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Homer’s The Odyssey, by its very nature, does not fit especially well into movie format. For one, it is an episodic story, with shifts in stakes and tones fluctuating every other scene. It’s also just a long, rambling, barely coherent thing; the sheer quantity of things that happen and characters who pop in and out of the story, is kind of daunting. It requires a lot of context, too: The Odyssey is a sequel to another famous epic, The Iliad.
Nonetheless, I’m grateful for having faithful adaptation, directed and scripted by Andrei Konchalovsky. I read The Odyssey as a freshman, and seeing the longwinded stories play out on screen would have really helped me engage with the text and better understand and appreciate it. In 1997, an adaptation of The Odyssey debuted on NBC in two two-hour broadcasts. Nowadays, it’s common to see it edited together into a single three-hour feature. That’s how I watched it and how you can find it on YouTube.
This high-budget TV film is extremely faithful. It includes renditions of nearly all of the story’s famous incidents. The biggest omission is the call of the sirens, but nearly everything else you remember from high school is here.
There’s still the hurdle of The Odyssey being a sequel with preexisting characters and plot threads. This adaptations handles it by opening with a rushed, 30-minute version of The Iliad. This section is disjointed, with characters introduced and killed off in the span of two scenes and a ten-year time jump that happens in the blink of an eye. However, it does allow us to see the most famous image created by Homer: the Trojan horse invasion.
I’ll assume you know the basics of The Odyssey; if you don’t, I’m not sure you’ll get as much out of the film anyways. War hero and king Odysseus must find his way back to his home island of Ithaca where his aimless teenaged son and lonely wife hold off suitors to the queen and the throne. Basically everything goes wrong, and it takes upwards of 10 years just to sail back home. Odysseus battles some monsters and bones some goddesses.
Experiencing The Odyssey for the first time in 20 years, I was really struck by just how petty and annoying the immortals are. The worst has got to be Poseidon, who curses Odysseus to a decade of misery for a single moment of well-earned celebration and vanity following the end of a war. But essentially every god, nymph, or monster Odysseus and his crew crosses path with is nursing some grievance against someone or another, and Odysseus is a pawn or a victim of crossfire.
The production values and special effects are quite good for a TV movie. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop provides the special effects for the mythological beasts, the most memorable of which is the cyclops (though his design doesn’t hold a candle to the schlubby cyclops in the animated Hercules). The cyclops’ island also happens to be the most dramatically rich episode in the story and I would definitely call it a highlight. It happens near the start of the story, and the movie never quite reaches that level again, though it gets close a few times.
It’s hard to hold anything about the pace or structure against the adaptation when its modus operandi is to be as faithful as possible to an ancient epic. However, the long stretches of Odysseus getting stuck somewhere and sleeping with a beautiful immortal just waiting for some other god to intervene really do stand out as dramatically flat.
The movie is well-cast overall, with actor Armand Assante providing a sturdy performance as Odysseus. Given that he’s less of a household name than many of the supporting cast, I was impressed and surprised I hadn’t seen him in anything else. The supporting ensemble is good too, although certain moments feel stagy and overwrought: Greta Scacchi as Queen Penelope, in particular, is a bit of a rollercoaster, with some great moments and also some horrible ones. But it’s hard to hold that against her or any cast member for such an archaic story. The most memorable supporting performances are Miss America Vanessa Williams giving scorching take as Calypso, Isabella Rossellini bringing some acting chops and star power as Athena, and Frederick Stuart playing Hermes as a campy gay man.
The Odyssey is professional and well-constructed, but is still a TV movie with those built-in limitations. There are moments of cheapness and it’s crafted with workmanship, not artistic vision. The film noticeably turns the camera away from moments of violence and action in a way — presumably both to reduce the budget and appease the network censors — that is quite distracting. But ultimately this take on The Odyssey holds together as an entertaining and consistent whole quite well. The final chapter, where Odysseus returns home and reunites with Penelope, is a legitimately satisfying moment, and I never felt too weighed down by the length. I’m not sure I’d recommend it in a vacuum, but as a loyal adaptation working within a TV movie framework, I quite like it.