Anais Mitchell, Neil Gaiman, and Adapting Mythology in the Modern World

Unless you are a very particular kind of musical theater nerd, there’s a good chance you don’t care that a show called Hadestown won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Musical last Sunday. But you should. Hadestown is a musical adaptation of two tales of the underworld from Ancient Greek mythology: the respective stories of Orpheus and Persephone. What is so incredible about the show is that it is simultaneously extremely truthful to its source material and very current, famously in ways that it’s creator, singer/songwriter Anais Mitchell, didn’t anticipate when she first wrote it. That combination is intoxicating, having both the weight of an ancient story and the layered meaning of something completely of the moment. It’s a rare talent that’s able to translate such an old story into a compelling modern format, and when it happens it’s an intoxicating experience.

If you are of a certain age and were raised in the US, you probably grew up reading Greek mythology, thanks in large part to the D’Aulaire’s collection storybook aimed at early readers. Somehow, this striking thin volume with it’s brilliant cover of Apollo in his chariot convinced parents that Greek mythology was appropriate for small American children in the 20th century, despite all the rape, infanticide, and eternal suffering. It also helped that the same generation reading this anthology grew up in the Disney renaissance. If you’ve seen Disney’s Hercules (cue angry nerd from the back yelling “it’s pronounced Herakles!”) you know what a modern adaptation of Greek mythology can look like when it’s made only superficially relevant. Hercules has the look of Ancient Greece (or at least what late-‘90s middle class Americans thought of) – temples, peplons (drapey clothing), and orange and black urns, but with a sassy twist. Like every bit of 90’s mass-market media that was attempting to be cool, it just stuck in a gospel choir and called it a day.

But Disney’s Hercules completely misses the point of the myth and doesn’t really tell a story for a contemporary audience either. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun movie and visually inventive. But when the movie’s writers went with the theme of a hero, they basically threw out the version of heroism as Ancient Greek storytelling knew it – i.e. a male protagonist who struggles against great, usually divine, obstacles – and instead went with the version of heroism that Disney invented in the 90s – the hero is you believing in yourself and fighting for what you believe in (which is yourself, I guess) … Which is why the story of Hercules throws out most of the narrative of the original myth and invents a new love interest, so that it can better fit the mold of other children’s movies of the late 80s and 90s. And before you say “but it’s a Disney movie” take a look at Hunchback of Notre Dame, which came out the year before, and tell me that it doesn’t grapple with the most adult theme of a book that is filled with depressing narratives.

The lack of imagination in Disney’s adaptation of Hercules is that the writers were unable to find elements in the story that actually speak to a modern audience, especially one made of children, and instead chose to just throw in every 90s pop culture reference they could think of (mostly about sports merchandising). This is where Hadestown comes in. Anais Mitchell, who imagined Hadestown as a folk opera over a decade ago, grew up hearing Greek mythology from her father, and it seems that as she aged into the stories she found new meaning and relevance for them in her life. This is the cultural importance of storytelling, and what made these particular stories last for so long. And certainly there are stories from ancient Greece that we continue to reproduce because we feel they still resonate – Lysistrata, the Iliad, and the Odyssey come to mind. But even modern adaptations of those have struggled. Take, for instance, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a depression-era dramedy loosely based on the Odyssey. It uses only one narrative element of the original story, which is a man trying to return home to his wife, who thinks he is dead, before she marries another man. Except that is not the point of the story of Odysseus – the point is his struggle, which justifies his place as a patriarch, a concept that the movie largely laughs at. The rest of the story is mostly conveyed through little references in characters that are meant to serve as modern equivalents to the mythological obstacles: the bathing robbers as the sirens, the baptizing congregation as the lotus eaters, and a one-eyed grifter as the cyclops. But aside from the narrative familiarity of these elements, they’re not particularly successful in the story, and the vast majority of the movie’s appeal is its stellar soundtrack – an adaptation of early 20th century folk music to suit early 21st century musical tastes. Similarly, one of the most recent adaptations of Lysistrata – Spike Lee’s Chi-raq – was met with mixed reviews that largely felt the central conflict of the story – women withholding sex in order to end armed conflict – was reductive to the issue of street violence in Chicago and also somewhat outdated. Although these adaptations create settings in which the original story makes some kind of sense, they fail to capture the compulsion of the stories themselves for a modern audience.

