Hercules vs. Herakles: A Comparison of Disney’s Film and the Ancient Myth

Overall, the greatest changes made in the film are the motivation and traits of
Hercules himself: the happy ending that depicts romantic love as primary and Hercules’ search for his “real home”. Additionally, many slight changes to Hades add up to a significant shift in character. However, the film does properly address…

…Hercules’ issues with his father – his absence and initial anonymity.

The film addresses some of the more realistic notions of the myth – as a fatherless
child, Hercules’ male line is attributed to the gods, perhaps because of his many great
deeds. In real life, the supposed type of man who inspired the story as well as the divine
archetype it depicts are both a young man raised without a father. His labors prove his
valor and outstanding skills. While many changes were made to the story of the 12 labors, which was only a small part of the film, Hercules’ desire for heroic glory is present in both the ancient and Disney version. These themes remain true in the Disney film. The film also playfully, though succinctly, covered the Greek origin myth accurately in the first few moments. The Titans are depicted visually as characters described as earthquakes and volcanoes, the natural forces often attributed to them.

There are several minor changes which I will only briefly mention. The differences
may seem major, compared to the ancient myth, but the overall effect of these changes
don’t misdirect Hercules’ story. The inclusion of Pegasus, who has no relation to Hercules in the original myth, adds a fun and cheeky silent sidekick to the film. Every Disney movie needs a likable animal with a seemingly human-like disposition. Pegasus fulfills the Disney formula.

Another minor change is the number of muses. Were this a film about muses, the reduction would seem, to me, blasphemous, so to speak, of the original myth. However, as a scene-changing choir of narrators, five muses seems to suffice. They are also properly represented as varying in demeanor and character. They describe Zeus as “type A”, a reference to the psychology concept that does fit the ancient archetype. Rendering them black/African-American serves the purpose of diversity, which is often found lacking in Disney films. The Gospel style of music also makes this one of the most fun sing-a-longs.
The reasoning seems rational and inoffensive. The reason for most, if not all, of the of the changes we see, is told to us plainly by the Muses themselves:

“Muse 1: Will you listen to him? He’s makin’ the story sound like some Greek Tragedy.
Muse 2: Yeah, lighten up dude.
Muse 3: We’ll take it from here darling.
Male Narrator Voice: You go girls.”


Hercules’ Journeys

To begin with, the first major difference between the myth and the Disney film is the
birth of Hercules. Disney depicts him as the natural born son of Hera and Zeus. They don’t explicitly say she birthed him, she appears again for less than 30 seconds total throughout the rest of the movie, but she embraces him as her own in that first scene. Then, he is turned mortal by Hades. He is stolen, taken to Earth and turned mortal. Because they’re in a rush, they didn’t feed Hercules the last drop. So “he still retained his godlike strength”. (13m 33s)

In every version of the ancient myth I’ve found, Hercules is actually a demi-god – the
offspring of Zeus and a mortal. His birth was a whole story in itself. It seems the Disney team meant to position Hercules as a rightful son of Zeus, gloss over adultery, bastard-status or rape and other adult themes of this back-story they didn’t intend to tell. It significantly alters its relevance in the pre-monotheistic world. Simultaneously, it reorients the hero towards children raised in native nuclear families in the 90s and thereafter. Hercules’ character is the dreamer archetype, the eternal “Fool” at the beginning of a journey he truly knows little about. He wants to become a true hero and resume his place in Olympus so bad he would “do anything”. (26m)

Now, there are many stories of Herakles and Hercules. Many statues, placement in temples, monsters, adventures, interactions with others. In none of them does the character Philoctetes occur. In fact, he was a tragic archer from a play by Sophocles. Yet, this is minor and humorous manipulation. This character brings us the modern humor, and his introduction is a compilation of Greek myths and history. However, this significantly alters the archetype of Hercules. He has a guide, as in most sagas, but it is  very much in the modern form of perpetually guarding and supporting the main character.

