The recent release of the newest film Hercules, starring Dwayne Johnson, is sure to be a reminder to audiences that the legendary myth was practically made to be adapted for movies. Some could regard the mighty son of Zeus as the world’s first superhero. After all, Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster took some inspiration from the Greek mythology legend in order to create the Man of Steel. Since the days of the Roman Empire, Hercules has been the most famous character in mythology and has gained pop culture fame through his incarnations in television and film.
According to the Greek mythology stories, the famous strongman was conceived when the god Zeus, ruler of all the gods, fell in love with a mortal woman in Greece named Alcmene. When her husband was away, Zeus and Alcmene had a night of passion and as a result, she got pregnant. When Zeus’ wife Hera, queen of the gods, found out that her husband had another affair she got angry and attempted to prevent the infant from being born. Her attempt failed and when the baby boy was born, Alcmene gave him the name of Heracles, which translates into “glorious gift of Hera” in Greek, and this made Hera even more frustrated.
Hera’s next attempt at killing the baby was sending down two snakes to kill him in his sleep. Little did she know that Heracles had gained the strength of a god when he was born. When the snakes attacked, little Heracles snatched each one and killed them with his bare hands. As he grew older, his strength increased. He would become stronger than any man and any god. Hera knew that she wanted to get back at Zeus for his infidelity to her, so she vowed to make the rest of Heracles’ life a life of misery.
When Heracles became a man, he became a warrior and fought many battles. He had also married a woman named Megara and would have two children with her. When it all seemed that things were looking up for the mighty warrior, Hera put that to an end. She put Heracles into a state of insanity and in his delusions, his own children and wife appeared to be horrid creatures. Through his deranged madness, Heracles killed his family. When he returned to sanity he had seen what he had done, he turned to the god Apollo to help him rid his hands of his family’s blood.
Apollo told Heracles that in order to do so, he would have to perform ten heroic labors in the city of Tiyrns. Tiyrns was ruled by the ruthless king named Eurystheus, and Heracles knew that he would make things hard on him. Eurystheus did so indeed, by giving Heracles the most impossible ten, then later twelve labors ever. He did this intentionally because he believed that Heracles would simply be killed and he would never have to see him again.
The first and most famous of these labors was to go hunt and bring back the skin of the Nimean lion. No man on earth was ever able to perform this task. For one reason was that the lion was much larger than any ordinary lion. In addition, the lion’s skin could not be pierced by sharp objects. When Heracles faced the lion, he trapped him inside a cave and using only his arms grabbed the lion by the throat and choked him to death. The very skin of the lion would become his cloak, with the lion’s head as a hood.
Every impossible labor that Eurystheus gave to Heracles was performed. Each time he returned, the once ruthless king grew frightened of him. In addition to completing the twelve labors and becoming a great hero in Greece, Heracles also fulfilled Apollo’s prophecy that he would grow into an immortal and instead of dying as a man, he would become a god.
In later years, the legend of Heracles would become famous. The Romans worshipped him as a hero and a mentor, and in their translation he was called Hercules, and that name stuck for many years later. That name got so famous that it is the name used in the present.
The story of Hercules became so popular that the myth would soon be made for a great deal of movies. Starting in 1958 with the world’s first film of the Greek hero starring bodybuilder Steve Reeves. That very film inspired a great handful of future bodybuilders, including a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. It inspired him so much that he even had the chance to portray the legend in the 1970 cult classic Hercules in New York. In the plot of the feature, Hercules is sent down to present day New York City where he becomes a bodybuilder and saves the day.
In 1983, another famous bodybuilder got the chance to play the legendary hero, former Incredible Hulk star Lou Ferrigno. Both of these films with the bodybuilders were low-budget and were not real big box office successes.
For Hercules to regain his fame in movies, he would have to gain it through television first. In January of 1995, television audiences got to see the legend’s weekly adventures in the series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys starring Kevin Sorbo. Though the show took place in the Ancient Greek time period, its use of modern dialogue and comedy made it a success. The series ran until November of 1999, but Sorbo did get to reprise the role in several made for television films. The show was one the most watched programs in the 1990s and today is available on DVD and Netflix, in addition to the reruns being played on the Hub and Encore networks.
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys lead to two spin-off shows, Xena: Warrior Princess and Young Hercules. The Young Hercules series, starring a then unknown Ryan Gosling, was the telling of Kevin Sorbo’s character when he was a teenager and slowly growing into the legendary hero. The series ran for only forty-nine episodes and since then has been somewhat forgotten by audiences.
The year of 1997 saw the mythological hero’s return to the big screen. This time in an animated musical from Walt Disney Pictures. In Disney’s Hercules, the Greek hero is born on Mount Olympus, Zeus’ kingdom in the sky and where most of the gods live. As a baby, he gets snatched away and is flown down to earth by the evil god Hades, ruler of the underworld. On earth, he is stripped of his immortality, with the exception of his strength. When Hercules grows up, he learns from Zeus that he must prove himself a true hero in order to rejoin the gods. The ambitious strongman, voiced by actor Tate Donovan, journeys out to be trained as a hero by Philoctetes, voiced by Danny DeVito. He then defeats the greedy Hades and becomes the great hero of Greece.
Though the Disney version does not accurately use the facts of the mythology story, the film was a success and has become one of Disney’s classic animated tales. It even made the song titled Go the Distance become a Disney standard as well. Young children looked to Hercules as a superhero and the animated look of him is now one of the more famous looks.
The year of 2014 is certain to be the year for the legendary hero. Earlier in the year, the film titled The Legend of Hercules starring Kellan Lutz was released. Though it was a box office failure, it shows that the strongman is still good enough for Hollywood to make more movies about him. In the latest film, the role is being taken on by Dwayne Johnson, and there has been great anticipation for his performance. The results of the film’s opening weekend are yet to come. Call him a man, call him a myth, there is no denying that the story of Hercules was made to be adapted for movies.
By Andrew Cerecedes