Ancient stories have a way of influencing modern filmmakers—in part because of their “glorious” approach to love, as actor, writer and Greek-myth-lover Stephen Fry noted at this year’s digital Hay Festival. But even beyond depictions of same-sex love, Greco-Roman mythologies lend themselves well to tales of otherness and transformation.
Mythology isn’t just a bunch of stories from thousands of years ago—it’s something we create every day. Greco-Roman mythology, in particular, has less to do with the “godly” part of the pantheon, and more with their human qualities. Their lust, jealousy, wrath and greed: on display for not just other gods but all mortals under them. These stories were a portal for us to reckon with the less-savory parts of ourselves.
More than that, these stories were a cipher; a way for us to relate to one another without the need for conversation. What are celebrities and the gossip they inspire, if not modern myths? Stans are acolytes worshipping at the temples of their respective gods. They make offerings, pray to them, build altars. Every celebrity’s past is of great interest to their worshippers, who mine their back-stories for nuggets of relatability.
Beyond direct adaptations (Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans and the like), these ancient myths have informed many recent films (Prometheus and The Lighthouse; the Amazons and Wonder Woman; Oedipus and Old Boy; Homer’s The Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou? included). But queer scholars have long seen Greco-Roman myths as having a particular way of helping shape queer cinematic experience, because they exist at the same intersections.
Consider the queer sensibilities in the tall tales that feature trans and intersex characters, and all the other ways the ancient poets encompass LGBTQIA expression: through their tales of otherness, outcasts living on the fringes of society, relationships that reject heteronormativity, or that push the bounds of sexuality and identity.
When myth and movie come together to create loose adaptations, film lovers are blessed with art like The Neon Demon, Jumbo, Midsommar and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Let’s look at how Ovid, Euripides and Virgil have woven their way into the fabric of each of these stories. (Spoilers ahead!)