Saturday, June 21, 2008

300: Lost In Translation

When I began this post, its title was going to be "300 Reasons Not To Watch" and my first line was going to be an apology -- for giving up in disgust before getting anything close to the promised three hundred reasons to avoid the latest (though by now not terribly recent) major motion picture about the Battle of Thermopylae. Before my research was very far underway, I explained why the movie made me want to vomit:
It's a basic feature of human judgment, I am convinced, that disappointment and revulsion are so directly linked to one's expectations. A bad book, I discard. A bad book by an author who has actually written things I enjoyed isn't merely an occasion to roll one's eyes and open a listing on, it's damn-near treason.
And so it is with 300. The story of the Battle of Thermopylae so invites visions of larger-than-life visages set in grim-faced determination and glowering with fierce defiance that you long to see it portrayed. King Leonidas' immortal retort to the Persian demand the Spartans surrender their weapons (Μολών Λαβέ, "come and take them") is so timeless it's been hurled again and again at foes as distant and foreign as those who sought to confiscate the cannon at Goliad. Just hearing the subject at hand, one must know how the story was converted into a viewable film.

Alas, 300 is not such a film.
As I researched the details needed to sustain the specific excoriations I had leveled against this would-be epic, however, I discovered something entirely unexpected: 300 was not an effort, even slightly, to tell the story of the Battle of Thermopylae. My whole premise was overturned. My problem with the film suddenly seemed not that it failed to achieve its objective, but that I was misled about the filmmakers' purpose. The fact they botched the test I was grading said nothing whatsoever in connection with whether the film might get an A+ on the test the filmmakers sat down to take.

And what was it they were doing, you ask? Well, it's a funny thing ....

300 isn't a film about Spartan heroism at the Battle of Thermopylae any more than Batman Begins is a movie about bringing justice to a broken New York. Both films are, instead, based on the graphic novels of Frank Miller. The movie 300 is based directly on this Frank Miller series with Lynn Varley, whereas Batman Begins, though incorporating elements of Miller-authored Batman stories, is a work enough separate from specific Miller works that there are, you know, actual writing credits to others. But the Batman depicted in what I hold to be the first Batman movie worth watching is cast clearly in the mold of Miller's Batman,[1] make no mistake, and the test properly applied to the movie is whether it correctly interprets Miller's Batman into the language of cinema.

So this post has been recast as a consumer's critique on the quality with which Miller's graphic novels have been brought to the broad audience through the miracle of high-dollar Hollywood production efforts. It turns out that a great story doesn't guarantee either a great movie or even a serious effort at faithful reproduction of the essential elements. The folks tasked with writing a full-length script make a difference, as do the folks who decide how to depict with living actors what was portrayed in hand-drawn still images.

I don't want to be misunderstood as a font of artistic snobbery that insists that one can't adapt a good book into a good movie, or that there's something more real about what you get on a written page than you do in thousands and thousands of huge full-color images with surround sound. Yes, I am critical of unnecessary flourishes in film if they undermine the work, but I am fully cognizant that you have to reduce your word count moving a tale to film from novels, and you have to dramatically increase it as you move from comics (er ... graphic novels). In other words, your film adaptation of a written story -- either a traditional novel or a graphic novel[2] -- must be significantly different. Whether the adaptation rings with the truth of the original is the real test.

As anyone knows, who has translated between any two languages, you can't just move word by word through a work and expect it to make much sense. Translating meaning is more than just copying with the aid of a dictionary. Thus, the dark, scary mood that sets the tone at the beginning of Sam and Frodo's journey when they hide from the nearby ring wraith in The Fellowship of the Ring can't possibly depend solely on Tolkien's original words to do it. Verisimilitude in the multidimensional environment of the darkened theater invites the visible breath of their pursuer's barded steed, its sweat running darkly down its stamping hooves, and the shadows deep in the slowly-turning cowl as its heartless wearer seeks its quarry. You don't get Tolkien's original words -- how could you? and would you want them? -- but you understand what he meant. (I don't give the whole Ring movie trilogy an unqualified thumbs-up for faithfully translating Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, but the first movie, and this scene in particular, give a solid example how this kind of thing is supposed to be done.)

