What I’m Watching: The Odyssey

The Odyssey (1997)Actually, I guess this could also fit under the “What I’m Reading” category and, if I had one, “What I’m Teaching.” I’ve been presenting The Odyssey to my ninth-grade students for three years now, but this is the first time I’ve presented the 1997 miniseries to the class, and in fact, the first time I’ve watched it myself. All in all, it’s not bad.

This Hallmark-produced miniseries, of course, casts Armand Assante as the great Odysseus, my personal favorite of all the Greek heroes (as people who’ve read Summer Love have no doubt surmised). After ten years of war in the city of Troy, Odysseus makes the mistake of offending Poseidon, god of the seas, and is forced to wander for years on his quest to return home.

Considering this was made for television, the cast is pretty impressive. Bernadette Peters does a great turn as Circe, and Isabella Rossellini‘s interpretation of Athena is particularly strong. Of the immortal cast, only Vanessa Williams‘ Calypso is rather weak. Her delivery leaves something to be desired, with stunted lines that sound like she’s reading off the page. She’s definitely improved as an actress since this movie was made.

The human cast, though, helps make this movie work. Assante‘s Odysseus is great, with just the right mixture of wisdom and arrogance to get him in and out of trouble. Alan Stenson as his son, Telemachus, isn’t bad. Greta Scacchi as Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, is wonderful. She really nails a wide range of emotion going from despair to hope to love to cold rage. She’s a wonderful part of the cast. To my surprise, though, I was really impressed by Eric Roberts as Eurymachus, one of the boorish suitors that attempts to woo Penelope in Odysseus’s absence. Even though most of Odysseus’s woes are due to the machinations of Poseidon, the god only appears twice, and as a form in the crashing waves. Roberts is more human, more active, and really comes across as the main antagonist of the miniseries.

As an adaptation, it’s adequate. There are a few things that are left out that I wish had been included — specifically the slaying of the cattle of the sun god Helios. If you’re going to get rid of that event, which is the cause of Odysseus’ men dying in the poem, the filmmakers found an okay way to replace it. The real problem, though, is that it loses the aspect of the sailors’ deaths being their own fault. Instead of being punished, they’re basically bystanders who get killed to pay for Odysseus’s original mistake. It lessens the moral of the story, as it relates to the Greek rules of hospitality.

Other changes are easier to live with. The story of Argus, for example, is one of the best parts of the poem, but I can understand how it would be difficult to translate a parable about the loyalty of an ancient dog to the television screen. I cannot, though, forgive the fact that they omit the Sirens — one of the most dynamic and altogether filmable segments of the poem.

As a filmgoer, it’s just okay. As a teacher, I can totally recommend it to anyone presenting The Odyssey to a high school audience. It tells the basic story well, as long as you’re ready to bridge the gaps and correct some of the changes to the timeline. Plus, the fight scene at the end is really good and guaranteed to get the attention of a teenage audience raised on movies that make the first Halloween look like The Mickey Mouse Club in comparison. (Don’t worry, it’s not that gory. Just gory enough.)

3 Responses to “What I’m Watching: The Odyssey”

  1. 1 Jason Fernandez
    May 22, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    Odysseus is one of my favorite mythological characters too. I don’t know who I need to beg, but I would love to see the Odyssey produced by the same team that did Troy, with Sean Bean reprising Odysseus.

    • May 22, 2009 at 7:02 pm

      I wasn’t really that big a fan of Troy, honestly. Sean Bean was fun, but they drained all of the fantasy elements from the story and made it kind of bland. Even if it was done well, it’d be impossible to do that with The Odyssey.

      • 3 Jason Fernandez
        May 23, 2009 at 9:46 am

        That’s very true about the loss of fantasy elements, but the casting, costumes, and locations were spot on. I really just want to see more of Sean Bean as Odysseus.

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