example, when Marmaduke breakdances or goes surfing, the body of the dog is completely replaced with digital animation for the purpose of presenting ‘moves’ that a real dog would be incapable of executing (such as head-spins and somersaults). Nowadays, digital effects routinely provide the comic spectacle of such ‘realistic’ dogs moving and talking like cartoon canine characters through the photographically real spaces presented by the live-action film.
“The algorithmic programming which enables such composite canine performances is, in important respects, analogous to the manipulation of dogs’ genetic code in selective breeding”
The algorithmic programming which enables such composite canine performances is, in important respects, analogous to the manipulation of dogs’ genetic code in selective breeding. Yi-Fu Tuan has described domestication as involving the manipulation of a species’ genetic constitution through breeding practices. For dogs, this involved their transformation into aesthetic objects. Harriet Ritvo has argued that when breeders ‘redesigned’ the shape of dogs in accordance with ‘swiftly changing fashions’ the dog’s body ‘proclaimed its profound subservience to human will,’ becoming ‘the most physically malleable of animals, the one whose shape and size changed most readily in response to the whims of breeders’.
The manipulability of dogs, in other words, anticipates the inherently malleable digital image. The various exaggerated morphological features that characterize the conformation of the pedigree dog – such as the large head, the flat face, the long ears or the short legs – were produced by a systematic stretching and shrinking of the species according to specific aesthetic criteria, with serious implications for the physical and psychological well-being of the individual dogs.
Composite animal performances like those featured in Marmaduke or the Beverly Hills Chihuahua films can thus reveal for us the repressed histories of such subjection. These hybrid performances, which present personified and plasmatic domestic pets for our entertainment, remind us that dogs have long endured such subjugation. Indeed they remain subordinate to, and constituted by, an aesthetic and technological regime in which they are exploited as if they were already CGI images, and ‘redesigned’ according to the logic of what Philip Rosen has called the ‘practically infinite manipulability’ of digital cinema.
Featured image credit: Robert Bray and Lassie, 1967. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The much anticipated Valentine’s Day release 50 Shades of Grey set off a flurry of activity on social media sites, with bloggers lining up to cajole, shame, reason, or plead with women to resist temptation and abstain from viewing the film. In a case of strange bedfellows, if you will, conservative Christians and liberal feminists alike castigated the film for its packaging of abuse as mainstream entertainment. (Feminists and Christians were also joined by a fair number film critics, whose condemnation revolved more around the film’s artistic offenses than its moral flaws.)
Christians had reason to be concerned about the film’s pernicious influences, even among their own. A 2013 Barna Group study revealed that roughly 9% of practicing Christians had read 50 Shades since its publication the previous year, the same proportion as the general adult population. Despite (or, one wonders, because of?) the social media campaign, the film opened to a record-breaking weekend, though ticket sales have reportedly dropped off rather dramatically since. The film has, however, succeeded in generating a lively conversation among Christians about sex, power, and the abuse of women.
It wasn’t all that long ago that the topic of abuse was all but taboo in many Christian circles. Among conservative Christians who instructed women to submit to their husbands and men to assert headship over women, there was little space in which to address issues of abuse, especially abuse that occurred within the household. In recent years, however, churches, organizations, and individuals have worked to address domestic abuse within Christian communities more openly. Public scandals—from the treatment of rape victims at Bob Jones University, to the well-publicized misogyny of evangelical mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll, to accusations of domestic abuse brought against emergent church leader Tony Jones—have kept the topic of abuse a matter of public discussion among American Christians.
In bringing to light the problem of abuse perpetrated by men who profess to be Christians, however, fellow believers must inevitably confront a critical question: Do perpetrators commit acts of violence against women in contradiction to the theology they espouse, or does that theology itself facilitate a culture of violence against women?
For the majority of Christians, the 50 Shades backlash has reinforced a narrative that locates abusive practices comfortably outside of Christian tradition, and then situates the faith as a powerful antidote to the oppression of women. This narrative, it may be worth noting, finds echoes in American Christians’ enthusiasm, as of late, for global and domestic anti-trafficking campaigns, and for a public concern about the status of women in Islamic cultures. E. L. James’s “soft porn” depiction of male dominance and female submission, together with Hollywood’s eagerness to cash in on these domination fantasies, certainly lends itself to this interpretive trend.
A smaller number of Christians, however, have demonstrated a willingness to question whether Christianity itself, and particularly the patriarchal teachings that have long shaped Christians’ views of gender and sexuality, may in fact contribute to the abuse women suffer at the hands of Christian men.
This was precisely the question posed over a century ago by a remarkable woman by the name of Katharine Bushnell. Like many other Protestant women of her day, Bushnell was a social reformer. After a brief career in missions, she took up the cause of temperance, which soon brought her into contact with the most destitute of women. Troubled that a purportedly Christian society rebuked “fallen women” as beyond redemption, while essentially allowing men to do as they pleased, Bushnell took up the issue of prostitution in Victorian society. Through her efforts to expose the state-sanctioned prostitution in Wisconsin lumber camps, and then for her campaign against the abuse of women at the hands of the British military in colonial India, Bushnell emerged as an internationally-known activist.
Time and again Bushnell was startled to find that it was Christian men who were perpetrating acts of cruelty against women, or upholding legal or social structures that enabled other men to do so. Even when such men were publicly called out for their complicity in crimes against women, other Christians often continued to consider such men “respectable” Christian gentlemen. Ultimately, Bushnell came to conclude that Christianity itself must be to blame, and she turned her attention to the Christian Scriptures in order to discover the theological roots of the abuse of women.