So I can't just look at 300 and say that sadly, the Battle of Thermopylae was tossed out the window in favor of a psychadelic costume designer's parading fantasy freakshow set to the howl of electric guitars. Now that I know what 300 is trying to be, I have a harder job. I have first to look at Miller's work if I'm to give the film fair treatment. And there, I suppose, is my first gripe: I wish there'd been a consumer warning that viewers were being offered Frank Miller's 300 in full color and high-wattage digital surround sound, and not a dramatized history of the conflict between the Greeks and the Persians. Being mislead is an offense to the consumer. This isn't a fault of the film as a product, but is the fault of its marketers and its packaging. Now you've been warned.

Let's look at the films, shall we?

Batman Begins To Offer Worthwhile Batman Movies

Batman Begins is not the story of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One but does take quite a few details from it: the heel-mounted sonar device to summon bats to cover an escape while surrounded by the police; the line to Gordon that he's "a good cop, one of the few"; and the way you're shown the new Batman has fully come of age at the end of the movie, when you realize his next problem will be the Joker. The crystal-clear image of Batman as a dark, brooding character willing to terrify and harm (but not kill) to do justice in a world where the institutions of justice have been subverted is definitely the stuff Frank Miller established as the legitimate Batman in his 1986 work The Dark Knight Returns and its sequels, which re-established Batman as a serious character with a meaningful purpose after it had been diluted into bad slapstick by the television series (per-episode info promised here) that debased its name. (Pow!) Even though plot specifics in Batman Begins may not follow a specific Miller episode, and the leading lady is a brand-new invention never having appeared in any Batman work before, the character depicted in Batman Begins is Miller's Dark Knight, and his methods and purposes are those Miller succeeded in persuading subsequent writers to be the real McCoy.

Now that I've essentially admitted Batman Begins is the real deal, do you need me to say any more? I spend a lot of time bitching about the crap that is lousy for the consumers upon which it is foisted, so give me a moment to rhapsodize on the work of art that is Batman Begins. At least, in comparison to the other movies that bore the Batman name, which admittedly may have set the bar a bit low.

The first real cause for optimism that the movies made under the Batman marque might not all be doomed to campy junkitude (which, assuming director Tim Burton was aiming at the television shows as his target, might have been a bullseye hit -- but is certainly not my cup of tea) was the discovery that Memento director Christopher Nolan was on the job. Having seen Memento[3] I realized Nolan to be a director who might actually understand the conflicted, dark Batman I'd learned to appreciate when the Dark Knight series was forcibly loaned me by a comic nut friend in the '80s. When I told L that Memento's director would make the next Batman flick, L had the same reaction: Memento was so cerebral, so twisty, and so good that Batman Begins might be the first Batman movie L actually wanted to see.

So in Batman Begins one watches a despondent young Wayne lose his way, conflicted with passions and various conceptions of justice, to slowly become the character we know. He does it with the darkness and anguish we know from Miller's Dark Knight, and you see something of the price he pays to do it. Batman Begins is the real deal.

I'd like to give lots of love to the actors whose performances made Batman Begins such a joy to see unfold, but I don't want to give the impression I'm critiquing the actors in either movie: they all pull off what the scripts require. But, like we learned in Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other. So when actors turn in a riveting and focused performance in Batman Begins, it's art. In the other movie ....

