My comments are occasioned by the film Troy, an over-long and generally rather egregious attempt to put Homer on the screen. I had seen it once before, but it came up on the FX channel and I decided to record it just for fun. I got close, but I couldn't quite finish it. After Hector died and Erica Bana was no longer on screen, it just wasn't worth it anymore. The director of the film was at first planning to cut Helen from the story line, a move which seems very curious to me, since Helen provided the impetus for the whole war in the first place, even if the movie correctly shows that Agamemnon's reasons for war went far beyond the insult to his brother. Even as it stands, of course, Paris does not (in the film) steal Helen from Menelaus because Aphrodite has promised her to him on the condition that he nominate her the fairest of the goddesses, and the reason for this is simple: the director found the contributions of the gods to the story "silly and irrelevant," and so cut them from the plot entirely. I can understand him thinking them silly, from his perspective, but even I, who am no ancient scholar, can assure him that the Greeks did not. And if he takes them to be irrelevant, I begin to doubt that he read the original epic poem. Of course a modern film maker can explain all the actions of the gods in the story as natural phenomena, or simply dismiss the more outlandish-seeming things, like Athena appearing to Achilles to stop him from drawing his sword on Agamemnon in Book 1. But this is tantamount to slapping the ancient Greeks in the face. Disagreeing with their worldview is one thing, but refusing to present it truthfully is another.
The director has the right to make any kind of movie he wants, even if it is a butchery of Greek epic, but that does not stop Troy from being a bad movie. When Brad Pitt leans close to the annoying Briseis, for whom he has developed a love alien to Achilles' take on property and hostages, and tells her that "the gods envy us" because the knowledge of our mortality makes every moment precious, he is the mouthpiece of a 21st-century screenwriter, not a reflection of anything Homeric. The Greek deities were extrapolations from the natural world: the sun, the sky, the wind, the sea. It was a numinal religion, a polytheism based on respect for and fear of nature's power to destroy and heal, grow and wither, bless and curse. They may not have been envied, strictly, since their status was unattainable, and it is hard to envy something you cannot have. But they were certainly revered and idealized, even if they were also given human flaws in order to make them more accessible to their worshippers: more likely, perhaps, to be lenient, swayed by proper sacrifice. Certainly none of the mythologies I've run into indicate the notion of gods envying humans.
The habit of projecting our own cultural mores onto depictions of other cultures is well-ingrained, and I'm sure it isn't going away soon. But it seems to me only fair to any culture to present it as it is. One may present it and then judge it, for good or for bad, but everything should be judged for what it really is, not for what we want it to be. I find it amusing that, when we are often so dreadfully anxious to pay our respects to all present cultures, we cannibalize ancient cultures for the choicest bits, and like dishonest paleontologists, swap out the fossils we don't like for ones that make it look better. Exploding round shot? That looks cool. Ancient battle woad on a 13th-century Scot? Nobody checks up on that stuff anyway. Godless Greeks? Saves on CG, anyway. From costume design to worldview, it's hard to trust historical films to actually be true to history, or even to make an honest attempt at it.
I suppose that some people might argue, who cares if it makes for a fun movie? The people are dead anyway. But, without making any serious attempt to define art, which is a nearly impossible task for people with far more knowledge than I, I would argue that one of the purposes of art is to present truth. It is also, of course, to aim for beauty, for invention, for creativity, and many other things. But painting an utterly false picture of a past worldview strikes me as poor art, as a cheap vision. I believe in respecting the past--not agreeing with everything that was done in the past, but in striving to let their own voices speak, to present the clearest possible picture of what their lives were really like, whether good or bad, strange or familiar. In this way we can be challenged and instructed by those who have come before us, instead of insulting them by assuming that it would be better if they were all like us. For our culture too has many flaws as well as triumphs, and I want men 3000 years from now to look back on us and present us for what we really are: particular men and women in a particular time, who fought our own wars, composed our own music, drove our own vehicles, believed our own creeds, and spoke our own words. I don't think the ancient Greeks deserve less.
P.S. I have David to thank for many of the thoughts in this post. :-)