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Film Adaptation and the Myth of Textual Fidelity

Kenneth MacKinnon, University of North London, UK

When a film seems to announce its adaptation of a Greek tragedy, either by explicitly including a statement to that effect in its credits or by calling itself by the title of an ancient drama, it sets up expectations and anxieties in especially the classically educated sections of its audience. Because these may be familiar with the text of the particular tragedy in its original language, a wide and obvious departure of modern film from ancient source stimulates concern that the original is betrayed, that the filmmaker is guilty of infidelity to his/her explicit or implicit inspiration. Oddly, films that look most like Attic tragedies, by reason, say, of authentic-seeming costumes, of the Chorus’s retention, or of location photography that clearly indicates Greece, arouse few suspicions - oddly, because some of the most faithful-looking films have taken great liberties with their sources in terms of, for example, narrative simplification. A film which seems visually to recreate the conditions of the fifth century BC or the timelessness of myth, especially if it contents itself with the concerns of the dramatist chosen for adaptation, not importing those of the contemporary world, generally passes muster. It appears somehow to be taken as more honourable because more clearly honouring its ancient source.

The temporal and geographical locations of Tony Harrison’s Prometheus (1998) seem unambiguous and precise. Because these are clearly not the temporal and geographical locations of the Aeschylean Prometheus Bound, his film may well set up a resistance in its more specialised spectators.

At one level, the film considers the broad sweep of twentieth-century European history, with particular anguished concern for the Holocaust and the processes and ecologically disastrous results of industrialisation. Its more specific focus is upon the industrial and social blight visited upon former industrial communities after Thatcher’s ‘victory’ over the miners.

Much of the film, particularly its first half and ending, has about it a strong feel of the 1980s. This is not simply because of its reference to the social deprivation and widespread unemployment that are here boldly and unequivocally identified as direct results of the quashing of the miners’ strike. Then too, the crisis in the British film industry - an industry that has perhaps always been in crisis, but never more so than in the 1980s, with dwindling audiences and the sense of loss of a recognisable ‘film culture’ - appears to be alluded to in the use of an abandoned local cinema. In this disused building, the Old Man takes his seat, soon to be the spectator of a vision of events well beyond Yorkshire. The sequences which offer him this vision are directed, as it were, by Hermes, and projected by use of magically revived equipment on the ghost of a cinema screen. Part of the Old Man’s continuing tradition of defiant breaching of restrictive regulation is epitomised by his insistence on smoking, despite his emphysema and the ban on smoking in cinemas from the 1980s onwards. For him, the cinema remains the site of glamour. A significant part of that glamour was created for him by the erotic connotations of smoking in the movies of classic Hollywood. In this, there may be a suggestion of a romantic, impractical nostalgia in this Old Man. If the cinema remains for him congealed in the aspic of such images as those found in, for instance, 1940s and ‘50s film noir, there may be a further suggestion, whether from the director’s conscious design or not, that the Old Man’s invocation at other moments in the film of a pre-’80s community life may also be both romantic and impractical. Such a reading would presumably be a matter of subtextual inference, unlikely to be consciously intended by Harrison.

Whatever reactions spectators may have to the film, there can be little doubt that it creates from some aspects of the ancient story of Prometheus a coherent and deeply felt pessimistic version of mid to late twentieth-century Europe. Eastern Europe, in one sense unfettered from its satellite status, is also in another sense laid open to the devastation of its natural world and to deadly pollution. Even the site of the ancient Eleusinian mysteries has been shrouded in the toxic fumes of near-by factories, the sea rendered pestilential. And, above all, the devastated communities of Harrison’s beloved county seem to be trapped in a nightmare vision of the Victorian period so admired by the Prime Minister throughout the 1980s.

Harrison’s authorship (in at least two senses) of the film may elicit criticisms, particularly from spectators politicised through differing dogmas of Right or Left. It is easy to imagine a new version of the ‘moaning minny’ aspersions - actually voiced by Margaret Thatcher when she faced Northern complaints - being cast by a staunch Thatcherite against the film’s concentration on the former community’s inability to regenerate another version of itself. It is also easy, though, to imagine not just a New Labour disciple but a political commentator well to the left of Tony Blair feeling discomfort with the bleakly negative inertia suggested as the most credible response to the brutalisation inflicted on former mining communities. More broadly, the cry could be expected to be heard from audiences reluctant to keep alive the anger and bitterness that frequently affected not just the unemployed but also intellectuals during the Thatcher years - ‘That was then. This is now. And this is the ‘90s.’ Whatever that sort of response would amount to, it has surely to be said that this is a film that makes most sense to those with an unimpaired memory for the period, to those whose sense of social injustice remains undimmed at the end of the millennium.

