As a classicist I was thrilled to learn that the BBC were doing an eight-part series on Homer’s Iliad and stories surrounding the Trojan War. The series began with the Greeks launching an attack on Troy after Paris had taken Helen, the Spartan King’s wife, back to Troy, and ended with the fall of Troy after the Greeks mercilessly rampaged and slaughtered the city having hidden inside the Trojan horse. They did not hold back at all in creating this series: the big budget meant that the setting and costumes felt authentic, the well-researched script felt largely realistic and suitably poignant, and, unlike the film Troy, they were unafraid to show the extensive sex and violence surrounding the Trojan War. Although the series has received mixed reviews, I was impressed by the standard and thought that it was relatively entertaining and moving.
One thing that the series did well, I thought, highlighting how radically different the Greeks and the Trojans were. Homer is known for rarely condemning or showing any allegiance to either Greece or Troy, however this series, as the title suggests, was about the fall of the flourishing city of Troy; meaning that the Trojans were characterised more sympathetically. The Greeks were portrayed as a disjointed group of soldiers from all over the world who had nothing in common other than their brutal eagerness to slaughter and return to their homes. While the Trojans were depicted as a cohesive unit who fought with their brothers for the love of the city and hatred of the Greeks, with the caring Trojan royal family at their centre.
The characters of the Trojan War are complex, flawed, and relentlessly human, therefore I was intrigued by how they would be characterised on screen. One of the most interesting literary characters is Achilles, who lets emotion rather than reason rule his every action, played by David Gyasi. Although he was at times let down by a clunky script, I thought that he played the character too emotionlessly, demonstrating Achilles’ hostility but not fully displaying his wrath – the subject of the Iliad. I was unsure about the casting of Bella Dayne as Helen and Louis Hunter as Paris. Despite the inconsistency of the characterisation of Helen in classical literature, Bella Dayne played her as a poised and wise queen. However this characterisation sometimes felt a bit one dimensional and meant that it was hard to feel any compassion towards her as the audience. Paris’ characterisation was that of a hero and a man desperate for approval which Louis Hunter played fairly well. But it was hard to admire someone who had inflicted so much suffering upon his own city due to such an impetuous decision, therefore, I think the series’ writers and directors should have characterised him less heroically – as he usually is in classical literature. The outstanding performances in the cast were from Johnny Harris as an utterly detestable Agamemnon, completely numbed by the fact that he murdered his own daughter, Frances O’Connor as the kind, thoughtful, and fragile Hecuba, Joseph Mawle as the sensible and sensitive Odysseus – the only likeable Greek, and Chloe Pirrie as a resolute yet devoted Andromache – all of whom really held the cast together.
I feel that the one of the show’s downfalls was the fact that in just eight episodes it attempted to cover all the storylines surrounding the Trojan War. This meant that it sometimes rushed through important storylines and did not bring enough gravity to them, such as Achilles’ grief over Patroclus’ death and the death of Hector, which I felt were both underwhelming. Furthermore I was not sure about the ominous gods who looked upon the battle and became gradually less relevant. I feel it may have been more powerful if the toil of war had solely been the doings of and influenced by humans.
Moments that the series did very well, however, were often scenes where two people try to understand each other, such as Achilles and Odysseus’ debate over the morality of fighting, and Helen and Andromache’s discussion about love and children. The series would often parallel two circumstances, such as having Agamemnon kill his daughter for the Greek army and the Trojans take responsibility for Paris’ impulsive decision and still accept him, powerfully highlighting the cultural differences between the Trojans and the Greeks.
Overall I enjoyed the series as it showcased just how engaging the classical stories will always be. The thing the series did best, I thought, was highlighting the power of human emotion and the destruction and bitter reality of war. I believe this is the aspect the creators and writers should have made their sole focus.