Hercules – Was the Movie really based on the Comic?

We finally caught Hercules, the second movie this year about the Greek demi-god, starring Dwayne Johnson as Hercules. This movie was supposed to be based on the comic Hercules: The Thracian Wars by Steve Moore, so I read that too, after seeing the movie. Definitely an interesting comparison.

So this is my LitFlix for Hercules, only a few months late. As a quick review, I thought the movie was pretty good. It exists in the genre of movies trying to put the real spin on legends, so similar to a movie like King Arthur. They play with the idea of Hercules not actually being a demi-god, but that he and his group of companions lean into the living legends of him and use them to their advantage, both to strike fear in their enemies and to get jobs as mercenaries. And then action ensues, but there’s also interpersonal dynamics with Hercules and his team of heroes, and a better plot than just action-for-action’s-sake.

I will add that this is not the movie that the trailers promised, as it is not the movie about Hercules completing the 12 trials. It’s not a monster movie, it’s not Hercules versus monsters nor Hercules versus armies. Pushing these scenes in the advertising likely hurt them in theaters, as people probably showed up expecting to see a very different movie! So some spoilers ahead, but hopefully spoilers that might actually make you interested to see this movie.

Hercules – the Movie

So as I mentioned in the intro, the movie was a movie about Hercules and his band of friends, many of whose names I remembered from the Hercules TV show, which is probably where I and many in my generation know the character from. They travel around as a band of mercenaries, having left Greece under questionable circumstances.

The movie opens with a few scenes of Hercules completing the 12 trials, so most of the scenes from the trailer are boom-bam, done in the first few minutes of the movie.

Being Greek, they bring with them the knowledge of the great civilization there, so they are hired on to teach the army of King Cotys in Thrace. Well, the second army. Most of the soldiers have already died, fighting the rebel Rhesus. What’s left are the husbands, the farmers, the common men, who know nothing of fighting. So Hercules and his friends arm and train them to fight as a Greek Phalanx.

I really liked a lot of the war gaming feel of the movie, the unit combat sort of stuff, the concern for flanks, the spearmen versus horsemen, chariots. This was all pretty great, so if you like that sort of stuff, you’ll probably get a kick out of this movie. Definitely not what I was expecting to see in the movie!

Anyway, Cotys was out to take over all of Thrace, and our heroes unwittingly helped him do it! Plot goes on, double and triple crossing, mysteries are revealed, and our heroes win out the day on the moral high ground.

All-in-all, I liked this movie. It may have to do with having low expectations for it. It may have to do with not getting the movie that was promised – I got a better one instead. It may also have to do with not having read the comic first, which would have created a whole different expectation – although actually, if I had read the comic first, I might have liked the movie even more

Hercules – The Thracian Wars

From the very start, I figured out there was going to be a very different tone reading Hercules: The Thracian Wars, as opposed to the movie. The comic is violent and bloody, and our heroes do not hold nearly the same moral high ground.

The opening is much the same, with Hercules having completed the 12 trials in the past, and moving on from there. He and his friends – the same group of them – show up to help King Cotys. Okay, okay, so far, so good. Things quickly go badly with Cotys, however, and Hercules & Co. end up killing him and everyone else at the welcome banquet: man, woman, and child.

They step outside to find that the real King Cotys is there with his army, and that it had been a fake setup inside of Cotys’ political rivals. It was also a test of the mercenaries’ skills and ruthlessness, and it knocks the moral legs out from under them.

I felt like you could tell very quickly in the comic that Cotys was out for power, and using Hercules and his friends to take over Thrace. However, the heroes don’t have enough of a problem with this to do more than grumble about it.

They train the army, go on a bloody conquering spree, and return. Having taken Thrace, Cotys wants to follow up with Greece, so Hercules & Co. proceed to break free, then double back and kill Cotys and his army. Then Rhesus shows up, and we find out he’s the champion of the people, and he takes over.

Wow, okay, very different experience.

Hercules – The Man, The Myth, The Legend… and the Differences

I think more than anything, the difference between the two is that every single character or group of characters is made more sympathetic in the movie. The general frame of the story is the same, the characters are the same, but it’s all made more noble somehow in the movie.

Here’s my main observations to this effect:

  • Hercules and his friends don’t massacre innocents. The whole scene at the beginning in the comic is cut from the movie. Throughout the movie, we keep finding out about how good they are, not how bad. Including Hercules himself, accused of killing his family.
  • For instance, the female warrior, Atalanta, doesn’t have a death wish in the movie.
  • For instance, the berserker, Tydeus, is not a cannibal in the movie. In fact, for good measure, they make him unspeaking – a wild man who has pledged his loyalty to Hercules.
  • The soldiers in the movie are the farmers and common men. In the comic, they’re ruthless soldiering types, butchers and rapists, who lead a slash-and-burn campaign across Thrace.
  • The general does not order them to slash-and-burn (which in the comics leads to Rhesus rallying and opposing them), instead leading them against Rhesus from the start. Sure, he’s still in opposition to Hercules and his crew, but he’s also just following orders from his king.
  • Speaking of, King Cotys doesn’t sacrifice his political opponents to Hercules, and doesn’t test them and their violence really at all. He’s crafty, sure, and uses them, but it feels much more cunning in the movie. If they hadn’t caught on, they could have left on good terms, I feel like.
  • Cotys’ daughter, Ergenia, is also way more sympathetic in the movie. She has a son, the heir to the throne, that she is concerned about. Sure, her allegiances might be compromised and confused, but in the comic she spies for her father by sleeping with Hercules.
  • Rhesus is maybe the least changed, as he’s still the guy who gets it: who knows Cotys is trying to take over all of Thrace and unite it as one kingdom under his rule. This was the era of city states!

There’s some minor, more nitpicky differences, like when we see fake Centaurs, or who uses chariots or horsemen. But really, the other main difference is that the whole idea that Hercules is not a demi-god was not from the comics. I was not expecting that. I figured that was the piece that made them decide to go with this story, as it seems like such a modern movie convention, and would be something that stood out.

But I guess they had an idea in mind for a movie, then turned to the comic for the names of a bunch of characters and a bit of plot frame. However this screenplay came together, it’s a big departure, and that was all to the good, as it made for a much more palatable story. The comic is a bloody, violent mess, and wasn’t all that fun to read. I did so you don’t have to! I say check out this movie, and skip the comic.

And if you saw this movie (or read the comic!) let me know what you thought in the comments below. And if you changed your mind about seeing it because of this review, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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