Whatever the variety of reactions of audiences to the film, [1] surely there would be little argument against the proposition that it offers a coherent, distinctive picture of its apparent subject or that the ‘organic unity’ of the film’s action is almost Aristotelian.

One question which might arise, though, is the nature of the relationship between a thoroughly twentieth-century subject and the surviving play of an Aeschylean trilogy with which the film’s title alone seems to advertise a link. The link is indeed most certainly there. It is evident in, for example, the prominence of Hermes, or again in the film’s concern to link poetic utterance, even that of apparently humble characters, with the heroic world - a world which gods and semi-immortals customarily inhabit, and which, for all its intrusion in this film into the twentieth century, remains ancient and defiantly Homeric.

Not only classicists view the film with the expectation in mind that there will be some extra point to, or illumination of, the inspiration that seems to be claimed from the Aeschylean tragedy. As has already been suggested, once a modern work, perhaps particularly a film, seems to lay claim to a relationship with an ancient Greek tragedy, attitudes are struck, beliefs asserted, with reference to what is imagined to be the proper handling of tragic drama in the medium of cinema. Probably the most insistent and tenacious of these is connected with ‘fidelity’, which is generally approved, or ‘infidelity’, which is usually downgraded.

The purpose of much of the rest of the present discussion is not so much to question the values which have come to be attached to these claimed opposing tendencies as to investigate the credibility of the very claims about tendencies towards fidelity and infidelity.

Probably the best opportunity for consideration of the relatively few but remarkably varied films which seem to declare a relationship with ancient Greek tragedy was provided by the season, ‘Greek Tragedy on Film’, held at London’s National Film Theatre between 6th and 30th June 1981. During that season, the variety of approaches to the re-presentation of tragedy was such that recourse may well have to be had in consideration of that variety to the classifications that Jack J Jorgens employed in his discussion of films of Shakespearean tragedy. [2] Thus, while it seems impossible to detect a single unifying filmic attitude to the tragedies which would seem to inspire the totality of the films in the NFT season, Jorgens’s categorisations appear to provide help with grouping certain works together into subsets. These categorisations, offered under the heading of different ‘modes’, are as follows:

1. Theatrical mode - in this, film is used as a recording device, the medium being subordinated to the purpose of capturing a theatrical performance for posterity.

2. Realist mode - the most popular of the three modes (perhaps because the realistic is the most popular mode in wider cinematic practice), involving a shift to an ‘objective’, rather than an overtly theatrical, setting.

3. Filmic mode - that where the filmmaker becomes tragedian, so to speak, and where film’s potential for artifice rather than as ‘realist’ is foregrounded.

Yet, these three modes, derived from Jorgens’s study of Shakespeare on film, seem inadequate to convey, in particular, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s relationship with Greek tragedy in his Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1970). In my own book Greek Tragedy Into Film, I felt impelled to find another mode for the Pasolini films above all. The coinage ‘Meta-Tragedy’ was intended to convey the impression that ‘these films constitute attempts at modern tragedies while being simultaneously meditations on the significance of the ancient tragedies to which the films claim a relation’.[3]

With the help of these four categories, it becomes possible to attempt an overview of the variety of approaches taken to the matter of modern works’ relationship with their apparent ancient inspirations. In brief, it seems legitimate to group the films as follows -

1. Theatrical mode: Interestingly, for the present consideration, the earliest filmed record of a modern theatre production of Greek drama survives as a total of 11 minutes, in vision only, of the production at Epidauros in 1927 of Prometheus in Chains. (This was part of the ‘Delphic Idea’, conceived by Eva and Angelos Sikelianos. Incidentally, the relevance of that Idea of theirs to Tony Harrison’s Prometheus may be best highlighted by a quotation from Oliver Taplin: their belief was that the world ‘might be saved from rationalism and industrialism by "the female principle", blended with Orphism, Buddhism, Dionysus, Pindar and Aeschylus’.) [4]

Other examples of the filmed-record approach to ancient Greek drama include the two Electra’s (of 1938 and 1962), Tyrone Guthrie’s 1956 production of Oedipus Rex, Jean Prat’s The Persians (1961) and Jean-Louis Ughetto’s 1972 Electra (Sophocles’).

