Tuesday, May 15, 2007

300: It ain't great history, but it's good fantasy (remix)

I posted this once already, but I did it without additions, and there was a bunch of trouble with the footnotes I tried to insert, so I've returned to MLA formatting, as well as inserted some more information.

A while back I promised I wouldn't do anymore serialized academic papers, but this one just begged a blow-by-blow.

Uri Margolin, my World Literature professor from last semester called Politically Correct speech the Inquisition without Religion, or the Inquisition without torture, or something to that effect. He compared it to the Inquisition, effectively saying that Politically Correct speech was stripping literature of everything that made it fun. All the violence, sex and naughty bits censored for the civilized, cultured academic. No Lysistrata with its proliferation of erect penises, no Illiad with gory battle scene after battle scene. I missed Uri a lot this semester.

This past semester I was enlightened by Said's Orientalism and a host of Donna Haraway's new age feminist manifestos (and for the record, I really enjoyed her Companion Species Manifesto), as well as a barrage of discussions about how the West can't represent the East (which effectively means no writing about any culture that isn't your own...Fennimore Cooper is a bad bad man by the standards of this course), and somewhere during a discussion about "representing the other" I finally snapped. In true Perschon style (I am third generation shit disturber) I decided to find a Politically Incorrect topic for my final paper.

When I presented my abstract, there was a disagreement over what my prof deemed the oversimplification of the material I was dealing with, and made a suggestion for a different approach, to which I replied, "No." Saying "No" became the theme of the paper, for better or for worse. I loved writing it, even though I'm not too sure about the ultimate quality of the work. Judge for yourselves. I'll post it all in serial, but I think each part stands of its own. The text you read here is the Director's Cut of the paper. It's the version with all the witticisms, rants, and musings that had no place in an academic paper. Hope you enjoy it, and if you can't agree with it, you will have by rejecting my thesis taken your own stand, said "No", or as the David Whyte would say, "zero."

Introduction – the controversy and the case for 300 as heroic fiction

Both the New York Times’ A.O. Scott and Donna Stevens at the online magazine Slate have conflated the highly stylized action film 300 (which is an adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel recounting the events of the Battle of Thermopylae) with the current conflict in Iraq. Further, “Javad Shamqadri, art advisor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told Fars news agency that the film was an insult to Persian culture and in line with the American "psychological war" against Iran” (jurnalo.com). Dr. Hamed Vahdati Nasab, an archeologist at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta, drafted a petition, “seeking an apology from Warner Bros., the studio behind 300” (Iranian.com). Nasab responded to “numerous claims pointing out that this movie is in a science fiction genre” by stating that the film cannot be called fiction when it “shows the actual events, places, and characters with their real names”. Vic Thiessen of the Canadian Mennonite stated that he felt the film was both "a work of art...one of the most visually stunning films ever made" and "a very dangerous film indeed" (10).

Yet in its opening weekend 300 reportedly made 70 million dollars (rottentomatoes.com), making it the first official blockbuster of 2007, and the largest opening box-office draw for a March release. Why is a film like 300 so popular given the current political situation in the Middle East? Is it tenable for someone concerned with conflict or racial issues to enjoy or find meaning or value in such a work? And is there anything valuable to be taken from such testosterone laden fantasies? Thiessen states that he "heard from young male Mennonites in North America (aged 18 to 28) that 300 is extremely popular--even in Mennonite academic settings--for this particular demographic" (10). Unlike Thiessen, I want to explore why this film is attractive to people whose religious beliefs are extremely pacifist, not simply to write the film off as dangerous; saying 300 is not good Mennonite fare is a no-brainer. Publishing an article about why it is seems like redundancy. Instead, like David Kahane at the National Review, I’m beginning to wonder “if a movie that has no stars, the look and feel of a video game, and the moral code of the U.S.M.C. might have something to say, even to audiences in New York and L.A.”, and perhaps to people who would never choose to actualize their resistance in the way Leonidas and his 300 do.

