Modern science stands on the shoulders of giants. The role of science, for as long as man has been capable of reason, has been to define and understand the way our world works. In our age, we have the benefit of hundreds of thousands of years of human curiosity; however, man has not always been as lucky. Long ago, it was not uncommon to explain the world using superstition and myth. In fact, the Greek culture is known for its pantheon of gods, in addition to their many contributions to the scientific community. These gods were imbued with human qualities, and great tales were told by orators of their exploits, which shaped the world of man. Despite their many scientific advances, the Greeks were unable to explain such occurrences as the seasons, the sun rising and setting, or the origin of the world. To bridge the gap between science and fiction, they used myths. One such myth is the abduction of Persephone.
Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of fertility and spring, and Zeus, the all-powerful god of gods. Persephone’s role in the Greek mythology was to explain the changing of the seasons. Persephone, it was said, was abducted by Hades, lord of the underworld, to be his wife. Demeter soon learns of this and is so wracked with sadness that “She demonstrated her anger by punishing the earth’s inhabitants with bitter cold and blustering winds. Unless Persephone was returned to her mother’s side, the earth would perish” (Stewart par. 1). Hades returns Persephone, but tricks her so that she must return to the underworld for six months out of every year. These months are winter, when Demeter grieves, and when Persephone returns to her mother, Demeter blesses the earth with spring.
This seemed a justifiable explanation at the time; now, of course, most people know that the seasons are determined by the earth’s position in relation to the sun. However, this myth existed before astronomy had been thoroughly explored, and this was before geocentrism was dismissed by Copernicus’ discoveries. This myth was accepted because it was a convenient way to explain something that seemed to have no other explanation.
Current times do not have the same need for explanatory myths. Science has done the explaining for most observable phenomenon, including the seasons. That does not mean that the need for entertainment has diminished. Ancient myths not only educated, but they also entertained. In modern times, there is little need for education and entertainment to merge. We can see this divergence of entertainment and knowledge in Flightplan, starring Jodie Foster. This film, released in 2005, uses the same classic story elements as the tale of Persephone’s abduction; however the underworld and changing seasons are eschewed for airplanes and conspiracies. In Greek times, to appeal to the audience, orators would invoke gods and mythical occurrences. Now, Hollywood appeals to the feelings of the audience, by exploiting the emotional impact of a mother’s grief and the excitement of an explosive ending. Some of the elements that made the original appealing are lost, however it definitely interests a broader audience in today’s society.
To provide a brief summary of Flightplan’s plot, spoilers included, the film revolves around Kyle. Kyle’s husband is recently departed, and she is traveling overseas on an airplane of her own design to bury his body. Along for the ride is her daughter Julia, who has taken the loss as hard as Kyle has. In midflight, Kyle awakens after sleeping and cannot find her daughter. Kyle searches the plane at length, disturbing many passengers, but is soon told that Julia was never on the flight in the first place. She is shocked, and in disbelief, but soon finds that treachery is afoot. Julia is on the plane; however, Carson, a federal air marshal, is conspiring to hijack the plan for a sum of $50 million, and is framing Kyle in the process. Nevertheless, Kyle manages to rescue her daughter, outwit Carson, and destroy him with the bomb intended for Kyle and Julia.
We can see many parallels between the characters in these two stories. Demeter is replaced by Kyle, who in this case is a far more central character. Casting Demeter as a leading protagonist rather than a character with equal importance in the tale demonstrates our culture’s preference for clearly defined character roles, specifically a strong female lead character. Persephone is personified by Julia, but she plays a largely absent role in this film, with her being abducted early and not seen again until the very end of the movie. The focus is on the mother’s sorrow; Persephone sleeps throughout the film. Hades becomes the air marshal Carson, who kidnaps Julia to get a significant financial reward. The Hades of Greece was an evil character, however in keeping with Greek tradition he was imbued with many human qualities. Hades kidnaps Persephone out of loneliness and a desire for a bride. Carson, in Flightplan, is a cunning villain who has gone to great lengths to satisfy his desire for money and power. Several characters are absent; for example, Helios, the sun, who reveals the treachery of Hades to Demeter, is absent. Further, Hermes, who negotiates a truce between Demeter and Hades, has no equivalent in this film. Instead, the conflict between Kyle and Carson is resolved with the explosive destruction of Carson and the airplane. This is perhaps telling of our preferred cinematic method of conflict resolution, destruction rather than discussion.
