Movie vs Myth: Hercules
Disney films tend to be bright, colourful, heart-wrenching, and accompanied by a killer soundtrack that you will be humming in the shower for the rest of your life. Sadly, one thing that Disney films do not tend to be is accurate to the source material. Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ does not end with Ariel married to the prince. Victor Hugo’s novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ does not end with an attempted burning and a miraculous rescue. And the story of Hercules is not nearly as happy as the Disney movie would imply.
The film is certainly dynamic, and incorporates Greek mythology in a very interesting way, with many little nods to time that it is set in (for example, the alignment of the planets only shows the six planets that the Ancient Greeks were aware of.) The character design is admittedly brilliant – in particular the sinister Fates, squabbling over their one eye, works really well. The inclusion of the five muses as a Greek Chorus (a staple of Greek theatre) was also a nice touch. However, while these little nods to the original material are certainly nice, there are many parts of the story that the film got wrong:
Hercules? I think you mean Herakles!
Disney’s 1997 film is set in ancient Greece and tells the story of a young boy, Hercules, who discovers that he is the son of Zeus (ruler of the gods) and his wife, Hera. This, however, is not strictly speaking true.
The ancient Roman and Greek civilisations are very interlinked, with many aspects of Roman mythology inspired by the Greek, which came before. In fact, great swathes of Roman mythology is almost identical to the Greek, with only minor changes, such as the names of the gods. So, in Roman times, Zeus, became Jupiter and Hera became Juno.
The same applied to some of the Greek heroes, and much like the gods, Hercules does have two names. While Hercules is the most popularised version, this is actually the Romanisation of the name. We know this is a bit of a nit-pick, but as the film is set in Ancient Greece, technically Hercules should have been known as Herakles.
Pegasus: The loyal companion
In the opening of the film, Zeus takes a handful of cloud and uses it to create an adorable, winged foal which he gifts to his son. The foal, of course, grows up to be Pegasus, and in the vein of all Disney protagonists, serves as Hercules’ loyal animal companion throughout the film.
In truth, however, Pegasus was less Hercules’ companion, and more his cousin! Pegasus and his brother Chrysaor were the children of Poseidon and Medusa. The two brothers sprung fully formed from their mother’s neck, after Perseus killed her. Some legends say that the two were not born until Medusa’s blood reached the ocean, mingling with the sea spray. Unlike the loyal companion of the film, there is little tying the stories of Pegasus and Hercules (barring their shared ancestry.) In fact, the hero that Pegasus was most associated with was the unlucky Bellerophon, though some myths also have Perseus riding the winged horse.
What hero would be complete without a mentor, and what Disney film would be complete without a wise-cracking sidekick? In ‘Hercules’, Philoctetes (or Phil) is both.
A portly satyr, Phil claims to have trained a whole host of Greek heroes, from Theseus to Odysseus and is reluctant to take on a new student. Only after Zeus strikes him with lightning does Phil agree to train Hercules and does so in a fun training montage that takes place over the course of a song (‘One Last Hope’).
While there is a Philoctetes who appears in the Herculean mythos, he was neither responsible for training Hercules, nor a satyr. He was instead a human hero, one drafted to fight in the Trojan war. When Hercules died, Philoctetes was the only one who would light his funeral pyre, and so gained the favour of the newly deified Hercules. In recompense he was gifted Hercules’ own bow, and a quiver of poisoned arrows. It is therefore unlikely that the Philoctetes of myth, and the Phil of ‘Hercules’ were intended to be the same person – the only thing they have in common is the name.
In the myths, Hercules was actually trained by Chiron, a centaur who was widely known for his superior wisdom and intelligence.
The Godly Son of Zeus
In Disney’s ‘Hercules’, Hercules is born on Mount Olympus, the son of the king and queen of the gods – Zeus and Hera. Hades, bitter at being consigned to the Underworld, and learning that the child may threaten his plans to depose the gods, sends his minions to kidnap the child. Hercules is fed a concoction that turns him from deity into mortal, however a drop of the potion is spilt and so a portion of Hercules divinity – his inhuman strength – remains.