2. Realistic mode: The most noteworthy illustration of this mode is the ‘Euripidean trilogy’ of Michael Cacoyannis (Electra [1961], The Trojan Women [1971], Iphigenia [1976]). Other films classifiable as in the realistic mode are Philip Saville’s Oedipus the King (1967), despite its frequent ancient-theatre settings, and George Tzavellas’s Antigone (1961).

3. Filmic mode: The films classified under this heading are among the most varied and modern-seeming of all: they include Jules Dassin’s 1961 melodrama Phaedra, with such stars as Anthony Perkins, Melina Mercouri and Raf Vallone; Liliana Cavani’s overtly ‘political’ The Cannibals (1970); Costas Ferris’s much criticised ‘art movie’, Prometheus, Second Person Singular (1975); and the most ‘Chorus-conscious’ of all films in the NFT season, Miklós Jancsó’s Elektreia (1975).

4. Meta-Tragedy: The term was coined in the hope that it would illuminate the tendency of certain films to remind their audiences of the ancient works and yet not so much to embody or promote these as to query the films’ relations with them. The tendency is most marked in Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex, where the plot is unravelled in one lengthy sequence in a strikingly un-Sophoclean manner. We are here presented with the myth, which, following a strictly chronological sequence, allows links with the biography of Pasolini himself and highlights the cruciality of Freud’s Oedipus complex in his own (and his Oedipus’s?) psychological history. In Jules Dassin’s A Dream of Passion (1978), one of the film’s two leading ladies is supposed to be playing Medea in a modern production of the play. (This tendency is discoverable again in Pasolini’s Medea and Notes for an African Oresteia (both 1970).)

When Oliver Taplin was commissioned to write a review for The Times Literary Supplement of the NFT’s season of films of Greek tragedy, he fairly consistently objected to the liberties taken with the ancient plays by the films grouped under all modes but the theatrical. (All the same, he did not approach the films through the above categories, it should be said.) Thus, he criticised the Freudianism of Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex on the grounds that Jean-Paul Vernant ‘proved’ that the psychoanalyst has no light to shed on Sophocles’ play. [5] Then, again, he thought little of Cavani’s The Cannibals because it seemed to disregard George Eliot’s insistence ‘that Antigone is not so much about burying corpses as about the conflicts of loyalty to family and to state’. [6] (It might be noted, incidentally, that in both cases his citations concern the ancient plays and not the modern films.) The most significant point is that he dislikes the very distance created by these works from the plays in question, implying that, by reason of that distance, they have betrayed the essence of the ancient works.

It should be borne in mind that, when Taplin arrived at his less than enthusiastic opinion of those films in the NFT season which seemed least theatrical, he had already evidenced a particular interest in the question of modern productions (theatrical) of Greek tragedy. In his Greek Tragedy in Action, [7] he had attempted to deal with the question he had posed himself, ‘Authenticity or Freedom?’ in relation to modern stage productions of the ancient works. The two extremes were seen in that work as the closest possible reproduction of the original performance, on one hand, and, on the other, ‘uninhibited rein to modern reframing’. Tendencies to the former extreme had been recognised to raise serious difficulties, since a carbon copy of the original production must be seen as incapable of realisation, while a performance’s aim to be authentic was similarly doomed because of the ‘inauthenticity’ of the modern audience. Taplin reserves particular hostility, though, for the latter tendency and for productions where the play is ‘openly and unashamedly rewritten’. His preference is for a middle position, where there may be ‘an interplay of past and present’. This interplay is to be achieved by due respect for the author’s meaning, or his ‘communicative purpose’, and particularly for ‘what the author’s meaning has to say for us now’. In more practical terms, he suggests a prescription: the director and actors should respect the ancient dramatist’s words, by translating rather than altering; the author’s visual meaning should be elicited and interpolation of stage business should be avoided. [8]

