When I’m asked to adapt something I try to find my key into the heart of the drama. In The Night Manager it was the tension and attraction between Richard Roper and Jonathan Pine. Was it love or hate?
In the story of Troy, Helen and Paris are that key. Very often, the two lovers who started the war between the Greeks and Trojans, immortalised in Homer’s Iliad, are portrayed as fickle and vain. I think there’s a different side to the story, and that’s the one I wanted to tell. This is a story of marital infidelity.
Helen of Sparta is a deeply unhappy wife and mother, forced to marry a Greek king she never loved – Menelaus. She is a prisoner in her own city. Then one day a handsome young Trojan comes for a diplomatic visit. He is Paris. Against all convention, they fall passionately in love.
She runs away with him, causing a war between their nations. Her own name becomes dirt. This is the oldest European story. An epic battle between two countries. All fought for love.
Legendarily beautiful, Helen has been reduced, in past versions, to just a pretty face. But she was a queen and a mother, she had a 14-year-old daughter whom she had to leave behind. She broke every social convention possible. She did the unthinkable. She fascinates me.
The story of Paris is equally gripping. He was born a prince of Troy. But through a quirk of fate, he was brought up a shepherd, in the hills, living a simple life. When he finally returned to Troy to discover his true identity, how much was he accepted? How much did he ever feel truly part of the Trojan royal family? Was this why he was so attracted to Helen, another outsider?
I wanted to explore what happened to the lovers when they came back to Troy. What happened to them when they realised the mayhem they’d caused? How did the city receive them? How was Helen treated by Trojan women? How did she survive? And did she remain faithful to her new city?
When the Greeks arrive on the Trojan shores demanding Helen’s return, the Trojans refuse to give her back. And so the war begins. Politics is involved – rivalries between empires. The war may have been caused by Helen’s elopement but, as with many modern wars in the Middle East, the trigger for war may not be the reason it is fought. Yet, as men die on the battlefields, as warriors slay each other, Paris and Helen know that every drop of blood is down to them.
Perhaps because of my interest in the lovers, the series focuses more on life inside Troy than previous tellings. Homer, in his great poem, told the story almost entirely from the Greek point of view – their squabbles and disagreements. We learn all about the Greek warriors Achilles, Odysseus and Agamemnon.
Louis Hunter and Bella Dayne as Paris and Helen in Troy: Fall of a City (BBC)
Greek himself, Homer rarely takes us inside Troy to find out what’s going on behind those walls. In our version we are inside Troy for much of the time. We get to know the royal family (Priam, Hecuba, Hector) but also ordinary people.
I hope we give a sense of what it was like to be under siege for years – the physical and psychological cost on everyone. Of course, we still relish the action, the pulsating thrill of the battlefield, the adventures as a city struggles for survival. And the bloodlust of revenge as one civilisation strives to punish another for a reckless act of passion.
And there are gods. Living, breathing gods. Zeus. Hera. Aphrodite. I felt it was vital to keep that other force in play. Destiny. Even now in our more agnostic age, how many of us truly feel we are in charge of our lives, that “fate” never plays a part?
It’s a vital element of Homer’s story that I wanted to honour. But above all, we focus on primal human emotions and urges. Passion. Revenge. Grief. Betrayal. This is why this story is told and retold – by Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides (my favourite), Chaucer, Shakespeare, James Joyce, Derek Walcott.
Everything we know of life and drama comes from the Greek myths. They are the wellspring of all our storytelling. We’ve also invented stuff, created new characters.
These are mythic stories, not history. They’re created through telling, not reliant on fact, but organic, growing layer by layer, story by story. So we’ve allowed ourselves a little bit of freedom.
What I really hope is that we have created an accessible drama, psychologically driven. I hope it brings a whole new audience to these remarkable stories. If people watch it and feel inspired to explore Homer or the Greek dramatists further, I’d be thrilled.
Yes, they deal with kings, queens, gods, warriors. But they also deal with love, money, power, betrayal. They are raw and urgent and speak to us today with just as much potency as they did over two thousand years ago. That in itself is remarkable.
We’re telling a story older than Christianity. And given our own recent history of war, perhaps not that much has changed.
By David Farr
Troy: Fall of a City starts 9.10pm 17th February on BBC1