Helen of Troy Reloaded: The Unauthorized Authorized Story

Anne Duncan and Lisa George

Helen of Troy, epitome of feminine allure and the devastation it can wreak on society, had a face that launched a thousand ships and nearly as many variations on her life story. There is no one authoritative version of her myth, though some versions (the Homeric epics and the Epic Cycle, for instance) command greater influence than others in ancient as well as modern times.  It is a fascinating process to pick out the threads of Helen’s complex history as used by Adam Shapiro (producer of other television epics like “Atilla” and “Dune”), screenwriter Ronni Kern, and director John Kent Harrison for the 2003 USA Network television miniseries “Helen of Troy.” Surprisingly, perhaps, this made-for-TV version of Helen’s life is by no means ignorant of some of the more obscure variations in her life story; it uses a great deal of material from the Epic Cycle and other non-Homeric sources.  “Helen of Troy” seeks to provide a modernized, accessible, yet authoritative version of the story of Helen and the Trojan War she launched.  As virtually every text before it has tried to do, this film attempts to fix Helen’s notoriously ambiguous character; this version presents us with an innocent girl unaware of her uncanny beauty, who falls in love with Paris and flees an abusive home life in order to be with him.  But in its attempts to clarify and explain Helen’s story, the film is pulled in opposite and conflicting directions.  On the one hand, it studiously mines the mythological tradition for stories of Helen’s and Paris’ lives before the Trojan War; on the other hand, it invents episodes and introduces modern, rationalizing explanations in order to fully “motivate” the story for a contemporary audience.  On the one hand, it emphasizes her innocence and victimization; on the other hand, it emphasizes her active agency.  The result of these two strands of storytelling, ironically, is an epic that is as over-determined as the Iliad itself: in attempting to eliminate conflicting elements in Helen’s character and multiple causes for the war, the film replicates the over-determination of ancient epic, suggesting there is an irreducible indeterminacy in Helen’s character and in the story of the Trojan War.  Even this most modern version of their stories is forced to follow this traditional pattern.  As one scholar says of Euripides’ Helen – an earlier revisionist version of Helen’s story – we are left wondering “just how new the new Helen of this play really is.”

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