It isn’t good history, but it might be great fantasy

It’s interesting to note the detractors’ usage of language to critique the film. Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post states that the film “betrays its comic book origins”, and that the use of slow motion is overdone “until it becomes comic” (C01) Hunter also adroitly notices that the action moves along “for reasons not historical but purely dramatic” (C01). Wesley Morris notes that “nothing seems approachably real. Even the blood is digital” (web). Gary Leupp begins his invective by informing his reader that he always takes in “the Hollywood period dramas set in ancient Greece or Rome” (counterpunch.org) and then launches into a lengthy diatribe regarding the current political outrage surrounding the film before returning to comparisons between Herodotus’ Histories and 300 the film. He states that Leonides is “cartoonish”. As with most of the critic’s historical-aesthetic complaints, the source of Leupp's problem with the film is that he assumed he was going to a historical war film.

The critics have it. And don’t have it. The animosity towards the picture (and by extension the graphic novel) may simply stem from a misappropriation of genre. Frank Miller’s 300 is not a work of historical fiction, nor is its film adaptation. As Greek critic Panayiotis Timoyiannakis[1] commented that “It's an adaptation of a comic to the big screen, and that's only how it should be judged” (iht.com). Frank Miller has stated in an interview that the film is based as much on Rudolph Mate’s 1962 film The 300 Spartans and that as an artist and writer he took “an awful lot of liberty with everything…if you want reality, watch a documentary” (chasingthefrog.com). Like Robert Rodriguez’s film adaptation of Miller’s Sin City, Zakk Snyder's goal was to create dynamic, moving versions of the graphic novel’s panels.

It could be assumed that that term ‘comic’ in reference to comic book, is a genre of its own, but I would argue that the graphic novel is a medium of many genres in the same way film is. But Miller’s graphic novel is not a comic book in the traditional sense; the Spartans are not super or preternaturally strong, as in the case of Superman or Spiderman. They are akin to Homeric heroes, who are “normal human beings cast on a very large scale” (Hainsworth 27). Even when dealing with conventional superheroes such as Batman, the hero is ultimately human. A look through Miller’s works reveals that “In Miller’s world, only humans can be superheroes, and Leonidas is one of those beings” (Blackmore 327).

While at the very least, 300 is obviously fiction, “a story about stories...about the uses of myth, about the way different narrators in different times interpret the same fable for very different purposes; it is about the way we as readers choose to interpret texts now” (Blackmore 326), it is arguably a work of a very specific form of fantasy fiction, namely heroic fantasy. In an interview by Dan Vergano, Paul Carledge, author of Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World comments that while the film is rooted in history, “What the movie adds in is a slew of fantasy fiction, including scary monsters”. It was likely fantasy, not science fiction Dr. Nasab meant to reference when he made his statement that the film cannot be seen as a form of fiction, confusing (as many who are unfamiliar with the difference between these genres do) science fiction with fantasy. Nasab argues that a work using historical events and personages cannot be construed as a work of fiction; yet this is simply not the case, given the existence of both historical fiction, and its more fictional science fiction counterpart, the alternate history[2].

Heroic fantasy is neither traditional nor alternate history; though someone might wish to include Robert Howard’s Conan series as alternate history[3], given that it takes place in a prehistoric Europe. In the case of the Hyborian world, the secondary world of the narrative is “made familiar through the author’s use of historical cultures from Earth to lend a degree of reality for the reader, a sense of understanding, and a sense of place” (Stypczynski 453). C.N. Manlove includes this sense of something slightly familiar in his definition of fantasy literature: “A fiction evoking wonder and containing a substantial and irreducible element of supernatural or impossible worlds, beings or objects with which the mortal characters in the story or the readers become on at least partly familiar terms…“…the concern of fantasy is not with the minutely faithful record for the sake of fidelity to fact, but with the strange individuality that comes from making things strange and luminous with independent life in a fantastic setting” (iv).

