I finally got to watch 300 two weekends ago. Heather and I never got out to the theaters to catch it on the big screen this past spring, so Heather put our name on the waiting list when our local library received a copy for lending out. It was a popular movie at the library, so the wait was long; but our name came up about two weeks ago. Heather usually goes to the library every Monday to get new books, so that’s when she picked it up.
That following weekend I watched the film twice. Once on Friday after Heather had fallen asleep and a second time on Saturday night when Heather watched it with me. Both times I was left with underwhelming since of “Ehhh.”
For all the press and excited write-ups I had read back in the spring, and being familiar with the Frank Miller’s graphic novel source material, I was expecting a lot more. Usually I do a good job of tempering my expectations for popular shows, movies, books, etc. I walk in with expecting one thing and the material either meets or in more pleasant situations exceeds them. But in this case I managed to fail myself. I was expecting big, bold, and bombastic but ended up with a fairly-entertaining film lacking an emotional punch.
To be certain, 300 is a visual feast. The film looks fantastic, especially when the influences from Miller’s book are obvious. The scenes of the young king battling the wolf, the Persian soldiers being pushed off the cliff, or of the remaining Spartan men hunkered down, forming a dome of shields as Xerxes comes for Leonidas’ surrender are spectacularly realized on the screen. But that’s all I was left with at the end of viewing the film both times – how great it looked. Not how great the actors were, or the dynamic storytelling, or the staging of the action sequences. I was impressed with how Director Jack Snyder had captured the look of Frank Miller’s book.
However I can’t help but wonder what my impression would have been if I hadn’t already read Miller’s original 300 three or four times. Would I have been more impressed with the movie? Would I have found the characters and story more compelling? Would I have noticed (as I did in Miller’s comic) that Leonidas and Xerxes have a tendency to talk to one another like New Jersey mobsters? These are questions I can never answer because I am familiar with the source material. So comparisons are inevitable. Try as I might to judge the film on its own merits, I can’t help but think back to Miller’s book and automatically set up a mental checklist to figure out where the film and the book match or diverge.
Ultimately to understand where I stand on this movie, I have to compare my viewing experience of 300 with another recent adaptation of a Frank Miller comic, Sin City. Like Snyder, Director Robert Rodriguez did a beautiful job of capturing the look of Miller’s Sin City books. However, Rodriguez went further than just recreating a comic book; he brings cinematic life to Miller’s characters and stories. Even though I already knew the stories of Sin City, like I did with 300, I felt like I was seeing something new in the film version of Sin City. Rodriguez didn’t just re-create the comic for the silver screen; he adapted the comic for film.
This is where I think Snyder fails with 300. Ironically, for the movie version of 300 Snyder and his writers created a new subplot involving King Leonidas’ wife, Queen Gorgo, and her struggle with the Spartan Senate that did not exist in Miller’s book. And yet, the movie felt like a rehash of Miller’s comic book lacking an original voice. I didn’t see a fresh viewing point for approaching the source material. It was as if Snyder used Miller’s 300 comic as a storyboard for his film. I expected more.
Any successful artistic endeavor is created with the medium of delivery in mind. TV shows are developed and executed with the constraints of the medium in mind, the same for novels, movies, or comics. The creator works to express themselves through the medium and the success of that piece of art can be a result of the chosen medium as much as it is the artist’s vision and talent. 300 was originally developed as a comic. If you want to take that comic book and translate it to another medium, then you need to study the intent of the artist, find their motivation, and adapt it to the new medium you are recreating within. Robert Rodriguez was successful with the re-interpretation with Sin City, Zack Snyder falls short with 300.