Because Anais Mitchel spent so long marinating these myths in her mind and her personal experience, she simply spun out a modern context in which the stories made sense to her, and wove them into the themes that her music already worked on. Hadestown makes a few substantial changes to the original myth that allow the musical (and the concept album that preceded it) to sidestep the pitfalls of other adaptations. Notably, Hadestown leaves out the caricaturish mythological creatures like the three headed dog Cerberus (“it’s pronounced Kerebos!”) that are distractingly forced to a modern audience, since they are too obvious as metaphors and too out of place as literal figures. Hadestown also abandons the complete lack of agency afforded to female characters in Greek mythology, taking the reins from the original story and adding or even changing significant character moments for Persephone and Euridice. Persephone’s story traditionally has Hades abduct her and, it’s implied, rape her, making her too impure to return full time to her mother, the goddess of plenty. Hadestown makes Persephone and Hades’s relationship consensual, but fraught with the conflict of two strongly opposing personalities. Euridice, likewise, simply dies in the original story, and Orpheus, her husband, has the gall to bargain for her life with Hades. In Hadestown, Euridice choses to leave Orpheus for the Underworld because she is seduced by Hades’s promises of comfort and prosperity, which are absent because Persephone is not on the surface world. This character shift for Euridice unfolds an entirely new theme and plot for the story, where Hades is not simply a force of nature, but instead a factory boss, who both creates harsh conditions and sells their only remedy. The introduction of this theme allows Mitchell to tell a story about poverty, labor, and the desperation of those whose hands are forced. This, in turn, led Mitchell to work in the notion of demonizing the hungry masses, with Hades literally building a wall to keep them out and indoctrinating his followers with a xenophobia to justify it.

It helps to look at Mitchell’s album Young Man in America, which she wrote as she was turning the Hadestown concept album into the musical, to understand how Mitchell turned a fantastical story about a man attempting to cheat fate into a socio-political musical drama. Young Man in America is ostensibly a loose biography of Mitchell’s father, or at least inspired by his upbringing in a rural community. Like Hadestown, it is a story that unfolds in song, but in a much more open format. And although it explores the life of a man coming of age on a farm with an emotionally distant father, both its words and the scope of its music make frequent reference to a much grander scale. It’s opening song, Wilderland, bends Anais’s voice and guitar into the sounds of a howling wind, creating an aura for the unfolding story that is much grander than it’s humble subject matter. And most notably, in Dying Day, Mitchell explores the relationship between the young man and his father with a comparison to the biblical Abraham presenting his own son Isaac as sacrifice. The notion of sacrifice in the song is meant both in that biblical sense that implies the son’s life is (in danger) in his father’s hands, and in the more bucolic sense of a farmer’s back-breaking labor in poverty. It’s Mitchell’s ability to find both grandly dramatic and humbly human meaning in ancient stories that makes her use of them seem reasonable. Both that storytelling element and the aura created by her creative musicality are put into play in Hadestown, allowing the play to seem both genuinely mythical and depressingly modern at the same time.

Mitchell is not the only creative voice successfully interpreting religious mythology in a modern setting right now. The other obvious example is Neil Gaiman, who currently has two adaptations of two different religious mythologies on tv (or streaming) right now: American Gods, and Good Omens, the latter of which he co-wrote with the late Terry Pratchett. Like Mitchell, Gaiman ignores the superficial elements of the mythology to get at the spirit of the story. Except, that is, when he wants to use the superficial elements to shock the audience with the real divinity of the characters. His primary focus, however, is to make the fantastical seem real, up until the point that the action becomes fantastical. In American Gods, for instance, although the reader is aware that the protagonist, Shadow Moon, is paling around with the Norse god Odin, he is presented only as a very confident elderly gentleman until the point in the story that Shadow is ready to believe he is a god. This fits with Gaiman’s argument in American Gods, that gods are entities that exist because enough people believe in them strongly enough, allowing the tv adaptation to present modern obsessions like media, the internet, and digital information as deities in and of themselves alongside Odin, a leprechaun, and a genie. In Good Omens, Gaiman uses this same trick of making the fantastical mundane to explore what the Christian apocalypse would look like in the current age – making reality mythological by first making the mythological real. Because Gaiman, like Mitchell, imagines the world in terms of these grand themes and stories rather than trying to shoehorn the literal tale into a modern setting, he eliminates the need for the audience to suspend its disbelief because he has already convinced the audience that it is possible to believe in these things. And his point in that is not to prove that faith is worthwhile, but to explore why people have faith and what faith does to different people.

The success in these adaptations is that it enables Mitchell and Gaiman to explore big, universal themes in ways that feel personal, and therefore effective. Telling grand themes on a grand scale can be overwhelming to the point that the audience can’t connect. To the extent that past adaptations of myths have been successful, like in Disney’s Aladdin, it was because the story found a personal motivation that made the grander scale of the story more compelling. This is the central idea in simple stories with profound messages, like Aesop’s fables – by making the story a microcosm of a larger narrative point, the storyteller is able to make a big theme more digestible. When Mitchell and Gaiman find personal stories in these much more epic tales, they tap into the central theme as it is supposed to relate to the individual. It’s possible that these stories were never really supposed to be told on such a massive scale, but embellished with these kinds of personal details precisely so that the audience could feel connected to them. But to do that effectively, the storyteller has to understand what the most important elements of the story are and how they convincingly play out in a real person’s life. And while these stories don’t have to have any relevance to a modern audience, it can only benefit us when they do, because they do relate meaningful aspects of the human experience that are worth exploring even now.