Heroic fantasy, unlike mythopoetic fantasy or “high fantasy: as it will be referred to for the remainder of this paper, does not involve “a larger supernatural conflict” (Thompson 114) as many assume fantasy must be, based upon the domination of popular understandings of the fantasy genre by works such as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. In Manlove’s terms, the supernatural elements are toned down. Heroic fantasy is more concerned with “the extent to which the protagonists are prepared to follow the standards of conduct that they hold dear” (Thompson 114). In this, the genre is thoroughly modern, pitting the strength and ability of the individual against their conflict, with their allegiances to personal standards or loyalties; contrary to accusations which type heroic literature as “fascist” (Alpers in Frederickss 104), sword-and-sorcery “offers highly personal philosophies and individualistic points of view and tries to make its readers more exuberant, more intense about life in our real world of the present” (Fredericks 120).

[1] The lone voice of Greek support amidst a group of critics who were equally unimpressed with the presentation of Greece’s ancient battles such as Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy and Oliver Stone’s Alexander. It is interesting to note that the Iranian government was nonplussed by the depiction of Persian defeat in Alexander as well. It would seems neither ancestral side of the Thermopylae event likes the way America portrays their past, however mythic that past might be. One wonders whether the recent cinematic treatment of Xerxes as Fabio-clone in One Night With the King has met with Persian/Iranian approval.

[2] Despite the precedent of a general lack of academic interest, the genre of alternate history has garnered a good deal of attention recently as a popular phenomenon. Gavriel Rosenfeld cites the decentralization of political ideology in the West, the emergence of postmodernism, recent scientific trends such as chaos theory and evolutionary biology, the advent of cyberspace and virtual reality, the “speculative sensibility” of pop culture (where narratives do not simply mirror reality, but “explore alternatives to it”) and the impact of the entertainment revolution on the popular presentation of history as contributing factors to this popularity (8-10). One might even be tempted to say that since “historical representation is dependent in practice on the representability of events and not on their reality as such” (Ryan 3) then all histories could be considered alternate histories. As Mary Gentle observes, we do not recover the past, but represent it using “a collection of fallible memories, inconvenient documents, disconcerting new facts, and solemn cultural bedtime stories” (Turtledove, Stirling, Gentle and Rigney 233). Herodotus himself engaged in a form of alternate history by speculation concerning the “possible consequences of the Persians defeating the Greeks at Marathon in the year 490 B.C.E., while the Roman historian Livy wondered how the Roman empire would have fared against the armies of Alexander the Great” (Rosenfeld 5).

[3] In regards to writing his Conan novels, Howard said, “There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as rewriting history in the guise of fiction” (Knight 118).


Associated Press. “Greek critics lash Hollywood’s ancient epic ‘300’.” International Herald Tribune March 8, 2007.

Blackmore, Tim. “300 and Two: Frank Miller and Daniel Ford Interpret Herodotus’ Thermopylae Myth” International Journal of Comic Art. 6. (2004): 327.

Fredericks, Casey. The Future of Eternity: Mythologies of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982, 104.

Hainsworth, J.B. “Ancient Greek” Traditions of Heroic and Epic Poetry: Volume One-The Traditions. Ed. A.T. Hatto. London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, 1980. 27.

Herron, Don, Ed. The Dark Barbarian: The Writings of Robert E. Howard: A Critical Anthology. Gilette: Wildside Press, 1984.

Hunter, Stephen. “’300’: A Losing Battle in More Ways than 1” Washington Post. Friday, March 9, 2007. C01.

Kahane, David. “300 Shocker: Hollywood takes a detour to reality.” National Review Online April 2007.

Knight, George. “Robert E. Howard: Hard-boiled Heroic Fantasist” Herron 117-134

Leupp, Gary. “300 vs. Iran (and Herodotus).” Counterpunch. March 31-April 1 2007.

