a collection of movie and TV posters

Stories from Greek mythology are always fascinating. These timeless epic tales revolving around love, betrayal, loss, and vengeance have been adapted for TV and film since the beginning of the cinematic arts. We asked Getty Villa Museum antiquities curators to select TV shows and films based on classical Greek themes, taking a closer look at how the myths and images that inspired them were used to create new stories. In the mix are O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a favorite among the curators; episodes from The Simpsons and Star Trek; and the Academy Award-winning 1959 foreign language film Black Orpheus. If you’re running out of new shows to stream, here are a few to consider.

The Simpsons, “Tales from the Public Domain”

23 minutes; streaming on Disney+ or available to rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

This three-part episode of The Simpsons parodies famous stories from literature and history. The first segment is a playful retelling of the Odyssey, Homer’s epic tale of Odysseus’s ten-year journey to return home after the Trojan War where he faces mystical creatures and the wrath of the gods.

A Closer Look at the Adaptation

The writers clearly had fun with this—matching up Simpsons characters with their Homeric equivalents (Barney, the Springfield town drunk, as Dionysos, god of wine, with a kantharos in hand, gets me every time). Casting Homer, not known for his smarts, as clever Odysseus turns everything on its head. When Circe transforms his men into pigs, not only does he fail to recognize his friends in pig-form, but he proceeds to eat them in their entirety. Despite its silliness, some elements, like the extreme violence, ring true to the original. To conquer Troy, the Greeks slaughter the sleeping defenseless Trojans. Upon Odysseus’s return home, he murders all the suitors with one strategic spear-throw, reminiscent of the Trial of the Axes in the epic poem. Running just eight minutes long, this vignette offers a fun take on the classic story. The rest of the episode leaves the world of Greek heroes behind, and turns to Joan of Arc and then Shakespeare’s Hamlet, both well worth a watch!

—Nicole Budrovich, curatorial assistant

Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro) (1959)

107 minutes, Portuguese; streaming on HBO Max, or available to rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

This retelling of the myth of Orpheus takes the hero (played by Breno Mello) to the favelas of Brazil. In the Greek myth, Orpheus travels to the underworld to retrieve his beloved wife Eurydice. With his magical musical performances, he convinces Hades to let her go under one condition: he is forbidden to look back at her on their journey home to the land of the living. Inevitably, as they approach the gates of the Underworld, Orpheus cannot resist turning around to gaze at this bride, and Eurydice fades back into the realm of Hades forever.

The film, featuring an all-Black cast of mostly local Brazilians, was an international hit in 1959, winning the Palme d’Or and Best Director awards at the Cannes Film Festival, followed in 1960 by awards for Best Foreign Film from both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Although the film is well known and screened often, it is important to point out that the film also drew serious criticism for its stereotypical representation of Brazilian society and culture by French cinematic auteurs. In Thomas E. Skidmore’s book Brazil: Five Centuries of Change, the author closely examines the international perception of the film. He says, “Shot entirely in the favela Morro da Babilônia with many Black or mixed-race actors, the film has been criticized for projecting stereotypes of its characters as simple-minded, overtly sexual, and interested only in singing and dancing.”

A Closer Look at the Myth Adaptation

The placement of the myth into a 24-hour period of Bacchanalian frenzy, filmed in brilliant Technicolor and set to the intoxicating rhythms of samba and bossa nova (Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Grammy-winning song “The Girl from Ipanema” would be released in 1964) sets the pitch perfectly for an ancient tale set in the transparent space between love and death.

In this film, the tension between this world and the next becomes increasingly pronounced as the story evolves. In her desperate flight from Death, Eurydice is accidentally electrocuted at the train yard by Orpheus himself, who then seeks her resurrection in a vivid—and apparently real—Candomblé ritual of spirit possession. In the early morning, having rescued the body of Eurydice from the morgue, he returns to the favela where he is attacked by a group of raving dancing women (referencing maenads of old) still costumed for Carnival. With Eurydice in his arms, Orpheus plummets to his death from the precipitous mountain slope above the city. Still wearing their gold lamé Carnival costumes, the dead lovers peacefully float in a bed of palms suspended high above Rio de Janeiro; united in a way they never achieved in antiquity.