Taplin’s diligence in seeking out the visual meaning just alluded to is attested by much of his book. Nevertheless, there are difficulties in his extension of the practical prescription for modern stage productions to films so that it becomes an implicit criterion for value judgment in the context of the NFT season. The most obvious is that film is a different medium, and its realism seems to be different from either realism or naturalism within a theatrical understanding of the terms. More significantly, several of the films, particularly those christened ‘meta-tragic’, expose their self-questioning in relation to their use of Greek tragedy and do not pass themselves off as in any obvious sense versions of ancient dramas. If they do not pretend to be the reconstituted tragedy in modern, filmic form, it seems beside the point to complain that they allude to Freud even though it is proved beyond doubt - surely the question cannot be settled so unequivocally, though - that the Sophoclean Oedipus Rex is not illuminated by recourse to psychoanalysis.

Jorgens became aware in his study of Shakespearean films that often preferences for particular films were in effect declarations of preference for particular modes, the films being automatically praised or blamed if they were seen to belong respectively within or without the preferred mode. He expresses a wish that we should ‘avoid elevating our own particular sensitivities to the status of universal laws’. [9]

In his review, Oliver Taplin shows a marked preference, when he is not dealing with film as document recording theatrical production, for films made in the ‘realistic mode’. He calls, for example, Michael Caoyannis’s Electra and Iphigenia ‘by far the best films yet made out of Greek tragedy’. [10] His enthusiasm for Cacoyannis’s Electra echoes Professor Hugh Lloyd-Jones’s earlier pronouncements about a film for which he has nothing but praise. [11] Taplin does not overtly choose one mode over another. Yet, surely there is an implication, less in his promotion of Cacoyannis’s approach to Greek tragedy than in his sharp rebukes for works in the ‘filmic mode’ that seem to betray their originals by resorting to, say, anti-Sophoclean emphases: if Cavani’s The Cannibals shows scant respect for Antigone by ignoring George Eliot’s approved reading of the play as centring on family and state loyalties, and it is for that reason criticised adversely, presumably Cacoyannis’s films are better because they are more respectful of their Euripidean originals. After all, ‘[a]n age which refuses to learn from the past, or which uses it merely as inanimate raw material without regard for its integrity and life, is an age of tyranny, narrow-mindedness and arrogance.’ [12] It would appear as if Cavani, Dassin and Pasolini could all stand accused of tyranny, narrow-mindedness and arrogance because their films seem to recognise that they are not the original plays and want to question their relations with those.

If it is fairly concluded that there is an implied intimate connection between Cacoyannis’s realistic-mode approach and Taplin’s critical approval, there may be a further implication, then, that the realistic mode is better because it is more faithful. Cacoyannis’s films often look, after all, as if they have an intimate connection with the original works. All three of his ‘tragedy films’ have a Chorus, rendered in bathetically realist terms in his Electra, interpreted in more stylised manner in The Trojan Women, perhaps least obvious qua Chorus in the latest of the three works, Iphigenia. There are Euripidean-style agones, a deus ex machina in voiceover form at the end of the Electra, and the visual coding of all sequences of these three films, particularly with regard to costuming and props, suggests that we are in the world of ancient Greece.

These appearances must be weighed, though, against the remarkable liberties which the director has taken with his ancient material.

Possibly the most noteworthy of these liberties is the way that Cacoyannis tells his stories.

The narrative of the ancient Iphigenia in Aulis is highly confusing at times. Perhaps there is no ‘objective’ plot in much of that play but a series of events which are seen from different angles by different characters. The necessity of Iphigenia’s death is alleged at one moment by Menelaus, at another by Agamemnon in opposition to Menelaus. The brothers’ arguments seem at times like a set of rhetorical school exercises, in which they have to manufacture speeches from opposing viewpoints, and then to change places and argue the opposite. Achilles and Clyemnestra have an almost comic misunderstanding of each other’s motives when they first encounter each other. Iphigenia suddenly, and with remarkably little of what today might be termed psychological realism, changes her mind about her sacrifice. [13] Having pleaded to no avail to be spared, she decides that women’s lives are virtually of no account in comparison with men’s, and that barbarians are of no account at all. The modern interpreter of the play is constantly confused if an attempt is made to see the action and the characters in any sustained, unified way.

