by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Many writers realize later in life that they should have paid more attention in high school. One of the most significant subjects you might have slept through was Greek mythology. Knowing the classic tales that have undergirded Western culture is actually one of the most powerful tools a writer can have in their tool kit. Understanding why these myths have endured for thousands of years helps us better craft our stories around human psychology and problem solving. There are obvious adaptations of Greek myths such as Thor and Clash of the Titans. O Brother, Where Art Thou? received a great deal of press as a modern take on Homer’s Odyssey. Much has also been written about mythological metaphors in most superhero films.
However, reading some of the lesser-known myths from Greek mythology can provide insight into archetypes and tropes we have seen throughout the history of storytelling. Finding a new take or modern approach on these narratives and characters might just be the hook you need for that new script you are writing. Here are three Greek myths worth checking out.
Ovid’s narrative poem, Metamorphoses, mentions a mythical sculptor from Cypress named Pygmalion, who falls in love with a statue he creates. Pygmalion prays to Aphrodite for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl.” He later kisses the lips of his statue and finds them warm. The sculpture comes to life. Aphrodite has granted his wish.
There are a variety of takes and re-interpretations of the story of Pygmalion throughout film. Professor Henry Higgins teaches Eliza Doolittle how to function in high society, and thus his creation comes to life, in My Fair Lady. Edward Lewis does the same for Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman. Weird Science, Mannequin, The Mighty Aphrodite, and Ruby Sparks all follow similar story lines. However, one added element to most modern interpretations of Pygmalion is that the “creation” ends up bringing just as much meaning to the life of the “creator.” We find variations of the Pygmalion story in tales ranging from Pinocchio to Eddie the Eagle.
This Athenian tragedy, written by Sophocles around 420 BCE, has influenced writers and thinkers from Yeats to Freud, and filmmakers from Welles to Nolan. The story of a man destined to kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus Rex popularized dark aspects of the human psyche that we still wrestle with today.
In Back to the Future, Marty McFly must fight an Oedipus-type situation where his mother seeks a romantic relationship with him, unknowingly supplanting his father. The Star Wars saga is filled with Oedipus imagery. Anakin Skywalker loses his mother, who he seems obsessed with, finding love with an older woman who looks much like her. His mother’s death is a key element that drives him to the Dark Side. Luke Skywalker unknowingly seeks to destroy his father in the story and enjoys a romantic kiss with a female family member, also unbeknownst to him. Monster-in-Law, Cyrus, Failure to Launch, and Psycho all feature men who just can’t seem to get over their mothers. Sons of Anarchy puts a different spin on the Oedipus Rex narrative, presenting a protagonist that lionizes his father and murders his mother. Even the recent, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice takes a spin on the mother/son theme.
Persephone and Demeter
In this Greek classic, Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, is abducted by Hades, god of the underworld. There are a number of variations of the story. However, one element always present is that after she is rescued, Persephone still returns to the underworld once a year to rule as queen for a season. Different myths speak of Persephone’s reluctance or sometimes great willingness to make this journey. Regardless, when Persephone is in the underworld, her mother, Demeter – goddess of harvest, refuses to let the crops grow, which is why we have winter.
Stories of women descending into the underworld for a season have filled written literature and films since these mediums were created. All carry elements of the original tale of Persephone and her journey to the underworld. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling literally descends a flight of stairs into a dark underworld, where Hannibal Lecter awaits to lead her on her journey. In both The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, a character named Persephone is the wife of the Merovingian, a Hades-like figure in the underworld of The Matrix, seen lounging in Club Hel. 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Hateful Eight, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Fifty Shades of Grey all feature women connected to a man who desires to control her who descend into one type of underworld or another.
It’s easy to run after the latest trends as writers. Sometimes, we get caught up in chasing what seems to be selling at the moment. It’s important to remember that the story elements, archetypes, and plots that endure rarely seem to change. It’s the worlds we set them in and the characters we invent that make these timeless tropes seem new. When you plan your summer reading this year, throw a few Greek classics in the mix. You might be surprised at all the ways your writing will improve.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.