Geekade Top Ten: Adaptations of Greek Myths

Before the flawed heroes and compelling villains of The Avengers and Justice League, before the swashbucklers, romances, and divine retributions of Thomas Malory and the Brothers Grimm, there were Titans and Olympians. In stories exchanged over camp and temple fires, gods and mortals squabbled and counseled, warred and loved, married and transformed. Like comics, myths tell and retell the stories we think we know and the ones we have yet to discover. Imagining and reimagining these tales is my first geek, and this list collects my ten all-time favorite adaptations to date. 

10. Weight, by Jeanette WintersonWeight is a journey through the mind of Atlas, the Titan condemned to hold up the world. This short novel is a journey through Atlas’ interior and exterior prisons, and what he learns about life when he is forced to live outside its rhythms. Winterson’s prose is terse but arresting, and the book’s shifting voices – sometimes Atlas, sometimes Heracles, and sometimes herself – challenge readers to consider the burdens we shoulder and the gravity they exert as we move through the world.


9. Alcestis, by Katherine Beutner - The myth of Alcestis troubles and fascinates; it’s like the parable of the Prodigal Son reset in a universe governed by a darker, more sophisticated moral calculus. Here, the prodigal – in this case, a husband willing to trade his wife’s life for his own – stays home, leaving Alcestis to go into the dark. But the ostensibly happy ending has never satisfied me: Alcestis lives the rest of her days with an acute awareness of her husband’s selfishness, and Admetus faces his cowardice at the dinner table every night. What could they possibly have to say to each other once she returns from his death? Beutner’s novel, narrated by Alcestis, tackles this question in a vividly realized world – you can smell the bread baking and hear the clatter of chariots – populated by flummoxed mortals and magnificent, magnetic, utterly alien gods. Alcestis’ time in the underworld broods on the boundaries that define love, death, and the self, on the inevitability of our choices, and on the poignancy of loss.


8. “4 final Orpheuses,” by China Miéville - This is the shortest item on the list, but it's also the most chilling. In the original myth, Orpheus convinces Hades and Persephone to release his beloved Eurydice from death. Hades agrees to let Eurydice return to the living world on the condition that Orpheus not turn to look at her until both have climbed free of the underworld gate into daylight. At the last moment, his will fails him, and here China Miéville (author of Perdido Street Station) considers four possible motives for that second – and final – loss. You can read the piece here.


7. The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood - The Penelopiad takes its name from Penelope, who kept her husband Odysseus’ house intact for the decade he spends missing after the Trojan War. Using only her wits, Penelope stalls the suitors hell-bent on acquiring her and the kingdom until Odysseus comes home. For her success, she goes down in history as the most faithful and canny of Greek wives. Atwood’s novella expands on Penelope’s reasoning and tactics, illuminating their emotional and human cost and her ambivalence about what her husband – and The Odyssey – ultimately describe as her success. 


6. Cassandra, by Christa Wolf - You may know that Trojan horses take their names from the Greek ploy that ended the Trojan War. But you might not know that one person in Troy warned her people against bringing the horse into the city: Cassandra. Princess and priestess of Troy, she was cursed by Apollo to speak unheeded truths until her family and her kingdom fell to the Greeks. This book opens in her final moments, before Cassandra’s execution in the House of Atreus (the Atreides’ poor decision-making predates their fortunes on Arrakis by several centuries). Her contemplation of Troy’s defeat reveals an alternate history in which Paris and Helen’s romance is propaganda obscuring the kingdom’s attempt to consolidate its military and economic dominance. What follows is a cautionary tale about the uses and limits of government, surveillance, family, propaganda, and community. Christa Wolf grew up in East Germany, and her encounters with the Stasi inform this gritty (and at times eerily familiar) account of Troy’s collapse.


5. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, by Ingri d'Aulaire and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire - This classic was my first illustrated encounter with Greek myths, and continues to hold a special place in my heart. D’Aulaires’ delightful illustrations and accessible prose bring the Titans, Olympians, and assorted heroes to life while eliding their grislier (and sexier) escapades. This is the only book on this list that’s safe for kids, but be warned it is a gateway drug: this book inspired my first cosplay – a moon goddess – and a lasting infatuation with the Greek pantheon. 


4. Clash of the Titans, directed by Desmond Davis - The 1981 version, obviously. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen the 2010 reboot. No Bubo, no deal.) This classic retells the story of Perseus, who slew Medusa and rescued Andromeda from the maw of a sea monster. I channel-surfed my way into this movie while still young enough for Medusa’s screaming visage to appear behind my closed eyes every night for a week. Like most stories passed through the Hollywood mill, Clash of the Titans’ fidelity to its source material is occasionally questionable, but Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animations leave me rather inclined to forgive the film’s deviations. Anyway, the film’s most exciting and shocking elements square with the original myths, and who doesn’t love watching a swashbuckling demigod riding a cryptozoological wonder to save a princess from certain death? I don’t care if the kraken actually hails from 13th century Scandinavian mythology. Perseus hangs out with Athena and rides A FLYING HORSE, and that will never not fill me with childlike glee.


3. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, by Roberto Calasso - If Edith Hamilton hooked up with Scherazade, this is the book they would write. Calasso’s luminous, poetic, and utterly addicting text unites Greek mythology’s most notorious stories and characters, binding them at the surface with the titular myth and at the root with Ananke, the ancient Greek concept of Necessity. Ananke embodies a kind of fatalism, describing a cosmos governed by impersonal and ineluctable forces: Even the gods can act only as they must, and like them, we must give birth to what will destroy us to keep the world moving. Calasso’s versions of the myths are mostly familiar, but the web of connections he weaves between them makes this book compulsively readable and inimitably memorable.


2. Medea, by Christa Wolf - You may be thinking that the author’s name looks awfully familiar, but I can’t help it – Christa Wolf wrote two of my favorite books of all time. You may know Medea as the woman who killed her children to get back at her husband, but that version of the story has always been a little too pat for me. In this Medea, the titular character escapes the site of one heinous crime (her “barbaric” homeland) only to stumble across another, similar one in her ostensibly civilized new home. Unable to set aside her principles, Medea’s pursuit of the truth costs her home, her husband, her children, and her story. No matter how many times I return to this meditation on power, resistance, and treachery, it is never less wrenching or less illuminating.


1. Hadestown, by Anaïs Mitchell - This album is, by far and away, my favorite reimagining of a Greek myth – in this case, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. A “folk opera…set in a post-apocalyptic American depression era,” Hadestown lives in the tension between the drive to make art and the need to make ends meet, and explores what is lost when people are forced to choose between love and security. I really can’t tell you how beautiful this music is; if you don’t believe me, you can listen to several songs here. The ties that bind Orpheus to Eurydice and Hades to Persephone are beautifully rendered and achingly familiar. If you have made it this far and remain uninterested in every other item on this list, please listen to these songs and see if they don’t connect you to everything that hooks humans on myths – to love, to loss, to the nature of life and marriage and faith and fear and grace. Our brief bright humanity dances in the voices of these gods and graces and mortals, and Anaïs Mitchell manages to transform the lovers’ final separation into a kind of redemption. Every word, every note of Hadestown carries the beauty and power of myths: They can be whatever we need them to be. 

They can be who we are.