— Mary Louise Hart, associate curator

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

108 minutes; available to rent on Amazon Prime, iTunes or YouTube.

Loosely inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, American folklore, and the 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels, the story follows the wandering adventures of Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) and his fellow runaway-convicts Pete and Delmar (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) through Depression-era Mississippi (beautifully captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins). Filled with fun nods to the epic poem—a blind prophet, seductive sirens, a metamorphosis, and a one-eyed monster—the film playfully reimagines its source material.

A Closer Look at the Myth Adaptation

This Coen Brothers classic is well worth a re-watch. While some of the story’s broad strokes resemble the ancient poem—Ulysses McGill, desperate to return home before his wife Penny (Holly Hunter) remarries, relies on his cleverness to escape every tight spot—notable differences make this its own tale. Unlike Odysseus, a famous king and commander of great physical strength, McGill is an unknown everyman of modest means and muscle. The soundtrack, a celebration of American folk and bluegrass, drives the film forward and plays a central role in the story itself. While on the run, Everett and his companions pick up a hitchhiker at a crossroads, Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), a Black musician who claims to have just sold his soul to the devil for skill on the guitar—a character drawn directly from the legends around the real-life delta blues artists Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson. Following Tommy’s suggestion, the group heads to a rundown radio station where they perform their anthem-song, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” for a blind music producer (the blind poet Homer), who records it on vinyl. In the vignettes that follow, the escapees face all sorts of obstacles and villains in disguise, but their song becomes a surprise hit, and ultimately music (with some divine luck) redeems our heroes.

— Nicole Budrovich, curatorial assistant

Clash of the Titans (1981)

118 minutes; available to rent on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and YouTube.

Not to be confused with the 2010 remake starring Sam Worthington, Laurence Olivier as Zeus heads an all-star cast that includes Harry Hamlin as Perseus, Maggie Smith as Thetis, Claire Bloom as Hera, and 1960s James Bond girl Ursula Andress as, shall we guess? Aphrodite. Perseus is best known as the hero who vanquished the monstrous Medusa whose gaze turned men to stone. His story begins when he and his mother Danae were cast out to sea in a chest, to perish. Rescued by Zeus, young Perseus spends his idyllic youth training horses on the beaches of Seriphos until Zeus plucks him up (literally) and drops him into a real ancient theater to begin his adventurous life in pursuit of the hand of Andromeda, the princess of Joppa (Jaffa, Israel).

A Closer Look at the Myth Adaptation

Even though, sadly, no Titans appear, Clash of the Titans is a clever recasting of the life and adventures of the Greek hero Perseus, a favored son of Zeus. Throughout, classical characters are reimagined by special effects magician Ray Harryhausen, creator of the many illusions that make this movie so much fun to watch. Perseus rides Pegasus like a real horse, has a magical shield, an invisibility helmet, and the assistance of Athena’s delightful owl, Bubo, an ancient version of R2-D2 (Star Wars was released only a year earlier). All combine to rescue Andromeda from the three-armed sea monster the Kraken, who although not Greek (being a monster from Norse mythology) fits perfectly into this cohort of Greek fantasy characters. The Kraken is released into a cinematic tableau inspired by the European painting tradition, to be defeated by Perseus in a clever plot twist the ancient Greeks would have enjoyed.

Throughout the film real ancient sites are used creatively. On the other hand, the public spaces of ancient Joppa certainly never combined Roman, Assyrian, Persian, and archaic Greek features, but seeing them all together made me wish they had.

— Mary Louise Hart, associate curator

The Loves of Hercules (1960)

102 minutes, Italian; streaming on Netflix as part of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Also available on Amazon Prime and YouTube.

The Loves of Hercules (Gli amori di Ercole) stars real-life couple Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay in a non-canonical jumble of love stories following the murder of Hercules’s wife.

A Closer Look at the Myth Adaptation

Describing this as a movie about classical mythology would be misleading: The Loves of Hercules is classically-inspired in the same way that Jell-O salads could be described as inspired by a vegetable. Lush drapery, exotic furs, columns, and teeth-bared sphinx furniture set the stage for dramatic lounging and laconic monster battles as Hercules seeks to survive treacherous characters and rescue a certain damsel in distress. The Loves of Hercules strays far from the canonical Labors of Hercules, but keen-eyed observers will spot Rome’s own Museo della Civiltà Romana and an unforgettable take on the Mask of Agamemnon, amongst other classical throwbacks. Spoilers: cameo monster appearances include not just the Hydra but also a forest of doomed men and, inexplicably, Bigfoot. Truly, a movie that has it all!

