I’m a big fan of mythologies, most of them anyways, from the twelve labours of Heracles to that time Susano-o ended on Amaterasu’s bad side. I love reading of these ancient tales, part folklore and part religion. But if there’s one thing about them that frustrates me as a storyteller is how screenwriters portray them on TV and Film.
Take any god from any pantheon and the highest likelihood is that they’ll show up in a TV series or film with invulnerability—which makes some sense—and telekinesis and/or telepathy. Yes, every god in existence is essentially a Jedi Knight. I understand that budgets can limit what you can do with a god, what you can show of their true nature, but boxing them all into the same subset of powers robs these divine beings of what makes them truly interesting—and which by virtue of being the opposite, makes the Judeo-Christian god extremely boring for me—they represent specific elements of nature and our world.
Gods in ancient religions have a purpose, often a very specific one. Amaterasu is the Sun Goddess and Tsukiyomi is the moon, that’s it. Anubis is the god of mummies and embalming—and at one point was the lord of the underworld. Thor is the god of Thunder. Poseidon is the lord of the seas and Aeolus the god of winds.
Because of this, their representation in media should be different. Zeus shouldn’t have the same powers as his brothers, nor should you expect to see Amaterasu flinging heroes about like she’s Darth Vader. But this is exactly how we see them in every series out them—the same case could be argued for Witches, who seem to take another page out of the Jedi cookbook—and part of it is budgetary reasons, but another is laziness.
By placing all gods under the same power-scheme, writers can standardise their world, add neat little boxes where they all fit in. If you want a specific example, take Supernatural. It’s a series that has seen anything from Angels and Demons to ancient evil gods, and what are their special powers? Throwing people about, reading their minds. Sure, they get some extra bits as the plot requires, but even when multiple ‘gods’ appear on screen, they keep them in that little box. And that’s without even mentioning what I like to call Jude-Christian pandering, where Demons and Angels out-class and overpower even the most ancient of “pagan” entities. But that’s a topic for another day.
On the budget side of things, the mistake they make is thinking that to properly represent a god on-screen they have to go big and weird. Now, I’m a big fan of big and weird, but subtlety is often a viable if not the best choice possible. As I said, these gods represent a part of nature and so have complete mastery of it. So you don’t need Zeus flinging lightning bolts like it was Gwyn from Dark Souls, nor do you need a giant Izanagi using the heavenly spear to form new islands. In fact, if you study mythology you’ll notice that the God’s influence in most of the stories is subtle. Zeus often shows himself in other shapes—often to rape women, but that’s another story entirely—Thor mostly just swings a big hammer at people, most of what Ares does is inspire hate and get people fighting, his role as the God of War, and the biggest display of power Poseidon ever had was in the Odyssey, making sure the seas would never take Odysseus to his home of Ithaca. Hell, the only thing Heimdallr—yes, that ‘r’ is not a typo—does is drink beer and keep a lookout for the signs of Ragnarok. Talk about a cushy (and easy to portray) gig!
To be honest, it’s the monsters in these mythologies that have the most overt displays of power, from the Hydra and Chimera to the Phoenix. They’re the budget-eaters. Gods on the other hand just needed to exert their influence a little bit and they could throw mortal lives into disarray.
There’s a reason people offered them things to keep them happy, you know, because they had a direct impact on their daily lives. It’s not because they moved things with their minds, but because an angry Demeter meant terrible crops, a furious Zeus would mean thunderstorms or draught. If you crossed the gods of the underworld, you’d be putting coins on someone you cared, as Thanatos would bring his deathly touch to them and you hoped they made it across safely on Charon’s barge. Egyptians went to extreme lengths to ensure that when they met Osiris in the afterlife, their souls would weigh less than the Ma’at feather.
I’m a big believer in “less is more” to show things on TV and film. Even with all the advances we have, there are many cases where CGI looks as bad as it did in the early 90s, and it often ruins whatever immersion the audience had. It’s because gods were often subtle in their mythologies that you don’t need to box them into the tiny Jedi box, but instead apply the “less is more” principle. Hint a lot, show very little. Use shadows and practical effects more. Take Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain, it does a lot more with its creepy makeup than it does with the crazy CGI projectile proboscis the vampires have. You’re telling me you can’t show the Olympian Pantheon do their thing with similar techniques?
I love mythologies, but I’m tired of seeing ancient gods and beings misrepresented in audiovisual media. It saddens me that the closest we’ll ever see to a proper Thor on-screen is Marvel’s version of the character—who funnily enough is pretty close in that he just swings a big hammer at people. The Percy Jackson films did horrible things with the Olympian gods, and most TV series ignore their stories, origins and most importantly, purpose, making them all stock deities with the same overall abilities.
Is a proper showing of Zeus too much to ask for, even if it’s not politically correct? Can’t I have Persephone and Hades show up and tells us of their complicated love life and the tension with the mother in law? Can’t I see Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl’s brotherly enmity on TV and the havoc it plays on mortals?
It’s not too much to ask, it really isn’t. Screenwriters and producers just have to be smarter about their use of these beings and realise they don’t have to blow the budget or dumb gods down to save money.
Much like their followers believed, treat a god right and he’ll help you out. In this case, portray them properly and they’ll make your stories even better.
What’s the worst representation you’ve ever seen of a god on TV or Film? And no, the film Gods of Egypt doesn’t count. It’s too easy!