Smallville & The Retelling of Mythology

I don't watch much TV, Doctor Who being the obvious exception. However, I've been doing some long-term research into modern retellings of mythologies. There are not as many as you might expect - sure, there are all kinds of sf interpretations of the Odyssey, and you can see the threads of many legends in modern stories. I've been unable to find anything, though, in television that seriously goes about taking an old mythology and setting it in the modern era.

Eventually, I decided to broaden the terms a little, and looked at the world of comics for the basic mythology. Some comics have been around for several generations now, and none have more of a mythos than Superman. Superman was invented in 1932, first published in a comic form in 1938, and has been around ever since. People know who he is - they know he's Clark Kent, they know he can fly, is incredibly strong and nigh-on indestructible, shoots heat from his eyes, breathes frost, can see through things, and is vulnerable to Kryptonite. They know he was raised in Kansas by adoptive parents, and they know he's the definitive Good Guy. They know about Lois Lane and Lex Luthor.

The most recent - and perhaps the most widely seen - re-telling of this mythology is Smallville. But whereas the majority of re-tellings start when Clark Kent arrives in Metropolis, Smallville starts when he's in high school. I'm now about 1.5 seasons in, and some things are becoming clear.

First and foremost is that even through Superman's powers are well known, they still need to be introduced. At the beginning of the series, Clark has his strength, invulnerability, and speed. In the first season, he works out the x-ray vision thing. In the second, he gets the heat vision. He doesn't quite work out the flight thing, and even without going digging into the details of show as it currently is, I suspect he won't for some to come, if at all in this series. The iconic costume, of course, is also not appearing.

This does three useful things. First, it allows more identification with the lead character. Second, it introduces the powers, one at a time, to those few people unfamiliar with the mythology. Third, it provides a sort of ongoing in-joke with the audience, where people ask "Can you fly?" - and there are dozens of visual references to the better-known adult character.

There have to be new characters, of course. Lex is there. Lex is, as an aside, the best bit of the show. Jonathan and Martha Kent appear. And thereafter, we're into new characters, mostly Clark's sidekick and the two girls he can't make up his mind between. It's worth noting at this stage that Smallville fails the Bechdel test, 98% of the time. Lana and Chloe do speak to each other, but it's almost always about men, and usually about Clark.

Another core part of the basic mythology is that there are few credible threats to Superman himself. Sure, you can wallop him with the various colours of Kryptonite, but that gets old quickly. Instead, the thing that most writers over the past seven decades have opted for is to threaten his family and friends. And that's one area where the show shines; it strikes a balance between internal threats - simple relationship stuff - and external threats, which can be as simple as a character's business running low, or as bizarre as a Kryptonite-fuelled bee-controlling high school drama queen.

Obviously, this is a show about high school. As such, relationships and friendships occupy the bulk of the characters' thinking. These are, for the most part, well handled, although the habit of using a soft-focus view for Lana is slowly driving me nuts, and really, whoever writes her lines needs to get out more.

But there are good points: the characters don't constantly circle around Clark. Lana and Chloe have their own connections. Pete and Chloe, likewise. Pete and Lana don't seem to connect much, and that's kept consistent. Lex has some connections with Lana, and some with Chloe, but none at all with Pete, who dislikes him and his family, and again, this is consistent.

And more to the point, all of this is shown, not told. Clark arrives in to various usual haunts to find the connected characters there together, or it's noted in conversation that they met the previous day, or the like. Likewise, there are very smooth renditions of small-town America; the vehicles, the environments, the people you see in the background. I have issues with some of the racial stereotyping (mystic native Americans and an Oriental gambling den), but overall, it's handled fairly well.

So what am I taking from this for the re-telling of mythologies in a modern setting?

Well, the first thing is to identify the key elements - the McGuffins, the characters, the characteristics. The lead characters may need to be supported by a new cast, particularly if you're looking at a before-the-main-story or after-the-main-story setting.

You can't pull in the visuals directly from other settings; they need to be more subtle for a modern setting. Clark has no cape, no shield on his chest, and indeed, no glasses. But he has a lot of primary colours - red and blue - and there are evocations of the cape whenever it fits well. Lex is, of course, already bald.

You can't plunge full-blown into the mythology; you need to introduce it gradually. Each difference between the mythos and the workaday normal world needs its own chance to settle in.

And finally, you can't depend on the mythology; your work has to stand on its own merits as well. It's because of this that I'm definitely going to be watching more of Smallville, and I do anticipate eventually seeing the whole thing.

Posted by Drew Shiel at July 28, 2010 4:24 PM

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