On Modernizing/Adapting Myths, James Bond as Odysseus, and On the Undead Archetype

Sometimes, when you’re teaching, you learn things. The other day, in my Greek Mythology and Biblical Narrative course, we had a discussion interesting enough that I feel like I learned a few interesting things. Figured I’d share:

On Modernizing/Adapting Myths:

In class, I was discussing the idea of archetypal figures with students in my mythology course, in the context of adapting ancient Greek mythology to a modern setting. We were specifically discussing their homework from a week before, which involved writting up synopses of their own for an imaginary adaptation of The Odyssey to a modern (post-1950) Korean setting. (They’d just watched — and we’d just discussed — the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of it to Depression-era Mississippi, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, so it seemed like an appropriate assignment.)

In any case, a couple of students worked some interesting tricks in their adaptations. One of the most interesting things, in my opinion, was how they handled the transformation of the “divine” characters in The Odyssey, namely Athena and Poseidon. In Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? this transformation is achieved by a kind of Christianization: while Ulysses T. Everett (like Odysseus) is dismissive of anyone who worships a god, he does pray once, near the end, and is saved by a flood — and we all know which god is know for sending floods down onto the Earth. The Christian god ends up standing in for Athena, and if you watch closely, you’ll note that the antagonist–the protagonist’s most conspicuous pursuer, a white lawman who travels with a hound — is hinted to be Satan. (Tommy Johnson, the Robert Johnson character, describes meeting the devil at the crossroads, and says he was a white man who traveled with a mean old hound… when you catch this, the malevolence of the lawman suddenly makes sense.)

While I found that almost all of my students avoided including Circe in their adaptations — they struggled with how to metaphorize her metamorphic magical effect on Odysseus’ men, aside from one student who turned Circe into a female Korean shaman — they did come up with some very interesting solutions regarding the inclusion of Poseidon and Athena in the story. (Probably because, while one could rationalize leaving out Circe, it was harder to leave out those two gods.) One student wove a narrative in which corporations stood in for different powerful beings and institutions — Ithaca was a shipbuilding company beseiged by a bigger, more powerful company named the Poseidon Corporation, for example — and another student decided to make the argument that Athena was a kind of universal force within all human beings.

I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit lately, as I think I would like to try experiment a little with such adaptations myself: nothing so overt as writing stories about companies named after figures in ancient myths and stories, necessarily, but examining ancient myths and then seeing how more modern stories could be told in ways that breathe new life into them… as well as experimenting with how working to modernize ancient materials might breathe new life into my own stories.

On James Bond as an Odysseus-Figure

Along the way, a student asked what I thought of the idea that James Bond might be a kind of latter-day Odysseus, an idea that is interesting.

After all, Bond is a world traveler who often spends long periods of time away from England. He is a heroic adventurer, and while he can use violence when necessary, he far more often uses his wits, cleverness, charm, and facility with deceit to win in his encounters with his enemies. He also uses a certain sort of self-disguise to his advantage, as Odysseus does after arriving home in Ithaca.

Speaking of whom, some of his enemies (most notably Ernst Stavro Blofeld) seem to exert a power comparable to Poseidon, mobilizing many agents against Bond the way Poseidon uses the ocean against Odysseus. Blofeld is tender to his cat, but inhuman to the millions of people who stand to suffer if his plots come to fruition, just as Poseidon is inhuman to Odysseus and his men, but kindly to his Cyclops son.

Bond often is complemented by a “Bond girl” who seems to resemble one or another of the female figures from the Odyssey, in that many of them are tough fighters (like Athena, in whose portfolio is included the province of war) or even spies; like Athena, some Bond girls even assist him in his adventures, while others challenging him as rivals or even enemies, the way some of the other female characters such as Circe and Calypso do. Nonetheless, friend or foe, Bond’s relationship with the Bond girls often has a sexual dimension, as it does with Penelope, Circe, and Calypso alike. This is important: the Bond girls seem to serve quite literally as the sexual reward for Bond’s success in his adventures. (Many of the Bond films I’ve seen end with an implied sexual-reward sequence involving a Bond girl, at least.)