In the original myth, while Hercules was certainly the son of Zeus, he was not the son of Hera, and he was not born a god. Instead, he was conceived of an affair between Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene. As a half-god, Hercules did still have abilities that far exceeded those of a human, and it is said that, even as an infant, he was strong enough to strangle two snakes that crept into his cradle! In ‘Hercules’ the newly mortal Hercules does much the same thing – defeating Panic and Pain (the minions of Hades) when they take the form of serpents in order to kill him.
Enemy to Hades
The god of the dead, presiding over the joyless halls of the underworld and commonly incorrectly associated with the Devil, or hell, it is easy to see why Hades makes a tempting choice for antagonist. And, it must be said, that Disney pull off the sinister Lord of the Dead very well, giving the god flaming hair and pallid, grey skin. Between that and his behind-the-scenes manipulations he comes across as very sinister, and very evil.
The issue is, of course, that the Hades of Greek myth was neither of these things. In fact, Hades was known as one of the more, if not benevolent, then certainly neutral Greek gods. In fact, it was Zeus, and Poseidon who had a reputation for fickle anger, and who it would be wise not to insult (The rather disturbing origins of the Minotaur being testament to this).
The main antagonist of the Hercules myths is, instead, Hera.
Far from the loving mother that she is portrayed as in the film, the Hera of Greek myth was bitterly jealous of her husband’s affairs. This usually resulted in her attacking, cursing, or attempting to murder his lovers and their offspring, and Hercules was no exception to this. It was Hera who sent the snakes that Hercules strangled in the cradle, and it was Hera who continued to plague Hercules for the rest of his life, eventually culminating in the death of Hercules’ wife and children.
Happy in Love
Disney movies, particularly the animated ones, are very keen on the idea of the ‘one true love’ with many characters falling in love at first sight, or over the course of a song. ‘Hercules’ is no exception to this. On his very first day out, having spent the past several years training with only a satyr and a flying horse for company, Hercules meets the beautiful Megara and instantly falls head over heels. Sadly, Meg is working for his enemy, Hades having traded her service in exchange for the life of a previous boyfriend.
Realising that she has fallen in love with Hercules, Meg choses to save his life, dying herself in the process. A distraught Hercules (in a move taken straight from Orpheus’ playbook) descends to the Underworld to save her life. This act of heroism returns Hercules to his rightful godhood but in the film, Hercules choses to remain mortal so that he can be with Meg, his true love.
As seems to be a running theme, the original mythology is nowhere near so happy. Hercules did meet and marry Megara (the first of four women that he would marry) and they had a number of children – legends ranging from two to eight – before things ended rather badly. Hera struck Hercules with a temporary madness, causing him to see his wife and children as enemies, and slaughter them. When he was returned to himself, Hercules was distraught at what he had done and went to Apollo, begging to be punished for his crimes. In response Apollo charged him with completing twelve challenges, and thus the most famous of his legends – The Twelve Labours of Hercules were born.
Fortunately for the Megara of the Disney version, it seems that she is saved from this terrible fate. The Twelve Labours happen simultaneously to their love story – Hercules kills the Hydra early on in the film and completes several of the other challenges (defeating the Erymanthian Boar, Nemean Lion and Stymphalion Birds) in the background of the Muses’ ‘Zero to Hero’ song.
With a box office of $252.7 million and rumours of a live-action remake in the works, it is clear that Disney’s ‘Hercules’ has not suffered from this deviation from the myths. With so much violence, adultery, manslaughter and attempted (or in some cases successful) child murder it is easy to understand why Disney would have wanted to sanitise the myth for their young audience. It is even understandable that they changed the villain from Hera to Hades. A wise-cracking Lord of the Dead is a much more clear-cut villain for children to understand than a goddess of marriage and motherhood (even if the wicked stepmother is a trope that Disney applies with some glee).
Still, regardless of the valid reasons for these changes, there is no denying that the Disney movie ‘Hercules’ is a far cry from the myths that inspired it. In fact, the majority of the story itself is entirely new, and is entirely changed from the myths that the Ancient Greeks and Romans would have been familiar with. And that’s the gospel truth.