Ruby Blondell is the author of HELEN OF TROY (Oxford, May 2013).
Those who are excited by the intersections between mythology and science fiction -- a larger population than one might suspect -- were recently set atwitter by the news that Warner Brothers has hired a young writer, James DiLapo, to produce a script for a film of the Odyssey to be set in space.
Initial reactions have been mixed. Mike Fleming at Deadline, who broke the story, opined "Here's one Homer surely didn't see coming," and sceptical online comments declared it a cheap trick to try to sell a story by simply tacking "in Space" onto the title (see e.g. "Turks in Space" (2006) or "Talking Monkeys in Space" (2009)).
But they could be wrong about this one. As Stanley Kubrick knew, the Odyssey and science fiction are a marriage made in the heavens. An intrepid voyage beyond the boundaries of human civilization, to a sequence of mysterious lands floating in the uncharted space of the wine-dark sea--lands populated with inhuman embodiments of the best and worst aspects of humanity; a string of encounters, sometimes alluring or delightful, but always somehow threatening, resulting in the deaths of numerous voyagers; a hero who survives to journey on and return home in the end. The Odyssey is Star Trek avant la lettre.
Warner Bros is not yet at the casting stage (when the speculative fun will really start). But Sean Bean, who played Odysseus in Warner Brothers' Iliad movie "Troy" (2004), already has a vociferous following. ("There can be only one Odysseus - Sean Bean!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! He´s the one and only Odysseus!!!!!!!!!!") Yet no one is (yet) asking the question that first leapt to my mind. Who will be playing Helen, the beautiful daughter of Zeus who started all the trouble in the first place? Or will she even make an appearance? In the original epic, Odysseus's son, Telemachus, visits Helen and her first husband Menelaus at Sparta, many years after the Trojan War, where he is entertained lavishly in their opulent home. But modern audiences are largely unaware of this episode, in part because most updatings of the Odyssey simply omit it.
Why is this so? Given the obsession with feminine beauty that pervades popular culture, why pass up the opportunity to show the most beautiful woman in the world on screen? It is not because Helen is unpopular these days. On the contrary, she has appeared in a host of recent films and TV shows, of which Troy is only the most familiar. The way Troy presented her was quite typical. Helen is a hapless victim of the patriarchy, married reluctantly to an unappealing man, who follows her heart to elope with her one true love. She is not the daughter of Zeus, but a "realistic" and "relatable" girl next door. As for the Trojan War, she is a mere pretty pretext. The war is not really about Helen at all. It is an imperialistic adventure launched by unscrupulous, greedy Greeks against the attractive and wealthy Trojans.
This approach solves a problem posed by divergent cultural norms about the nature of beauty. The modern cliché locates beauty in the eye of the beholder. Among the ancient Greeks, however, it was typically thought of as something that can be measured objectively. Helen does not start the Trojan War because she simply happens to be Paris's (or Menelaus's) type. She is, objectively, the most beautiful woman in the world, bar none. This makes her a disturbingly powerful presence, emblemic of female eroticism, and as such a comprehensible casus belli. A beauty that is in the eye of the beholder may launch a ship or two, but only a beauty upon which all beholders agree can bind a generation of heroic males under oath and generate an enterprise as cataclysmic as the Trojan War. Troy solved this problem by denying that its innocuous Helen was a real cause of the war. But it did so at the expense of the Greek Helen's absolute beauty and its transcendent power.
As such adaptations demonstrate, Hollywood has no trouble tailoring Helen and her story to its needs. Why, then, is she usually eliminated from retellings of the Odyssey? It is true that the Spartan episode is relatively easy to excise (since it is concerns Telemachus more directly than his father). And the epic does supply other sources of female interest, in the person of its well known heroine, Penelope, plus several nubile temptresses (Circe, Calypso, Nausicaa) to decorate the screen. I suspect, too, that the romantic imagination recoils from the prospect of Helen and Menelaus living comfortably at home together in Sparta after the war. But whatever the reason, this omission deprives Helen of her chance to appear in her full glory as the mythological embodiment of the threat posed to men by female eroticism. For in no Greek text is that threat more present than the Odyssey.
Several scenes in this epic convey the awe-inspiring power of Helen's beauty, along with its divine origins, through her propensity to manipulate men, both erotically and otherwise, in ways that have a strong whiff of the supernatural. At Sparta she administers potent drugs to her husband's dinner guests, magically soothing their grief over the Trojan War (and not coincidentally any anger they may nurse against herself). The entertainment also includes two stories that function as flashbacks to the closing days of the Trojan War. In the first we are told how Helen manipulated Odysseus -- supposedly the cleverest of all heroes -- into revealing the Greek army's plans for ending the war. In the second she acts on that information in a way that puts the entire Greek enterprise at risk: she casts a spell on the warriors hidden inside the horse, almost inducing them to betray their presence to the Trojans prematurely. As a cinematic bonus, both these scenes involve the Trojan Horse, a piece of mythological furniture much beloved -- for obvious reasons -- by the movies.
Since the supernatural is the very stuff of science fiction, setting the Odyssey in space would allow Helen to regain the charisma of which Troy's milquetoast Helen was stripped. It is no accident that she was appropriated for an early episode of Star Trek, entitled "Elaan of Troyius" (1968), in which, as the Internet Movie Database puts it, "Capt. Kirk must cope with her biochemical ability to force him to love her." In films like Troy, the boy-meets-girl romanticism of Hollywood, coupled with an aesthetic of supposed "realism," conspires to make Helen as ordinary as possible. But the willful unrealism of science fiction -- magic, in a different guise --would offer her a chance to reclaim the qualities that make her extraordinary.
At a time when young women's capacity to use sexual allure as a form of empowerment is being both valorized and scrutinized as never before, perhaps the time has come for Helen to be reborn as a figure of danger and power. The perfect medium for that rebirth is science fiction. Here's hoping James DiLapo has the good sense to realize as much.