Most of you know the tale of the 300 Spartans who stood against the mighty Persian army. And I’m willing to bet that most of you who know that tale know it because of the extremely popular action movie that came out in 2006. The rest of you likely know it because of the graphic novel the film was based on.
This week, we depart from traditional literature to dive into the realm of illustrated storytelling. Comic book legend Frank Miller wrote and drew “300” in 1998, with Lynn Varley doing the coloring. Zack Snyder, coming off his successful remake of horror classic “Dawn of the Dead,” took his visual stylings to the film adaptation. The plot is basic, as an action story should be: Led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), the Spartans make for Thermopylae in a desperate attempt to fend off the advancing Persians led by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who calls himself a god and aims to overtake the entire known world. The Spartans are defeated, but not before flexing their muscles and putting up a valiant effort, enough to make the Persians fear the rest of Greece.
The book and movie are virtually the same, both in look and substance. With his innovative mixing of slow and fast motion within action scenes, Snyder manages to give the movie the same look as the source, accentuating certain moments in the fight that mimics paging through panels of a comic. This concept, which spawned from that of the Wachowski brothers in “The Matrix,” has since been repackaged often in action films that followed. Just about everything is exaggerated, as well, from the size of Xerxes himself (both the novel and movie make him somewhere close to 8 feet tall) to the amount of blood a human being carries.
The pair’s creative license with regards to reality has brought merited criticism. Anachronisms and historical inaccuracies abound in both versions of this story, and Spartan culture is glorified to the point of absurdity at certain points. Certainly, anyone looking for a lesson on Greek history should go elsewhere. In lesser hands, the comics and the movie would both fall flat and be regarded as utterly ridiculous. But the way Miller tells the story — and moreover because of the way Snyder portrays it, going out of his way with blue screens and CGI to create an obviously fantastical world — everything comes together into an epic tale of unequivocal awesomeness. Whenever you hear the book and movie’s numerous famous quotes — “This … is … Sparta!” “Prepare for glory!” “Tonight, we dine in hell!” — can’t help but pump up the adrenaline, and Butler’s commitment to his performance has given those lines a long shelf life.
The book and movie share a lot, but because the graphic novel is fairly short and focuses solely on Leonidas and the 300, the movie added a subplot with a new cast of characters. The Spartan queen Gorgo (played by Lena Headey, who also portrays a queen in the HBO series “Game of Thrones”), who appears in perhaps four panels in the graphic novel, is shown trying to convince the Spartan council to send more troops. Her plot involves another all new character, Theron (Dominic West), who is in the pocket of Xerxes and who serves as her antagonist. This subplot is a needed reprise from the constant battle scenes, and it helps add a true female character into a very male-dominated story. It also helps add more depth to the story; the only characters with well-rounded backgrounds in the original were Leonidas and the hunchback Ephialtes. (To be fair, though, there isn’t really much depth given to the queen or any of the other movie-only characters.)
While Miller basically set all the ground work for Snyder, the movie deserves a lot of credit for what it was able to do visually. The graphic novel had some moments of superiority (the frame of Leonidas’ eyes watering as he departs from his queen for the last time, for instance), but seeing it brought so perfectly to life makes the movie the more enjoyable experience.