Hercules: Looking Backward--Seeing Now
by Shona Krchnak
Kevin Sorbo, the actor who brings Hercules to life in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, quipped that "we had to go back over two thousand years to find a hero for the '90s" (Inside Hercules and Xena, E! Entertainment Television). However, the character that Sorbo plays is little like the Hercules of Greek mythology. To help make Hercules acceptable for present day audiences, the filmmakers remade the character in a present day image.
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In the original tales from Greek mythology, Hercules was temperamental and adulterous. He definitely didn't fit the modern version of noble. Why should he? He was the ideal hero of that age and that allowed foibles to be included in the package. Anger in particular was necessary because it often provided the driving force for attaining glory. Glory was very important to a hero because it helped to ensure immortality. In Hercules' case, anger cost him his wives and children and more than a few acquaintances. Adultery and monogamy were not considerations, for women were prizes of war and who could resist the honor of fathering fifty children by fifty women in a night? But where is the modern hero in all of this? While the old stories would certainly make for interesting prime-time viewing, they didn't provide the hero the '90s audience wanted.
When Hercules appeared on movies screens in the '50s and '60s, he was a very different character. In Hercules and Hercules Unchained, Steve Reeves (a former "Mr. America" and "Mr. Universe") captured the audience's attention as he bent steel spears and lifted giant oak trees. Reeves portrayed a character who was honest and noble (who even instructs young men in the importance of brain over brawn), but the filmmakers left little doubt that their real interest was in his super-human feats of strength. This image of Hercules as a muscle bound behemoth with a 52" chest was ingrained into the minds of moviegoers. This was something that Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi were about to change.
In 1995, when Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert began work on five MCA/Universal Action Pack movies based on the character of Hercules, they searched for "somebody you'd like to invite into your living room on a weekly basis". Tapert acknowledged, "A lot of mythology is dark...[they] aren't tales you can tell in modern days" (Satellite TV Week , June 2-8). That meant some changes had to take place.
As in previous incarnations of Hercules, this new Hercules has a loyal side-kick with whom he wanders the countryside, righting wrongs and helping the underdogs. However, gone are the infidelities and the shirking of blame for less-than-noble actions. Hercules has been turned from a reflection of society as it was into a reflection of what modern society should be. This character change underscores the show's message.
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One of the biggest character changes is in the realm of sexuality. The new Hercules is monogamous and even bashful in regards to sexual relations. In "Eye of the Beholder" he runs from the daughters of King Thespeus, and in "Let the Games Begin" and "If I Had a Hammer," he dodges the formidable Atalanta. Hercules believes that sex is less important than love. In "As Darkness Falls," he shuns Lela's advances, telling her "I don't want to leave a trail a fatherless children behind." This is a far cry from other popular programs currently on television, and it shows the changing attitudes of a society plagued with sexually transmitted diseases and an exploding number of single parents. Although Hercules is sexually active, it is almost always in the context of a loving relationship. In one of the pre-series movies, "In the Underworld", he resists the wiles of a Nurian maiden, a young women who has spent all of her life being trained in the arts of seduction. Although he is not immune to her attempts, he resists and remains faithful to his wife, Deianeira.
His devotion to his wife and their children indicates his strong sense of family values. In the episode "The Other Side", he reunites with his dead family in the Elysian Fields (Greek mythology's version of Heaven). He spends much of his time playing with his children, and then he wistfully watches them sleep. When he is leaving to complete his mission and return Persephone to her mother, he is faced with leaving his own family. Hades even appears in the form of Deianeira as a last temptation for him to remain. Her memory is what breaks the spell of Psyche in the episode "The Green Eyed Monster."
In "March to Freedom" and "Not Fade Away," Hercules pays mournful and loving visits to the graves of his family. His dedication to them is ever present. His fondness for familial responsibilities is also evident in "Two Men and A Baby." He happily takes charge of Evander, whom he believes is his son. At the end, he pledges his love and support to the baby, even though at this point he realizes the child is not actually his. This accountability, particularly for a child that is not his own, sets a high standard for modern day men to aspire to.
One of the most notable changes in this modern version of Hercules is the role of anger and violence. For all of the well-choreographed fight scenes, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys contains a strong anti-violence message. Although quick to help someone in need, Hercules will gladly walk away from a fight if possible. Fighting is used only as a last resort. In "Gladiator," he tells his opponents outright "I will not fight you." And his plea of "Don't do this" is heard in many episodes.
The episode "Let the Games Begin" is one of many dedicated to the idea that there has to be a better way than violence. In the fight scenes, rarely is anyone injured seriously and there are even fewer fatalities. The characters who are killed have frequently done the most "wrong." If a good guy is killed, he is often resuscitated, as with Iolaus in "Not Fade Away" and Palomedes in "Reign of Terror."
Anger has not been entirely removed from the show. However, now it is carefully directed. In the premiere episode of the series, "The Wrong Path", the character shows his roots. In a rage over the loss of his family (at the hands of Hera), he refuses to help someone in need. He destroys Hera's temples and anyone who stands in his way. His rage causes the near death of many people, including his best friend Iolaus. After his rage subsides, he decides to devote his life to the assistance of humanity. The message is a strong one. The character has drawn the parameters for what a hero, by today's standards, should be. It is a reflection of what humanity should strive for and not what it is. His pain, as well as his reaction to pain, stand as both example and message. These are the founding blocks of the show.
Not surprisingly, the present day Hercules has incited personal redemption in many characters in the show since his own fall and redemption in "The Wrong Path." In "Hero's Heart" and "Medea Culpa," Iolaus (Hercules' long time partner) reveals that he was a thief at one point and that Hercules' influence played a significant role in helping him choose an honest path. This is reiterated in "Hero's Heart" when Iolaus, having lost his memory, returns to the old way of life until he re-encounters Hercules. In "Prodigal Sister," the character of Siri gives up her violent Amazon past once Hercules intervenes and she is reunited with her brother. He even helps redeem Jason, leader of the Argonauts, from his drunken despair over the loss of his family in the episode "Once a Hero." In helping him reclaim the Golden Fleece, Hercules helps him reclaim his lost sense of self worth.
Two episodes epitomize the role of redemption in the series. In "Les Contemptibles," Francois tells two highwaymen the tales of Hercules in order to inspire them to find a new way of life. As the episode progresses, we discover that the three men are actually working together in an attempt to steal money. They inadvertently convince themselves of the nobility of Hercules' actions and in the end, change their ways. In "The Gauntlet", Xena, a woman who had little compunction about massacring entire villages, is redeemed by her association with Hercules and spends the rest of her life (chronicled in the spin-off series Xena: Warrior Princess) trying to atone for what she has done.
Intelligent and witty Hercules relies on his brain to get him out of situations that his brawn could very easily handle. When he does fight, it is in self defense or for a just cause. He is a loving husband and doting father. Committed to justice and what is right, he stands as a strong example of what society should strive for. The humor and tongue-in-cheek attitudes of the show are the sugar to help the medicine go down.
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