Manlove, C.N. The Impulse of Fantasy Literature. London: Macmillan, 1983, iv.

Morris, Welsey. “300 Movie Review: Sweating it Out at the Hot Gates.” The Boston Globe March 9, 2007 - April 2007.

Nasab, Hamed Vahdati. “Bad History, worse timing” Iranian.com, April 2007.

Rosenthal, Michael, “What was Postmodernism?” Socialist Review, 22. (1992): 83-105.

Stypczynkski, Brent. “No Roads Lead to Rome: Alternate History and Secondary Worlds.” Extrapolation. 46, (2005) 453.

Thompson, Raymond H. The Return From Avalon: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in Modern Fiction. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985, 114.

Turtledove, Harry, S.M. Stirling, Mary Gentle, and Walter Jon Williams. Worlds That Weren’t New York: ROC, 2003, 233


  1. Anonymous11:09 PM

    well its great that you managed to classify the film as heroic fantasy but you neglect several major points. I dont want to bother with a long winded point, but the films sexism, homophobia,senseless violence, etc etc cannot be ignored. I can't think of a single good thing that could come out of something so racist and ethnocentric. There is no other interpretation here. This is hollywood right wing propaganda. Nothing more. Any other interpretation is naive. I dont even see how your title has any meaning either. Its not only horrible fantasy the story is complete garbage. If you want senseless violence then I guess this is a great movie for you, but for those of us with a brain and have actual training in literature then your entire article should be focused on classifying this as fantasy and nothing else.

  2. Anonymous11:15 PM

    I just read the footnotes and your basic argument is that the film is fantasy and fiction. Therefore whatever it is portraying can be dismissed because it is "alternate history". Well thats great and all but it doesnt take into account people who are too ignorant to seperate fact and fiction. It also does not seperate fiction and how to correctly interpret propaganda when it is presented to the viewer.

    Oh and your hints at racism are clearly noted in your footnote.. We get it you don't like Iran. I am just glad my university was taught from a open minded liberal viewpoint rather than teaching students how to excuse their behavior and not hold people accountable for their actions.

  3. Thanks for your vigorous interaction with the piece Anonymous. I hardly think my statements in my footnotes are clear indications of racism. I've got nothing against Iran. I've got something against people seeing a film as B-grade as 300 as anything more than beefcake fantasy. And to say that the film doesn't make that distinction...well, I think the visuals speak louder than words. Once again, for everyone who missed it the first time around...the movie is based on A GRAPHIC NOVEL, not Herodotus' accounts. That alone tells us we're not dealing with accurate historical documentation.

  4. Anonymous7:57 AM

    Interesting view, but as one of the people cited, I take issue with your second footnote. Alternate histories have been fairly widely discussed in academic discourse. See Karen Hellekson's "The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time" as a good starting point that leads to numerous other authors. Also check out the back issue list of articles in the journals Extrapolation, Science Fiction Studies, and the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. Also, as someone who has used the article himself, check the spelling on "Stypczynski".

  5. Thanks for the spelling correction Taltos. And while I have read Hellekson, and written on Alternate History itself (posted somewhere else at this very same blog) I'd hardly call the academic community's work on Alternate History extensive. So...which one of the people are you? I couldn't divine it from visiting your blog...

  6. And while I'm looking at these comments, I'd just like to rebut anonymous (even though they'll never read this) by saying I HAVE actual training in literature.

  7. Anonymous4:45 PM

    Granted, it might not be extensive, but there's certainly not a lack. Admittedly, most of it's focused on Turtldove's Civil War/WWII novels lately. On the other hand, I could also be thinking about conference papers (lots of those in SFRA and the Kalamazoo, MI medieval conference, possibly ICFA but I haven't attended that one). I'll refrain on the ID, partially because I'm trying to keep my online and offline "personae" somewhat divorced from each other. :)