And then there’s the politics of Bond: while he isn’t a monarch himself, like Odysseus, he is tied to the British monarchy — he serves in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, after all — and he is ultimately motivated by a desire to maintain or restore the proper world order and power structure, the status quo of his world. This is much like Odysseus, for a significant portion of the Odyssey is concerned with what he does after arriving home in Ithaca: the Odysseyan aesthetic is, politically, “conservative” in the sense that it valorizes Odysseus’ quest to maintain this social order, and Bond is no different: he, too, fights to preserve the status quo in which England is, relatively speaking, a world power, and England’s enemies — like suitors vying for Penelope’s hand, and the throne of Ithaca — struggle to gain the geopolitical upper hand. In this sense, geopolitical power is as much an analogue to Penelope as any Bond-girl, and geopolitical power is thereby also sexualized as nation-states are, interestingly but unsurprisingly, masculinized.

All of which is interesting stuff, probably something that came up because I argued in class that Odysseus is unlike so many of the types of characters who are presented as heroes in Hollywood films today.

On the Archetypal Unity of the Undead

And finally, we discussed the notion of (Jungian) archetypes, which came up in the context of the idea that Athena might be a force within all people. As I tried to explain it, I noted that all cultures seem to have some kind of notion about dead people who become reanimated: that if you squint hard enough, zombies, vampires, and ghosts all look kind of similar.

I asked students what the main difference is between (non-Twilight) vampires and zombies. Finally, we figured that the main difference is that zombies are human beings with the slates of their minds wiped clean, while vampires are human beings distilled, their (human) frailties and vulnerabilities mostly lost in the process. To this, I now realize, you could add ghosts as a third type, rather opposite to the ghost, where their human strengths and abilities are distilled away, leaving only their frailties annd vulnerabilities and flaws and regrets.

All of these reflect something interesting… the fundamental dilemma we face regarding death, which is: if a dead person is a living person minus something, what is the something that is being subtracted?… and what would remain, left behind after this subtraction, which we would see if the dead person somehow reanimated without becoming exactly alive? Interesting thought.

4 thoughts on “On Modernizing/Adapting Myths, James Bond as Odysseus, and On the Undead Archetype

    1. Ha, yeah, I was pleased that so much of what came up in the classroom discussion actually applies very well to the new Bond movie, which I just saw the other night. (As for the new Bond, I’m on the fence about it. I’ve seen people argue that this Bond proves why Bonnd is still relevant; to me, the number of changes necessary to “prove” that suggest maybe Bond isn’t anymore, and we need to invent a new mythology for the new, not-Cold War type situation we’re in now.

      “We” of course being mainstream society. I’d be off in the corner subverting whatever status-quo-affirming, complex-realities-ignoring mythology did get manufactured. I’m not saying chuck Bond into the trash, but why not try come up with something new, more fitting, more relevant to how things are now? Something that isn’t a rewriting of Bond only in name?

      (I’m fond of the weird gadgets and the outlandishness: it’s part of the fun of Bond. Strip that away and I’m frustrated. So for me, when Q says that they don’t go in for exploding pens anymore, I sighed a little. It was like saying, “We’ve decided to kill a an important bit of the fun of Bond films.”)

      1. Yeah, if you’re not going to give me cool gadgets then I can just go re-watch Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. For that matter, I thought the first couple of Bourne movies did a pretty good job of deconstructing (or maybe that’s too strong…how about “inverting”) the super-spy formula in action-flick packaging.

        I think the trouble with making Bond “relevant” is that it’s an invitation to think, and the more I think about Skyfall the more it bugs me. M’s defense of human intelligence could have been so much more, for instance. The ritual shagging and slaying of the bad guy’s girl was uncommonly brutal and perfunctory, even for Bond, who usually manages to show some kind of sorrow or regret, but not here.

        In this case, the whole hero’s return plot seems to be designed to say, “You can relax now, boys. We know that Judy Dench called Bond a misogynist dinosaur a while back, but now there’s a penis back in charge and Miss Moneypenny is in her proper place. The dinosaurs are back, and we’ll have the exploding pens online in no time.”

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