The Death of 300 Cuts

Miller's 300 is influenced by his personal experience viewing The 300 Spartans:
Where did your fascination with the battle of Thermopylae begin? When I was 5 years old, when the movie The 300 Spartans came out. It was an old Universal movie, kind of a clunky thing. I was sitting in the theater with my older brother, two rows ahead of our parents, and toward the end of the movie, I went over and asked my dad, “Are the good guys losing?” And he simply intoned, “I’m afraid so, son.”
New York Magazine
According to the letters in the graphic novels, Miller's 300 was also supported by research resting on sources like Herodotus. Nobody says everything Herodotus reported was strictly accurate, of course. And in the context of a graphic novel, the space constraint prevents some of the grander visions of what one might (in a Michner-sized work) have said about the Greek conflict with the Persians. Miller had a specific interest: the doomed Spartans' sacrifice at Thermopylae. The fact that, despite the treachery that lost Thermopylae after three days, the Athenians also have a claim to thwarting the Persian campaign using a naval assault on enemy supply lines was not in the frame of Miller's shot. Miller was zoomed on Leonidas and his personal guard, the ones who -- according to Herodotus' admitted guesswork -- knew their cause was doomed but stayed to fight after it was clear they'd been betrayed. Miller's 300 was minimalist in focus, but zoomed until everything in his frame looked a hundred feet tall.

When Miller wanted to tell readers the invaders were despicable, dishonorable, and deserving of every slight and indignity visited upon them (so the reader would cheer the heroes, of course), Miller didn't have the luxury of writing essays on the regional governance of the Persian empire and the mechanisms by which uncountable hordes had been directed to assault Greece. Miller had a graphic novel in his hands -- scant few pages -- and he had to show it. So the enemy's minions were dressed and behaved and physically appeared to be outlandish, they were arrogant, and acted lordly when dealing with the good guys Miller drew as simple blue-collared guys heading to work. Slave drivers demanding surrender at the end of a whip, and subversive agents offering bribes while draped with gold and multiply-pierced until they came off as freakish aliens, left the readers immediately identifying with the simply-dressed (and barely-dressed) good guys working toward the everyday objectives like safety and liberty for their families.

Miller's 300 wasn't about depicting the social and military factors that led to the events that unfolded in Mediterranean history. Miller wanted to celebrate good men sacrificing everything for a just cause. Miller didn't want to talk about the coordinated effort to beat the Persians on land and at sea, he wanted to focus on the Spartan vanguard and its decision to stay with the pass at Thermopylae when they knew they'd be surrounded and crushed. Miller's story is a study in the worship of heroes over self-proclaimed gods demanding that others stop to worship them. To make this work Miller needs viewers to accept unquestioningly that one side was right and the other side was utterly loathsome, and that everyone in the middle is, well ... not a Spartan.

Miller's work was a piece of art. One can carry on a debate whether the Battle of Thermopylae should be depicted in some other way, but Miller's execution was a triumph regardless whether his objective was the one you yourself might choose. Miller may not have hit the bullseye you'd paint it (certainly not where I'd paint it), but it was clear where he was aiming and it's clear he hit, and if you look at the final product it's as good a specimen of the craft as you'll find.

The question is whether the filmmakers' adaption of 300 saw the target, and whether, aiming at it, they hit or missed. The judgment probably should flow from two sources: (1) when they lifted things straight from Miller, did their translations to film succeed or fail? and (2) where they made stuff up to fill in the time needed to make a feature-length film out of something to focused as Miller's 300, did they remain true to the spirit of Miller's work. In other words, we ask of the filmmakers (1) can they hit what they aim at? and (2) did they realize where the target was when they were picking their own shots?

The actors did a good job. When Daniel Day-Lewis, as Daniel Plainview, said "I drink your milkshake!" he was performing on There Will Be Blood the same CPR Gerard Butler's Leonidas performed when he issued such lines as "Then we will fight in the shade!" or "Tonight, we dine in hell!" But as with There Will Be Blood, there was nothing to save the film but the heroism of actors working against the tide of a weak script.

The movie adaptation does a certain sad disservice to both Miller and the heroes of Thermopylae Miller hoped to worship. Let's take a few examples point-by-point.