The film manages to be remarkably moving, to produce more pity and fear, and genuine tears, in a modern audience than any production, however faithful to the original, is likely to achieve. It succeeds by rewriting the original. Motivations become clearer, more consistent, and therefore more easily appealing or alienating for a modern cinema audience. Similarly, characters are reconceived. In particular, Iphigenia does not only become a charmingly naive, remarkably young, victim (this conception of the character vastly aided by the casting of the only just adolescent Tatiana Papamoskou as Iphigenia) but Achilles is rendered as a handsome, fairminded, loyal young man, at his first appearance naked beside a white horse. The pair seem to fall in love, Iphigenia to find the strength to go to her death, because of the empathy with her shown by this version of Achilles. This importation into the story is remarkably effective in terms of audience involvement, producing in the film’s spectators what seems to be the closest thing to Aristotelian catharsis. Yet, it is an importation, a shrewd rewriting of Euripides, of a piece with the new conception of Clytemnestra as deeply maternal, first in her fondness for her daughter, finally in the vengeful murderousness of the last image of her, the last image of the film in fact. It all feels splendid, and seems economically to remind the spectator of the place of Iphigenia’s sacrifice in, say, the Aeschylean bitterness of Clyemnstra towards the husband whom she regards as responsible for the killing of their daughter. Splendid or not, this is not, though, Euripides’ original.

Neither, for that matter, is Cacoyannis’s Electra. It attempts to render the play with more regard for the original conception. Yet, simply by making the setting ‘credible’ - the dusty countryside around Argos, Electra’s life with the peasant husband, the sympathetic women of the dramatic Chorus looking incongruously stylised as they set about their daily grind - the import has vastly altered. At the most obvious level, Euripides wrote for the theatre, and used the conventions of the Attic theatre even as he may also have subverted them by, for example, having the Peasant introduce the ‘heroic’ world for the play’s action. The connotations of the countryside and of peasants have altered in the film, because the audience is invited to see the rural setting as ‘real’, not simply as the antithesis of ‘royal’. The play’s recognition scene, relatively perfunctory in its original setting, becomes unintentionally close to comedic in the film. (This is arguably because the director has tried to re-inflate the unheroic tone of the original and thus produced bathos.)

In The Trojan Women, the real-seeming setting means that distracting questions are raised about one location’s relation to another, in terms of, for example, the geographical distance between one scene of the tragic action and the next. True to the method that permeates Cacoyannis’s Iphigenia, with its concern to engage the sympathies and antipathies of its audience, this film tries to ensure that Hecuba is marked out as the genuinely suffering victim of war while Helen is a fake. In the agon, Katharine Hepburn rings with tragic authenticity as she delivers her denunciation of Helen, while Irene Papas, as the pampered, posturing Helen, not only seems to beguile rather than to convince their arbiter, Menelaus, but in a highly interpolated moment seems to use her bare back in an attempt to revive his sexual dependency on her. There are differing views of the relevance of the agon in its original Attic context. One at least is that the speeches of the agon could be heard and weighed for their persuasiveness by an Athenian spectator as if that spectator were a juror in a democratic court of law. Thus, one member of the audience might be persuaded about the fairness of Hecuba’s version of events, while the person sitting next to that hearer might be drawn to Helen’s interpretation. (It should be said that the original Euripidean Helen’s claim to have been overpowered by Aphrodite is true to the Homeric notion of ‘psychological’ compulsion.) There is no possibility of that in the film, unless the hearer wishes to set up a wilful resistance to the director’s version of the agon.

At this point, it is important to emphasise that no blame is intended to be imputed to Cacoyannis for making the choices that he does. His success in ensuring audience involvement when Euripides seems at times to approach a form of Brechtian ‘alienation’ of his audience is undiminished simply because we recognise that success to be un-Euripidean. The aim, rather, is to cause us to query the notion that there is something ‘faithful’ about Cacoyannis whereas Pasolini, for example, takes unacceptable liberties with his originals.

Fidelity, which is the virtue propounded by Oliver Taplin in relation to modern theatrical productions, may be not so much an aim that has failed to be achieved, obviously by Pasolini, clearly less obviously in the case of Cacoyannis. Perhaps, it is incapable of achievement. (There may, of course, be greater proximity to fidelity in one production than another, but fidelity must always be an aspiration, as impossible to realise as a Platonic Form. Even if it were capable of achievement, we should still have to consider the point of that achievement - why, for instance, fidelity should be thought of as self-evidently a good, infidelity equatable with tyranny, narrow-mindedness and arrogance.)

