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More fidelity to the classical myth but no sense of epic
on 24 June 2003
As someone who teaches Classical Greek & Roman Mythology it is impossible for me to sit through something like the 2000 mini-series "Jason and the Argonauts" without constantly thinking about its fidelity to the myths of antiquity. Certainly this new version works in more members of the Argos crew than the 1963 film version with its Ray Harryhausen stop motion animation that is one of the beloved films of our youth. This time around there we have not only the mighty Hercules (Brian Thompson) aboard, but also Orpheus (Adrian Lester), Atalanta (Olga Sosnovska), Castor (Omid Djalili) and Pollux (John Sharian). We also have Jason (Jason London) and the Argo visiting the land of the Amazons and other details from the epic poem written by the third-century poet Apollonius of Rhodes, as well as the relationship between Jason and Pelias (Dennis Hopper) taken from Pindar. There is also a hint of the Medea (Jolene Blalock) that Jason will get to meet in the tragedy by Euripides. The only complaint is that unless you know the background on most of these characters you have no way of appreciating who is sailing with Jason. A prime example is when Orpheus mentions losing Eurydice but does not tell of how he almost won her back from Hades. Meanwhile, Atalanta seems to be interested in Jason (what would Artemis say?).
But while Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet get credit for working the ancient sources into this telling of the tale, the problem is that the end result misses the magic of the Harryhausen version. The problem is twofold. First, the tenor of the story has contradictory impulses. On the one hand we have the active participation of the gods, with Hera (Olivia Williams) and Zeus (Angus MacFadyen) aiding and hindering Jason in his quest as they work out one of their frequent marital spats. But on the other hand there is an effort to make the story more realistic, in terms of the politics and relationships, which works against the idea of being the playthings of the gods. None of the actors strike heroic poses or speak in grand phrases and even Dennis Hopper is remarkable restrained in his performance. "Jason and the Argonauts" tries to reconcile these two by having the gods work behind the scenes for the most part, but then Poseidon stands up and that idea is quickly dispatched.
Second, Jason London as the title character looks too young. I know the actor was 28 when he made this mini-series but he seems like a youth. One of the problems with the story was while the greatest heroes in Greece would come to sail with Jason, a callow youth, which Apollonius solved by having Hera make them all want to go. Instead Faulk and Skeet have Jason make up have the crew with undesirables, some of whom provide comic relief, helped because of the aid of the guard who saved him from death as a youth. In other words, Jason leads the Argonauts because that is what was written in the script. Granted, this is consistent with the tone of the mini-series, but you cannot help but think that when Jason meets Medea that she is going to eat him alive (of course, she does much worse, but that is another tragedy). The end result is a production of "Jason and the Argonauts" that lacks the sense of heroic adventure that the tale personifies in classical mythology. It was okay and it should have been fantastic.