— Judith Barr, curatorial assistant

Troy: Fall of a City (2018)

Eight 60-minute episodes; streaming on Netflix or available to rent on Amazon Prime and YouTube.

The TV series Troy: Fall of a City, not to be confused with the 2004 film Troy starring Brad Pitt, adapts Homer’s Iliad and the Greek myths to tell the story of the Trojan War. Beginning with the birth of an abandoned infant, the Trojan prince Paris, and his fateful judgment twenty years later in a beauty contest among three goddesses, the miniseries pivots on the love affair of Paris and Helen, which launched a ten-year war with the Greeks and culminated in the destruction of his father King Priam’s citadel at Troy. Violence stems less from bloody battles than from intense emotional conflicts, especially those suffered by the women on both sides—Helen, Andromache, Briseis, Clytemnestra—who were impacted by the war. In eight engrossing episodes co-produced by the BBC and Netflix, the story unfolds mainly from the perspective of the besieged Trojans.

A Closer Look at the Myth Adaptation

From at least the 7th century BC up to today, artists and poets have always reimagined those stories. Filmed on location in the dramatic South African landscapes surrounding Cape Town, with lavish costumes, sets, and a massive wooden horse, the narrative takes creative yet compelling liberty with archaeological realities and Greek literary traditions. As one archaeologist wrote in her review, “There is no standardized, authoritative, or codified view of the Trojan War from ancient Greece and Rome. Homer (if such a person existed) is just one poet among many who gave his (or her) own version of the story.” Be transported to a myth-historical world that still resonates, and enjoy!

— Claire Lyons, curator of antiquities

Star Trek: The Original Series, “Who Mourns for Adonais” and “Bread and Circuses” (1967)

50-minute episodes; streaming on Netflix, Hulu, Paramount +, Amazon Prime, and available to rent on iTunes and YouTube.

In a show famous for going where no man has gone before, it may be surprising to find Star Trek: The Original Series taking on the ancient Mediterranean world. But in two episodes from Season 2, Captain Kirk and his crew find themselves embroiled in the imagined futures of ancient Rome and Greece. Although these episodes don’t adapt an ancient myth, instead we looked closely at the way they translated the ancient world for the silver screen.

Reimagining Ancient Greece and Rome

In “Who Mourns for Adonais,” the USS Enterprise travels to the planet Pollux IV, when a giant hand grabs the starship and the crew is confronted by a giant, glowing face calling himself the god Apollo. Once on the planet, Captain Kirk and the away team arrive at Mount Olympus, where a be-wreathed and be-spangled Apollo greets them…only to hold them captive as part of a plot to regain the lost glory of human worship. Greece as imagined through 1960s Star Trek is a barren garden of hedges and bright white statues—I think I spotted a Venus Genetrix—and a bright white take on a temple that would puzzle any ancient Athenian.

Bread and Circuses” takes its title from a familiar quote from the Roman satirist Juvenal about garnering approval through food and entertainment. In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise comes across an unexplored planet, where their scans reveal not just an excellent road system but also television broadcasts of gladiatorial matches. Here, not only did a parallel Roman empire arise, it never fell. In contrast to “Adonais,” “Bread and Circuses” is a sensory overload: the crew sees ads for Neptune Bath Salts in quarters decorated with silver services, exotic furs, tripods, and neoclassical sculptures. (Visitors to the Villa may also recognize some replicas of the bronzes from the Villa dei Papiri in the background!) For all of the touted morals of the Federation, the horror of slavery in the abstract is overlooked by a coy Kirk when it comes to an enslaved woman, Drusilla.

Both episodes fail in grappling with the complexity of the ancient Mediterranean world by presenting a very narrow view of Greece and Rome. In the end, it’s not exactly a romp to where no one has gone before, so much as a return to an imagined past we’ve all encountered too many times.

— Judith Barr, curatorial assistant