The setting has obviously changed substantially. The original story has two settings, the underworld and the earth. Flightplan, however, takes place almost entirely in an airplane, with the exception of some prologue and epilogue sequences. This change is understandable when you consider the societal changes that have taken place. In Greece, orators set their tales in Olympus or the underworld because audiences were fascinated with the actions of these gods who determined their fate. For example, the tale of The Iliad, whilst dealing with the war of Troy, often explains the outcome of various battles through divine intervention. In modern times, audiences would likely have trouble connecting with a film that required the intervention in the form of deus ex machina, the Greek method of improbable conflict resolution in plays. It could be said that this indicates our society is more cynical than that of the Greeks; yet, it is more likely that our expectation for realism in plot and character action is higher. Fantastical stories still have their place in film and books; however, when an author chooses to use an improbable method of resolution, the audience is less likely to connect with the form of entertainment emotionally.
If so much of the tale has changed, then what is left? This ancient tale is supported by one of the most salient aspects of emotional trauma, a mother’s sorrow over the loss of her child. This alone ensures that this tale will be told and retold in various forms throughout history. When Demeter finds her daughter missing, she is at once furious and sorrowful over the abduction. She vows to destroy the earth with blistering winds and unbearable cold. In Flightplan, we see similar anger from Kyle, even if she is lacking divine powers. When Kyle awakens, and finds her daughter missing, she panics. She interrogates every person on board, including the passengers and flight crew. When she finds that no one knows the location of her daughter, she demands a piece-by-piece search of the airplane from the captain. Airline employees search high and low for the girl but find no trace of her. Kyle, unfazed by this setback, demands another search, but is told by the captain that Julia is no longer alive, and in fact died with Kyle’s husband. The audience is unsure of the truth for a long portion of this film; is Kyle imagining her daughter still lives, or has someone abducted her? Kyle refuses to be daunted by Carson and the captain’s assurance that Julia is dead, and soon discovers the truth.
In much the same way that Demeter assaults the earth with no concern for its inhabitants, Kyle tears the ship apart with no regard for other passengers. Kyle even goes so far as to accuse a middle eastern passenger of trying to hijack the plane; there is no reason for her to suspect this, aside from her own growing paranoia. She forces the crew to search the plane from nose to tail to satiate her uncertainties. When confronted with the falsehood that her daughter is dead, she must be handcuffed to protect the other passengers. Nevertheless, Kyle escapes and continues to search, even checking inside her husband’s coffin. In modern western society this can be seen as a sign of disrespect for a dead body, and shows that she has little concern for social convention in the search for her daughter.
A lot can be inferred regarding a society by their chosen entertainment. In America today, TV shows, video games and film make up a majority of our chosen escapism. In ancient Greece, long before the advent of film, and when the written word was a new medium, orators regaled audiences with tales of the heroic exploits of gods and man. The means of distribution says as much about the two cultures as the content. Ancient Greek science lacked the rigor and extensive research that we enjoy today. Entertainment in those times served as a means to share the collective knowledge of society, and in this way stories such as the war of Troy and the origin of the world were spread in this fashion. Now, our collective scientific knowledge is handed down via schools, and furthered by scientific communities devoted to their task of expanding human knowledge. In this manner, entertainment and knowledge have diverged, and there is little useful knowledge to be gained from watching movies. So, the abduction of Persephone served to help people understand something about their world, whereas Flightplan merely entertains, and it is expected that people will gain their scientific knowledge elsewhere.
Flightplan and Persephone’s abduction share much in common. While in ancient Greece this tale was meant to explain the changing of the seasons, modern society retains the emotionally significant elements and eschews the fantastic. Since science has explained almost all observable natural phenomenon, most modern story-telling revolves around entertainment. A lot has changed in the tale; characters have been removed and the ending is much more dramatic, but the most important aspects of the story still remain. The tale connects with the audience because of the impact of a mother’s grief. But where knowledge and education once rested in the same domain, they are now independent and left to serve separate purposes.
(Header image created by Kristin Richey.)
A Myth of Seasons by Steve Richey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
This post was originally submitted for a class on writing.