Let me begin by stating that I fully understand that combat details are routinely discarded for visual effect. For example, in Highlander, let's look at the scene in which Macleod ends up holding a nice, light, curved, single-edged blade when confronted with The Kurgan, who wields a snap-together greatsword able to hack through steel billboard girders with the apparent inertia of a truck. In this scene, Macleod doesn't employ the quick-moving, lethal, dismembering style so suited to the two-handed employment of a saber like his venerated katana. Instead he uses the slow, far-telegraphing stage-broadsword technique that puzzled me when I first saw two Jedi face off with "an elegant weapon for a more civilized age" but moved with the huge circular motions one associates with planetary orbits, and employed the brute force ordinarily associated with actors that ... you know ... seem to be ... ahem ... using stage broadsword technique.

But this is okay.
It's a movie.

You suspend a certain amount of criticism to consume the fight scenes, which are supposed to be a bit over the top, and besides, you know the director isn't really interested in martial arts. If the quick, dismembering, fight-ending movements you expect from the two-handed employment of a saber or katana were actually used on giant thugs with greatswords in the final battle, the audience would be in for an Al-Coutre-v-Ralph-Walton-style victory too short to really enjoy. Of these types of bouts, Rocky is not made.


In Miller's 300 (as in Herodotus' account), the reason the Spartans were obliterated to a man on the third day, rather than sit indefinitely in the pass grinding down Persians, was because they were betrayed. In Miller's 300, the traitor who gave the Persians the route to sneak behind the encamped Greeks and crush them was a character carefully crafted as a foil to show that Spartans weren't tough merely because its individual warriors were invincible Kung Fu masters, but because they worked together.

Ephialtes' father taught him to use the spear and to wear the crimson cloak and to carry the lamda-emblazoned shield ... but didn't teach him his place among his fellows. Miller depicts Ephialtes auditioning for a spot on the Spartan vanguard, showing Leonidas his long reach and his mighty thrust. Leonidas asks him to raise his shield as high as he can. Ephialtes, whose Spartan parents skipped town to save him from the treatment Spartans famously gave those so clearly deformed, couldn't raise his shield; he was the sort of terribly hunchbacked soul whose posture probably made him feel just fine using the head-rest in the front passenger seat of Xerxes' Mercedes E320 CDI. Ephialtes' father taught him to fight -- at least, to fight on his own -- but didn't explain how to be part of the team. And Ephialtes' disability, which left him unable to raise his shield like a normal man, also left him unable to satisfy the job requirements for the Spartan army.

In Miller's 300, the Spartan army's strength comes from careful coordination, each man protecting his comrade-in-arms to the left from thigh to neck with his shield. Leonidas explains why Ephialtes' shield would introduce a fatal weakness in the Spartan shield wall, and says "I'm sorry, my friend. I can't use you." And when, in Miller's 300, the armies finally collide, you see it's true: the shield wall protects the men from the onslaught of men and arrows, and enables them to work together to shove less-organized enemies over the cliffs and into the sea. Miller shows the Spartan technique is not only critical to success, but that it works.

Thus, Miller makes combat tactics more than a piece of the scenery: it is a fundamental plot element. It is an illustration of the very character of the Spartans Miller worships. They are not individual heroes, they are all part of a larger whole, and willing to sacrifice themselves for the whole. This is the point of Miller's story. When Miller's Leonidas says he can't use Ephialtes, he's not being mean, he's being honest. When the filmmakers stick similar dialogue into the mouth of their Leonidas, though, it's an out-and-out lie.

The fillmmakers offer a single example of a shield wall employed to resist the press of Xerxes' army. But the Spartans do not really need or use the shield wall, it turns out, after all. Not when the battle is joined. They spend most of the three days of battle leaping like wild men into the mass of enemies, spinning and killing like the majors in a Kung-Fu flick. It turns out you don't need to be able to participate in a shield wall at all to do a yeoman's job in the Spartan army. Ephialtes would have fit in juuuust fine.

If the scriptwriters had need of a hunchbacked killing machine it'd have been a snap: Ephialtes was pretty handy with that spear when he auditioned for Leonidas, after all, and with the shield stuck against his body due to his various deformities, there's little worry he'd fatigue and drop it. So, it turns out the whole reason Ephialtes -- according to the Miller's take, the traitor singlehandedly responsible for the annihilation of the Spartan army and some of its allies -- wasn't turned away because he lacked a bona fide occupational qualification, he was turned down on a pretense. It'd have been more honest for Leonidas to have turned Ephialtes down because, living alone outside of Sparta from fear he'd be discriminated against due to his disability, he hadn't been paying his taxes. But, no.