Why exactly, though, should fidelity be here considered incapable of achievement? There are several reasons.

For one thing, modern productions are almost always in translation. This holds good for modern productions staged in Athens at the Herodes Atticus theatre, for example. The translation in that case is from ancient to modern Greek, though usually it is more far-reaching: into modern English, for example. Translation involves not a word-by-word transcription of the original words, but a substitution of, say, one set of poetic conventions for another and, more challengingly, of conceptions. How exactly is, say, Sophoclean sophrosyne to be rendered? Or, again, Aeschylean hubris? It is not just ancient Greek words or poetic forms that may be utterly alien to a modern listener but the very ideas which those words seek to express. Enoch Powell once said at the National Theatre in London, ‘In Greek words across 25 centuries a voice is heard that speaks directly, unmistakably, to our own emotions and our own thoughts.’ [14] How on earth, though, could Greek speak directly or unmistakably to audiences which largely have no knowledge of ancient Greek? How could any words from 25 centuries previous be direct or unmistakable? Powell’s confidence in the unmediated ‘power’ in the words of Greek tragedy to make contact with modern sensibilities and intellects, of a different culture and context, seems almost breathtakingly unfounded. Yet, it is surely very similar to the beliefs which would encourage us to imagine that there can be fidelity to an ancient source, achieved simply by respect for the author’s meaning.

It is not simply a matter of translation either. Ancient texts are notoriously riddled with uncertainty. Some measure of that uncertainty is visible when the various manuscript readings out of which a play’s text is constructed appear at the foot of each printed page. Teubner texts differ from Oxford Classical texts, Budé’s from both - not in every instance, clearly, but in significant ways. It should be remembered that each different reading has been chosen because of a certain broad conception of the signification of the play in question. Each detail of the difference between the text of one modern edition and of another is justified presumably by a different editorial conclusion about the import of the immediate and general contexts. This surely demonstrates that there is no one original to which there can be fidelity.

Then too, it has to be realised that each different reading is not merely justified by different conceptions of the text. Each different reading, rather, helps to produce different conceptions of the text. The process is circular. Perhaps the essential point to grasp for present purposes is that the ancient text is thus always in the process of becoming and not static or unified. Fidelity would, in other words, have to be to particular versions of an (absent) original.

So far, it is only the verbal dimension of ancient work that has been considered. What then of the visual dimension?

Taplin himself concedes readily that a carbon copy of the original’s visual dimension is impossible. While the producer anxious to claim fidelity to the original might be able to derive his stage business from clues within the speeches of the ancient plays, this could be true for only some of that business, surely. The best source for the visual dimension of Greek tragedy as a theatrical event may, unsurprisingly, be Taplin’s own published work, particularly his Greek Tragedy in Action, in which his attack on unfaithful productions is mounted.

Tony Harrison’s own theatrical version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia seems to have been remarkably faithful in its aspiration. All the same, questions could be asked about the exact point of this strategy. Was the National Theatre production an attempt to instruct in terms of historical veracity, so that the knowledge of a close approximation to what is capable of being deduced or surmised about ancient drama is regarded as its own reward? [15] If so, Harrison has taken a very different tack with the film Prometheus.

In any case, how does the ‘knowledge’ of ancient tragedy relate to a dramatic, let alone cathartic, experience? Whatever authenticity is achieved is compromised by the audience’s relative inauthenticity, as Taplin himself concedes. It may be important for students of Classics to know that the Chorus was masked and thus the individualisation of its members disguised or denied. That is, it was a convention that had its own particular meaning(s) for a fifth-century Athenian audience. But how is this same convention, reactivated in a modern theatre building with whatever architectural debts to Epidauros, ‘read’ by a non-specialist audience? That audience can be respectful, aware of its ignorance of the original conventions, grateful for exposure to these conventions. Nevertheless, this respect, awareness, gratitude would be alien to an ancient Athenian audience of the period. Is not the precise move towards fidelity in a modern dramatic production the very source of an ‘unfaithful’ dramatic experience? If Aristotle’s pity and fear were indeed the essence of the tragic experience of the Greeks - and sometimes it is difficult to see this description as credible for Aeschylus or those Euripidean plays more defiant of tragic convention - it is surely not what is ensured by a painstakingly faithful modern staging of the ancient play. Cacoyannis seems to have been right to conclude that, to have audiences fearful and pitying, he had to jettison the barriers to emotionality represented by Iphigenia in Aulis’s narrative complexity and characterisational unpredictability.