Herakles, on the other hand, is repeatedly and excruciatingly tested – his strength but also his will, intelligence, and virtue. That is, virtue in the philosophical rather than moral sense. These are touched upon in the Disney film, but Zeus explicitly states none of this was enough, and he did far less than his ancient counterpart. Initially, with a message I can agree with, he tells Hercules “being famous isn’t the same as being a true hero”. (55m) But he’s still mortal when he sacrifices himself for his city; he only changes when he does for his love interest. Though the plot is altered and the stories necessarily reduced, the Disney film does manage to focus on the development of heroism. In ancient Greece, the stories consisted of giant monsters, being at odds with the gods themselves. In this aspect, Hades is a compilation of roles in Hercules’ story. A modern addition of depicting him as rich and mass-producing seems a true enough translation through time. However, they completely redefine what heroism means. Zeus explicitly states he hasn’t been willing to sacrifice himself – a definite reference to Christianity, but that’s another topic entirely. Either way, this was never required of Hercules.

More to the point, Hercules’ love interests have no weight in determining his divinity in the ancient myths. In the Disney film, it is only when he’s willing to die for one woman that he turns to gold and becomes a god. Not to mention a moment before he does this, he was getting beaten to death for the entire city. Yet, he chooses mortality with her in the end, and this is the final heart-warming moment – the true happy ending. This could be said to serve as a lesson in the philosophy of mortality – of the value of mortality – but it is more sending the message that romantic love trumps everything

Which brings me to the endgame of the film. Megaera is a character who fills the role of love interest, and becomes the primary concern and preoccupation of our hero. The value of this addition leaves me feeling strongly ambivalent. She is depicted very skinny but sexually voluptuous. Her plot arc of choosing morality over following her evil boss’s rules is nothing new. It is definitely a product of modern times, but it seems to cause no diversion from Greek culture – much like Demeter and Persephone, against Zeus’ will in the original myth, such behavior like Disney’s Hades is met with female disobedience.
Sweetness and affection, as depicted between the male and female leads, seem to
improve people’s’ behavior towards each other – or at least that’s what I’ve always assumed about Disney’s constant reproduction of the theme.

At first, I thought it was stereotyping of women, and it may have started out that way. But, even when their main characters are male, love is always the number one answer. It’s like quoting John Lennon, “all you need is love”. He meant between the fraternity of humanity, not just couples. Also, there is certainly no evidence that romantic love prevents immorality or instills peace. To me it is like a shaving razor – it can make things smoother or cause permanent scars. To top it all off, Disney could have easily created a film with strong social commentary like they did with Pocahontas, but this would have required an interpretation of metaphor. They could have also done his Twelve Labors in a G-Rated way, without making up a soul-mate role to complete him.

Hades’ Character

Hades is depicted as a devilish villain, bad in every way and motivated entirely by
absolute power. In the film, his only purpose is bringing death and conquering Olympus – rather than the dark and feared, but honored, god of riches who ruled the Underworld and kept fair judgment, as the norm. In the ancient myths, he ensured the truly moral souls weren’t punished for having cheap clothes. He also ruled more so in commune with Zeus and Poseidon rather than constantly plotting to take down the holy father-figure archetype.

His hair is made of blue flame, like the heat and darkness of the post-Abrahamic Hell. He has canine teeth, perhaps a reference to Anubis and other non-anthropomorphic deities Disney likes to villainize; and they are spaced out in a monster sort of way when he gets angry he bursts into flames. His desire for power is not only for the entire cosmos but over each and every other consciousness – for instance, his conversation with Meg at 63 minutes in that
she should follow his every little command at his beck and call.

From the outset they misrepresent him. Zeus bestowed the job on him in the film. In
the ancient myth, they drew lots. He is constantly heated and angry, rather than reserved and inexorable, and in control of natural forces which provide for mankind.
Hades is depicted as whiny, incompetent and pure evil. Though he does cross a moral line when kidnapping and raping Persephone, these aren’t the reasons Disney’s Hades is dislikable to the audience. He is dislikable because he wants absolute power. While this is poignant social commentary, this usually serves to disempower the average receiver of television and does little to divert the major violence in the world. Proving this, however, is a topic for another kind of article.

Regardless of those biases, it is safe to say the dynamics, character, plot, and morals to the story are significantly changed by this general character shift. The film also errs in attributing all labors which are shown to the nefarious plotting of Hades. In the ancient myth, it seems just as common to say he didn’t stand in Hercules’ way as it is to say he was only part of one of the twelve labors, no more. Either way, this is a significant alteration for the depiction of Hades.