So this film's Leonidas really lost my respect. One could theoretically lay the blame at the feet of the choreographers, and surmise from their work that they never read the movie's dialogue (who needs choreographers who can read, anyway?), and didn't realize they needed to design and implement creative variations on the deployment of (and the assault on) a skillfully deployed shield wall (or a Hollywood simulacrum thereof; recall, if you will, the gladiatorial mock-up of Rome vs the Carthaginians in Gladiator, which fantastically featured a fully-enclosed small-unit shield wall -- that worked against bladed chariot wheels, archers, and everything else thrown at it). But this excuse can't excuse the filmmakers' Leonidas: the King of Sparta would know what his men had been drilling, whether it came from ancient Spartan combat doctrine or from the director's glassy-eyed crew of otherwise-unemployed dance instructors. The film positions Leonidas as incompetently ignorant of the combat doctrine actually employed by his men, or positions him as a liar, or positions him as the leader of a force so undisciplined that at the scent of blood its members drop all that carefully-drilled shield-wall crap and go wild with bloodlust while launching into Kung-Fu mode. (If this last, the King would have noticed if he'd actually been in the field with them before ... hmm ... maybe he's just a politician and this is his first time out with the boys?) The mind boggles. You can't explain it away, even allowing for Hollywood. The film 300 gets an F here in depicting Miller's 300.

Other things make the eyes roll.

Where Miller says Xerxes' "dispatches monsters from half the world away" against the Spartans, he draws elephants who lose their footing on the blood-slicked cliff-edge and plummet to their doom. Herodotus knew about elephants from the tusks he recorded being paid in tribute to the Persians, but there weren't elephants at the Battle of Thermopylae. Elephants weren't actually seen by Europeans in battle until Alexander encountered them (as depicted with some historical inaccuracy, and some amusing continuity issues, in the 2004 film Alexander). This anachronism doesn't help the story, necessarily, and it'd be interesting to ask Frank Miller why he drew it, unless to elevate Spartans to the level of Rome turning back Hannibal in the Second Punic War.

So, what do the filmmakers do with the line about "monsters from half the world away"? Armored war rhinos, among other things. (Were such a thing possible, we'd have heard about the British running into trouble occupying colonies in Africa. The rhino just hasn't been domesticated, and wouldn't have been possible to get to Greece for a battle. Indeed, the filmmakers couldn't get one to their set, which you can tell because the beast actually passes through a Persian as it advances, at least in the version that played in the theater. Maybe they fixed it in time for DVD. Ahh, the sweet miracle of CGI. Why not arm Persians with phasers or Gatling guns?) Crazier still, giants. Yes, a literal giant so massive and misshapen that it snaps its own ship-anchor-thickness chain when it is given permission to advance. You could save money on good chain by having someone open the lock, incidentally, Mr. Xerxes. And no: neither the war rhino nor the giant is defeated with careful application of the Spartan shield wall or the advantages of the terrain the Spartans chose to defend. It's mano a mano, bayyy-beee, and it's a studly Spartan that finishes each foe.

Who needs to drill formation battle tactics when you are this good?

Before I really go off the deep end on the movie 300, I should add that the movie makers introduced an entire plot line -- occurring far outside the frame of Miller's narrow focus near the front lines -- involving Leonidas' wife.

Queen Gorgo actually appeared in and was called by name in Herodotus' accounts. Answering a question of a woman from another Greek city, Queen Gorgo was famously quoted that the reason Spartan women were the only women who ruled their men was that men, after all, came only from Spartan women. I was surprised, in this age of women's liberation and abundant role models of females who exercised power, that the actress depicting Gorgo stated on interview that she played tough in the movie by simply imagining she was a man. Toughness, fearlessness, ruthlesness, dogged determination, bravery ... there are plenty of examples of these in characters who didn't need to pretend to be men. (Without resorting to pure fiction, Erin Brockovich comes to mind, whose first legal adventures also became a film.)