The drive towards at least an appearance of fidelity not concidentally relates closely to what André Bazin famously believed was cinema’s drive towards greater and greater realism. [16] For Bazin and his disciples, the value of realism may well have been dependent on its believed closeness to truth. The greater the cinema’s realism, the closer it gets to the ‘real world’. That this last has had to be placed in inverted commas is largely because of film studies’ contemporary knowledge of and indebtedness to semiotics. If there is no unmediated real world, then realism is not a guarantee of truth - in the sense of the capturing of reality - but a particular, highly popular, convention. If it is a convention, ‘realism’ rather than realism, it is not per se superior to such other conventions as ‘theatricality’, ‘stylisation’, ‘alienation’. The questions that have to be answered, if we wish to assign positive value to this convention, concern what is achieved thereby. Why is the apparently faithful work automatically taken to be superior to the apparently untrammelled, ‘free’ adaptation of an ancient work? The question gains more point when ‘apparently’ is stressed. If we might question the automatic superiority of the faithful work, how much more reluctantly should automatic value be ceded to the work which offers the appearance of fidelity.

To revert to the particular question of the relationship of Tony Harrison’s Prometheus to the ancient Prometheus Bound, we should begin by not expecting or demanding textual fidelity; then too, we have no right automatically to downgrade a work whose infidelity seems to be foregrounded. Several reasons have been adduced: the fluidity of the ancient text, and its requiring translation and transposition; the absence of explicit stage direction and uncertain status of those apparently implicit; the fact that what could be argued to be proper to a stage production is almost certainly ‘theatrical’, in different senses of the term, for a film.

At certain points in his Prometheus, Harrison has not only shown awareness of the difficulties in transposing the ancient drama to film but has solved some of these difficulties with ingenuity. An outstanding example is his conversion of unemployed steel workers into a golden statue of Prometheus so that it may be transported across Europe. The genius of the latter strategy is that the immobility of the play’s hero, pinioned by Force and Violence to the rock at its beginning and forced to remain unmoving, is ensured in his rendering as statue. Yet, this possibly dramatic but defiantly anti-filmic immobility, more thoroughly achieved than in the play through the use of the smelted image, is countered by the device of the lorry. It moves with dizzying rapidity across geographical and historical zones which demonstrate some affinity with the (in this context, dubious) ‘gift’ of fire stolen for men from the gods. Fire and the fuels that produce and sustain it are explored in their relevance to key industrial processes, in their prominent place in the abominations of Auschwitz, in their apparent contribution, via the cigarette, to human happiness and to human destruction through lung disease.

But perhaps the accumulation of evidence for Harrison’s sensitivity to the claims of the original work may still mislead us. What the filmmaker has offered is an at times surprisingly cogent reinterpretation - but less of the Greek tragedy than of the Prometheus myth. Ancient tragedy is, after all, in nearly every instance - Aeschylus’s The Persiansis a notable exception - a response to myth, an often highly individual and idiosyncratic dramatic response to, and exploitation of the potential of, heroic legend. [17]

Perhaps the criterion of fidelity to the plays to which certain films are believed to claim a link is wrong-headed - and not simply because fidelity is more utopian than practicable. The common ground for the disparate works produced by such markedly diverging playwrights as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides is surely its relationship with myth. Nobody would dream of seeking faithfulness or castigating alleged unfaithfulness in that relationship. A significant point in the relationship would appear to be the opportunity that myth, with its relatively minimal characterisation and psychological ‘realism’, permits to dramatists to flesh out and motivate the figures which move and have their being in its world. Consider, for instance, how different the Clytemnestra of each of these playwrights is from the others: too ‘masculine’ in her desire for revenge and in manipulation of male instruments of that revenge in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon to lay claim to audience sympathy when she is felled in his Libation Bearers; contrastingly more human, less driven, in the starkly changed world of Euripides’ Electra. Does any critic of the dramatists complain because one Clytemnestra is so outstandingly unlike any other? What would be the point?