She found what she was looking for in the early chapters of Genesis, where Eve was purportedly but an afterthought, a “weaker vessel,” culpable for humanity’s fall into sin—a mistake so grave that even Christ’s atonement was not sufficient to lift the curse from her and all women after her. Bushnell also found evidence that the “sacred institution” of Christian marriage in fact robbed women of their will in such a way as to amount to nothing less than “the sexual abuse of the wife by the husband.” She defended her use of the term “abuse,” arguing that subordination was abuse. “Man would feel abused if enslaved to a fellow man,” she argued, and the same was true of women, even if theologians liked to consider women’s subjugation “the happiest state in which a woman can exist.” All of this led Bushnell to conclude that crimes against women were, indeed, “the fruit of the theology.”
Despite these conclusions, however, Bushnell didn’t reject Christianity in its entirety. Rather, trained in classics, she investigated English translations in light of Hebrew and Greek texts, whereupon she discovered a centuries-long pattern of mistranslation and misinterpretation that had distorted true Christianity into “a whole fossilized system” of patriarchal theology. By retranslating the Scriptures, she provided a new gospel for women—one that did not prescribe subordination to men as perpetual penance for Eve’s sin, but rather offered an expansive biblical vision for women’s religious and social authority. Most remarkably, Bushnell developed her radical feminist re-readings of the Scriptures while upholding the authority of the scriptures. Indeed, when it came to issues of biblical interpretation, she identified as a fundamentalist, staunchly opposed to the threats of modernism.
Bushnell’s teachings, which she published as God’s Word to Women, remain popular among some conservative Christian subcultures today, and they have proven formative to a number of Christians who are working within their communities to combat the abuse of women and advocate for women’s religious and social authority.
Even today, Bushnell’s writings offer a poignant challenge to Christians who may be tempted to locate the cause of abuse outside the Christian tradition, and to turn a blind eye to the ways in which patriarchal interpretations of the Scriptures may have distorted Christianity itself.
Those seeking to combat the abuse of women worldwide as part of their Christian witness may be better positioned to do so, and able to do so with more integrity, after coming to terms with the effects of patriarchy within their own tradition. And for that, Katharine Bushnell may be a good place to start.
Anthologists must reluctantly exclude. When choosing the stories for Victorian Fairy Tales, there was one story that both I and my editor hesitated over for a long time, before in the end deciding that it was too different from the other works in the book for it to make sense to include it. The tale in question is Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’. This story may or may not be a fairy tale, though there are certainly fairies in it. However, unlike any of his Victorian forebears or most of his contemporaries, Machen manages to achieve, only a few years before the comfortably kitsch flower fairies of Cicely Mary Barker, the singular feat of rendering fairies terrifying.
With James Hogg’s ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Thrawn Janet’, and several of M. R. James’s marvellous ghost stories, ‘The White People’ is one of only a handful of literary texts that have genuinely unnerved me. Perhaps it is that the fairy-haunted figure is a child; perhaps it is the way that Machen evokes some archetypal terror of lonely woods and country silences.
The fear that Machen summons up with regard to meeting the fairies among the trees was long one of the reasons why rationalist opponents of such tales were so vociferous in wishing them stamped out. Fairy tales were bad for children, because they frightened them. Worse, they were scared by unrealities that could not be, by witches, ogres, dragons, and wicked pixies. A course of no-nonsense realism and facts was the required cure, not a giving over of the self to wild imaginings.
Strangely, the terror in fairy stories has become one of the few aspects of the original tales to find favour with contemporary audiences. Those who have seen Angelina Jolie in Maleficent or Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman will have seen the violent darkening of the form; in Conor MacPherson’s extraordinary play, The Weir, one of the terrifying stories told in that forlorn Irish pub is one of the uncanny little folk.
At the other extreme, we’re now given over to the saccharine, Barbie-esque world of Tinkerbell and implausibly large-eyed princesses. Contemporary films and stories fall between two elements, embracing violence or resting in kitsch.
For Machen, the fairy was a dark survival from some earlier time, a trace of the occult ancient ways surviving into the rational present. Others have long felt, and some continue to feel, that the fairy story itself is another such atavistic remnant, bringing into our pragmatic contemporary world unsettling forces and unappetising, outmoded social mores.
However, working on the great Victorian fairy tales, secondary and artificial as they undoubtedly were, nonetheless it grows clear how sanely they once held the two poles of fear and prettiness in place, and at bay. Genuine terror is absent from most of the stories, yet they remain hardnosed and realistic about suffering, aware of the pain in life, the tyranny that oppresses, the aggression that wounds. Above all they are capable of being serious, and seriously attentive to qualities of the numinous and the mysterious that can only, it can seem, become present in our own fictions through recourse to the uncanny or cruel.
At the same time, kitsch is rarely found in these stories (as opposed perhaps to the worst Victorian fairy paintings). Instead, some of the great Victorian fairy tales offer us a spirited, playful fun, a readiness to send themselves up without sacrificing the power to move us.
It’s very different in tone, but perhaps only Disney’s Frozen has come a little bit close to the gentle pantomime-like, but nonetheless feeling quality that we find in the stories by William Makepeace Thackeray and Andrew Lang, in Kenneth Grahame or E. Nesbit. As for the beguiling enchantments offered by George MacDonald or Dinah Craik, Mary De Morgan or Laurence Housman, maybe this is one thing that the Victorians simply did better than we do, and reading their works is one way of ensuring the survival of that spirit into the present day.