But the script delivered by 300's filmmakers certainly doesn't have her acting in the traditional image of a tough man. The script had Gorgo, Queen of Sparta, silently tolerating a scoundrel's sexual assault in the hope her blackmailer would honor a pledge to make good on his deal to sell her his vote. Believing an obvious bad guy is honorable enough to stay bought displayed both a treachery against the good-guys' death-before-dishonor stance (c'mon: buying a vote with sex as the Spartan way to solve corruption?), and an credulity exceeding that of the movie's audience. The film's real rape is the seizure of viewers' ticket price; after all, I gather Lena Headey was paid well for her role and consented to the whole thing, fake-rape and all.

I suspect the reason to introduce the rape was actually to create tension the writers could relieve when she avenges herself and her betrayed husband by killing Theron in full view of the Spartan assembly, repeateding as she does the hypocryphal line she received from her former rapist, to the effect it'll only hurt a short while. Conveniently, Theron has a purse full of Persian coinage when he hits the floor, which alibis her. Why he'd have Persian coinage on him the very day he appeared before the assembly to vote is the kind of silliness that makes you have to remember that this movie isn't a dramatization of the Battle of Thermopylae, it's a movie-version of a comic book.

And there, we see Miller most terribly betrayed: instead of drawing Purple Pajamas vs Mr. Pliers, Miller was trying to draw something about real, plausible, honorable people who didn't need to show their tits to get viewers' attention. The sweaty love scene and the rape blatantly pander to sensibilities that do nothing to advance Miller's objective. Adding a love scene is a plausible effort to extend the film to feature length, and it's supported by Miller through some after-the-fact dialogue between the characters when t becomes clear Leonidas is heading off to an unsanctioned war. Adding this tripe is just unconscionable.

The movie thus causes the honorable characters Miller sold readers in his 300 to betray their very character merely because the filmmakers couldn't work out how to lengthen the film in a way that kept faith with Miller's work.

In doing so, the film manages to be so over-the-top that the viewer doubts and rolls his eyes at even the things that come to us straight from Herodotus: I hear about the the ten thousand Immortals and I roll my eyes, disbelieving; I see Ephialtes selling Persians the route to encircle the Spartans, and I think it's just too convenient a vengeance. But Herodotus did claim Xerxes led ten thousand Immortals. Sure, speaking no Persian, he probably was mislead by someone translating Anauša ("Immortals") on his behalf when he was asking about the Anûšiya ("companions", or the personal guard of the King). The explanation given why the unit should be considered immortal isn't that its members are divine, but that (like the Texas Rangers) the unit has a fixed size and is always brought back to a specific strength from a pool of ready applicants.[4] Described by Herodotus as eating different food than other Persians, etc., Xerxes' royal guard are an elite and fearsome troop who get better treatment than the remainder of the army brought to Greece.

The movie 300, however, has the Immortals looking monsterous beneath their armored masks: inhuman, ugly, as deformed as the outcast Spartan the film's Leonidas rejects from service despite the Spartan army's intent to abandon shield walls at the first chance. Juxtaposed with giants and war rhinos and so forth, the movie doesn't allow the viewer to suspect for a moment there really was an elite corps of 10,000 royal guards somewhere in the Persian military, even if their name was badly translated: the viewer is left with a pretty solid conclusion that the whole thing was invented in California.

But ... some of it was invented in Frank Miller's New York. The movie doesn't invent Xerxes' multiple piercings, for example, or the asymmetrical chain-link near-nets that draw the eye from the humanity of Xerxes' agents and toward their garb and gold. Miller's particular dehumanization of the Persians is one thing the film preserves with great faithfulness.

