In my myth class, which I'm teaching for the fourth time this year, we usually watch a couple of myth-themed movies: one in the first term, and another in the second. Some I have shown more than once, such as the original "Clash of the Titans" or "O Brother Where Art Thou?" Others just the one time, such as Disney's "Hercules".
Why show movies? One of my primary motives is variety. I love telling the stories of Zeus and the lot to a class, but I recognize that a little variety can help in the learning process. We also have discussions, and there are always group presentations. Taken together, I hope that this makes for a well-rounded experience.
Showing a movie also provides me with an opportunity to dapple into the "reception" side of Classics. For I imagine that a good number of the students taking a class like myth have done so because they've watched on TV, read a book, or have seen a movie that featured some of Classical myth's most famous figures. So, why not discuss some of the ins and outs of engaging with the Classics in more recent times?
In a similar vein, in a course that is for all intents and purposes about storytelling, it makes a lot of sense to me to explore, in a fun way, how a particular story has been retold in a host of different ways and in varied genres. A number of the versions I tell are collated from the parts (often from different authors) that I feel make the best whole. And, in some cases we're lucky to have multiple versions of individual stories, such as the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus by Orestes and Electra: the three tragic versions present very different Electras, and half the fun is exploring how the respective playwrights (Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles) tackled this fascinating and troubling story.
Of course, we don't just watch the movies; there is often an assignment of some sort, or material from the movies finds its way into a test or exam. And, when we discuss them it's not just a matter of picking out the points where the filmmakers have changed parts of the "original" myth. For one thing, there's no such thing as an "original myth". Most, if not all, probably started as oral stories which were, at some point or other, written down. Moreover, the version we have often came quite late, with the transformations of Ovid an obvious example - in this case late in comparison to Classical Athens. No, we explore the good and the bad in the films. We discuss the characterization of the key figures. Where there are differences from the versions that we're more familiar with, we look at what purpose they serve. Do they add in plot development or what?
All in all, then, I think there is some value in watching these movies. Which gets me back to the title: On Watching Troy. In the second term of this year, for my sins, I've decided to watch Troy. Sin #1? The movie's quite long. Sin #2? The movie's quite bad, or at least 54% on rottentomatoes.com bad. The timing works: we've spent a few weeks going over the Trojan War and so it should be fresh in everyone's mind. Does that make up for the shit film? Maybe not. But, maybe I should be asking whether watching a bad film is really such a bad idea in the first place. If we know what they've done wrong then we probably have a good idea about what would be right. We know, then, what makes the story what it is and what we couldn't imagine it being without.
Does this then make Troy a sensible choice? Not sure yet, though we'll soon find out.