It would be readily conceded that Sophocles’ Oedipus is delineated with altogether more detail and relevance to questions of pollution than the Homeric Oedipus. There is a high degree of improbability about the notion that any serious scholar would complain because one is unlike the other, because Sophocles has invented much and added significantly to the raw material of the Oedipus legend. It is almost unthinkable that he would be termed ‘unfaithful’ to his sources.

The three extant Attic tragedians must have regarded myth as a starting point on which they could build such new and individual edifices as their dramas. Surely, then, Harrison - and with him Pier-Paolo Pasolini and Jules Dassin, for example - is extending and adapting an ancient dramatic tradition by producing a new work, with its own peculiar relevance to the times, from old myths and even from single treatments of myth’s myriad and protean aspects. It may be sterile to demand the sort of fidelity that attention to such formal devices of Greek drama as, say, stichomythia or choral metre might suggest. The triumph of Prometheus is that it so clearly alludes to Greek myth that it would be unthinkable without the tracing of its references back to it while it simultaneously addresses us as citizens of post-Thatcher Britain, looking back on horrors and anxieties inflicted on Europe. The purpose and the message may be quite other, but is this so very unlike Aeschylus’ final address to the citizens of democratic Athens when at the close of the Oresteian trilogy he brings the dramatic world of heroic myth into the then present-day celebration of the Panathenaic procession? The fusion of immediate with remote past, the revivification of the images of fire and its contemporary significances, the sense of mortal (working-class) man crushed beneath the wheels of industry, the greed of the cigarette advertisers, the brutality of market-worshipping politicians - all these seem to be Harrison’s passionate response to the life of the period that he has best known, viewed from - in at least two senses - an Olympian perspective.

The question of textual fidelity may be answered confidently, but not in the drily academic terms in which it is sometimes posed. Harrison takes the part of modern tragedian in his Prometheus, reconsidering myth and asking what it has to say by way of illumination of our recent experience. In this endeavour, he seems to demand no less or more freedom than the ancient variety.


[1] One enthusiast for Prometheus declares on the Internet that he considers this ‘to be the best film I have ever seen'. (Thomas Stedall, on http:/

[2]Jack J Jorgens, Shakespeare on Film Indiana University Press, 1977.

[3]Kenneth MacKinnon, Greek Tragedy Into Film, Croom Helm, 1986, p. 126. For summary information about Jorgens's three modes, see Kenneth MacKinnon, ibid. pp. 19-20.

[4]Oliver Taplin, ‘The Delphic idea and after', The Times Literary Supplement , no. 4085, 17, July 1981, p. 811.

[5]Oliver Taplin, Ibid.

[6]Oliver Taplin, Ibid.

[7]Oliver Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action, Methuen , 1978.

[8]See especially ‘Round plays in square theatres' in Oliver Taplin, Ibid. pp. 172 ff.

[9]Jack, J. Jorgens, Ibid., p. 15.

[10]Oliver Taplin, ‘The Delphic idea and after', p. 812.

[11]Observer , 14th April 1963.

[12]Oliver Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action , pp. 180-81.

[13]Iphigenia's change in character has been discussed as an aspect of stage performance and of the rehearsal process by Jim Lewis, ‘“The Clytemnestra Project at the Guthrie Theatre”', in Mark Bly (ed.), The Production Notebooks. Theatre in Process , vol. 1, Theatre Communications Group, 1996, pp. 1-62.

[14]Enoch Powell, ‘We Are All Athenians Now', Independent Weekend , 27th May 1989.

[15]In this regard, attention should also be directed to Harrison 's own claim about the importance of the design of Hall's Oresteia for his creation of the text. See Cathy Courtney, Jocelyn Herbert. A Theatre Workbook, Arts Books International, 1993, pp. 118-27 and 229-32.

[16]See André Bazin, What Is Cinema? vol. 1, tr. Hugh Gray University of California Press, 1967.

[17]The extent of innovation to myths by the tragedians is given much scholarly scrutiny in, for example, J R March, The Creative Poet , BICS Supplement 49, 1987.