Xerxes turns out to be into piercing, and travels with an enormous entourage of improbably costumed sychophants who don't seem to worry about getting bombed out of their skulls while on the trail toward battle, and want to party all night between travel days. He's not there to avenge his father's defeat at Marathon so much as to set up a local branch of The Church of Xerxes, and he comes off seeming honestly surprised locals aren't lining up to break rocks for the project. Of course these folks are so soft and out of touch they can't possibly figure out how to get past real warriors. Somehow, though, this band from another world has the dedicated service of an immense royal guard, fierce and skilled and terrifying, and Xerxes' animal-handlers are so gifted they can unleash at command battle-rhinos and giants and all kinds of surprises that fit together only when one realizes the unifying feature of the Court of Xerxes is that it is a colossal freakshow. Hordes of half-dressed harlots, high as hell as they twirl and undulate in the haze of hookahs, hardly help.

And this is not entirely the fault of the movie makers. Miller drew Xerxes' retainers to look like the stall of a gold-chain vendor at Mardis Gras, Miller had elephants at Thermopylae, and Miller decided the Greek traitor should appear a deformed hunchback related to but living apart from his (rejecting) Spartan brethren. Miller could have made Spartans heroes by facing down an enemy that's as determined and solid as the Spartans, but instead he gives the Spartans an easy platform from which to sneer at their inferior enemies even as they are outwitted, surrounded, and killed. But he gives the Spartans the best lines.

That's entertainment!

The Persians had faults and problems, no doubt, even if it's hyperbole to claim their ejection from Greece saved democracy.[5] This is not the City of Gotham, to be portrayed with outlandish hyperboles so the reader will buy into wild fantasies in which law must be discarded in favor of justice, and so on. This began life as a real story that is frankly cheapened when it's overfictionalized. There's no reason not to craft a fable that shows the wild things in your heart ... but why pretend you are telling the story of the Battle of Thermopylae?

And so you see that while I believe the film and the graphic novel are both flawed to the point viewers would do better to seen entertainment elsewhere.

The letters published in Miller's 300 are interesting:
300 is a perfect example of what an artist can achieve when free to take blank canvas and work it without censors, restrictions, and ratings. Frank Miller, you are a living testament to the importance of preserving our First Amendment rights.
You break the rules. You ignore the status quo. You shake things up. You have the guts to tell the stories you want to tell. I have often wondered what a war comic would be like if you and Lynn Varley were involved. Now I know.
In the end, I realize, that's my problem: nobody told me it was a comic book brought to film. The advertising didn't reflect it. It looked to be typical Hollywood hero-worship based on a real-life battle that really was chock full of real-life heroes. The problem turns out to be, thus, two-fold: the movie is a poor translation of Miller's book (it makes hypocrites of its heroes, oops, while undermining the plausibility and thus the strength of the overall narrative, and diluting the narrow focus of the graphic novel with extraneous subplots that undermine rather than support the Spartan character), and Miller's book is a poor representation of the Battle of Thermopylae (even forgiving his taking Herodotus as gospel).

The right way to make a feature-length film of Thermopylae? Surely honest minds could differ. But some questions might be worth exploring.

Why is Sparta (which depended on conquered peoples for much of the infrastructure and other non-military support of their communities) held aloft as the savior of freedom and democracy even while it's clear that Xerxes actually did achieve his objective, destroy the Greek opposition he met, and sack Athens? Was Spartans' scorn for Athenians, if it was legitimate, just sour grapes? Did the Athenian Themistocles' achieve of the exact same feat as Leonidas, but succeed better due to superior strategy? Barred from taking the military path he preferred, did Athens' leader manage to mount a naval assault having a logistical significance much more substantial than the failed effort to halt Xerxes at Thermopylae? What lessons from Persian rule elsewhere inform our view of whether Persian presence in Greece would have impacted the development of Western culture enough to really care about Thermopylae?

I love the story of Thermopylae as much as the next Westerner. I happen to love truth more. That Miller's strengths run more toward Batman and Sin City than to historical fiction is no great criticism of his work, as he never pretends to be a historian. However, Miller was terribly betrayed by the filmmakers responsible for 300 and if you watch it, you will be too.

[1] Some things one might view as direct-from-Miller include the heel-mounted sonar device used to summon bats to escape a police blockade, the line to Gordon that he is "a good cop, one of the few," and the fact the episode ends with the Joker as his next problem all come from Batman: Year One. More fundamentally, though, the whole conception of Batman as a dark, brooding character willing to terrify and harm to do justice in a world where the institutions of justice have been subverted is the stuff Frank Miller established as the legitimate role of Batman in his 1986 work The Dark Knight Returns and its sequels, which re-established Batman as a serious character with a meaningful purpose after it had been diluted into bad slapstick by the television series (per-episode info promised here) that debased its name. Even though plot specifics may not follow a specific Miller episode, the character depicted is Miller's Dark Knight, and his methods and purposes are those Miller succeeded in persuading subsequent writers to be the legitimate article.

[2] For those not yet following, the graphic novel is a comic book for readers conversant in the big words and able to weigh scary ideas -- and they're often not funny, that is, not comic, at all. Some examples beyond 300 and Dark Knight include the Maus books on the Nazi holocaust and its aftermath, and the masked crimefighter epic The Watchmen. There's also a whole host of Japanese stuff with which I am not conversant. Some graphic-novel adaptations of ordinary novels exist, though I've seen these adaptations advertised chiefly where the violence or sex in the original made a sufficiently extreme mental image that someone decided to try to sell the images. I have some doubt that subjects that are best in the graphic novel. The graphic novel's linguistic parsimony lends it to morality stories where stark renderings of light/dark, good/evil, and the like make the story easier to tell rather than harder. In other words, if 300 had been about something broader and more complex, it'd have had a much worse time looking serious. Dropping a sophisticated novel into the thinner medium risks compressing its content into two dimensions, as it were.

[3] Because the story is told from the point of view of a character unable to form permanent memories, its pieces are fed slowly to the audience in little vignettes -- presented in reverse-chronological order. Memento's effort to show you only what the main character knows gives you the result, but not the reason, in the very beginning. The film then moves backward in time, bit by bit, sometimes in steps shorter than a whole scene, until you realize how it all fits together and identify the responsible parties. It's quite a ride. As a revenge tale of a man with no memory, the movie is also dark and spooky -- imagine a man willing to kill, whose disability makes him potentially willing to believe nearly anything about his targets and their identities -- in a way that makes its director a natural for something like the Dark Knight and his internal struggle over justice, vengeance, and personal purpose.

[4] The Immortals numbered 10,000, unlike Texas' Rangers, who were an unruly law unto themselves until reduced by law to 99 officers, a number that has grown over time until on September 1, 2007 their number was allowed to include 134 commissioned officers plus support personnel bringing the unit to 160 members.

[5] The Western fascination with the Greeks' cultural achievements may unfairly predispose Westerners to discount enlightened elements available among the Greeks' enemies at Thermopylae:
Meyer's arguments were analyzed in a famous theoretical discussion with Max Weber (1864-1920), who is best known as one of the founders of the social sciences, but started his career as a historian and was a pupil of Theodor Mommsen. Weber's question was simple: how did Meyer know that a Persian victory would have obstruct the rise of freedom, democracy, and rationalism? Weber could easily prove[footnote omitted] that Meyer's reasoning was counterfactual: he explains the significance of an event by pointing at what would have happend if it had not taken place. And counterfactual explanations are rarely accurate.

Take, for instance, these considerations. In 493, a mere thirteen years before Xerxes invaded Greece, his general Mardonius (one of Xerxes' main advisers) had accepted democracy as system of government of the Greek towns in the Persian empire. And how hostile were the Persians towards mysticism? The research program of the Chaldaeans in Persian Babylonia had a purely scientific method. In Xerxes' eastern capital Taxila, Panini wrote the world's first scientific book of grammar. And in Judah, the book of Job was written, in which God and man discuss the nature of good and evil. These are not the products of the presumed "sea of mysticism and tyranny".

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