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Modern Myths, Heroes and Legends in TV and Movies

Children’s books, movies, games and even curriculum are often centered around fabled characters with roots in ancient times. The mythological genre offers exposure to world cultures, history, literature and art, while modern pop culture has inspired more interest than ever in all things magical. In this series Myths, Heroes, and Legends, we examine various categories of our favorite movie adaptations in this area and how they enhance and inspire your child’s learning. In this post, we cover:

Modern Myths, Heroes and Legends

The Mummy, rating PG-13 (1999)

The afterlife, magical stone tablets, resurrection and destruction are all staples for this film featuring Ancient Egyptians; while these are appealing to the audience, it’s safe to say these are myths and legends. However the story includes seeds of truth that if delved into can provide a fruitful yearning for Egyptian history.

The film beautifully showcases modern and Ancient Egypt. The filmmakers traveled to actual locations and filmed on Egyptian landscapes, featuring Thebes, Egypt and Morocco. The portrayals of the sets and burial chambers also accurately show what they may have looked like. The film bases its plot on opening one of these chambers, which is cursed. As far-fetched as it may sound, many believed in the curse in the 1920s, when King Tut’s tomb was opened.

The Egyptians believed in the afterlife and actually used a Book of the Dead. The book was not a gold-plated book used to bring people back to life, but a group of texts thousands of years old with spells that were meant to guide the dead to the afterlife. Anyone who is afraid of bugs may still have nightmares about the scarabs in this film. Don’t worry, man-eating scarabs do not exist. These were just CGI-enhanced dung beetles. However, these bugs were revered by the Egyptians, who believed that the sun rolled across the sky in a similar way to how the beetles rolled their dung.

The Egyptian characters portrayed in the film all existed in real life! Timelines were altered, however, because these royal Egyptians were not alive at the same time.

Imhotep in the film is the main antagonist, trying to raise his lover, Ankehesnamun, and wreaking havoc on the world in the process. The real Imhotep would more likely have raised the dead to make an immortal volunteer group. Imhotep was known as “the one who comes in peace.” He is not portrayed well in the film, but was most likely used because of his popularity.

Ankehesenamun is the other main Egyptian character in the film. She is portrayed as a weapon-wielding femme fatale. Her real life history is much less dramatic, but no less amazing. She was a queen of Egypt in around 1300 B.C. It is believed she was married to the famous King Tut. However, in the film she is married to Seti I, another pharaoh that ruled after Ankeshesenmun.

The Mummy is an action movie and, while not historically accurate, can still be a great film to get movie-goers interested in Ancient Egypt.

Thor, rating PG-13 (2011)

This god-turned-avenger has found fame recently with the success of the Marvel films. This hero, based on the God of Thunder, has a history that predates his counterparts – a genetically modified scientist and an iron-clad billionaire – by several hundred years. The movies are based on the Marvel comics, which in turn are based on Nordic mythology. These blockbuster films can be a great way to get kids to learn a little more about the origins of Thor, beyond the films and comics.

Thor’s immediate lineage in the film is directly pulled from Nordic mythology. According to myth, Odin is his father, Loki his brother and Frigg (a) his mother. The other companions of Thor, the Warriors Three, are not found in mythology and are purely an idea from Marvel. However, Thor’s fourth companion, Sif, is found in mythology. In the movies, she fights by his side. In mythology, she is Thor’s wife, who is the goddess of Earth. Thor is not married in the movies yet. Perhaps he’ll get married in the third film. But, if he does, I’d bet that it’s going to be to Natalie Portman and not Sif.

Loki is portrayed exceptionally as a trickster and double dealer, as he is often seen helping both sides for personal gain. In every film, Thor has his magic hammer, Mjolnir. All we know from the films is that Thor is the only one who is able to wield the weapon, but its story has a tale that rivals some of the gods.

Thor is still celebrated today and can be found throughout Scandinavia. There are towns and cities named after Thor found in Scandinavia. You don’t need to travel there to see the influence he’s had on modern day. If Thor had a day, which day do you think it would be? If you said Thursday, you’d be correct. Thursday is derived from Thor’s day, which was considered sacred to him. Similarly, Frigg inspired Friday.

As you can see, Norse mythology has inspired much more than comics and movies. To get started, kids could read the comics, which are inspired by the tales. If your student wants to go beyond the comics, they can delve into Norse mythology and learn about Thor’s origins.

Hell Boy 2, rating PG-13 (2008)

Celtic mythology is often hard to come by in media today. But, did you know this popular movie has characters influenced by Irish mythology? Hell Boy is not a mythological creature, but purely a comic book creation.  The main villain in Hell Boy 2, however, is derived directly from Celtic mythology via Prince Nuada.

The film focuses on Hell Boy, but if you pay attention, the filmmakers do a good job of incorporating pieces of the ancient lore into the film. According to legend, Nuada was known as the “Silver Hand,” due to losing his hand in battle. After that, a silver prosthetic was made for him.  The king in Hell Boy 2, who is the father of the villain, also has a silver hand. There’s also mention of a past war between  factions. This part of the myth is adapted to feature the “Golden Army.” There was a war in which Nuada fought.

This film could also be a way to introduce kids into the rich Celtic mythology. The Hell Boy series may be a comic, but the films have incorporated other legends.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians, rating PG (2010)

This is one of the best series to get kids interested in Greco-Roman mythology.  The story follows Percy Jackson, a demi-god teenager who is the son of Poseidon, and his quest to clear his name after being accused of stealing Zeus’ lightning bolt.

Can you guess which legendary hero Percy is based on?

The film is set in modern-day New York, but incorporates many foundations from the Greco-Roman age and relating modern day elements to the ancient myths. For instance, the gods meet at the top of the Empire State Building to travel to Olympus. Almost all the main characters in the film are inspired by Greek gods and myths, and reflect their personalities. Greco-Roman lore and sub stories are sprinkled throughout.

This film is an excellent example of reinventing classic tales for a new audience. Logan Lerman, the actor who plays Percy states, “You can know nothing about Greek mythology and learn something new or you can have a knowledge of Greek mythology and really enjoy how it’s transferred to this audience, to the modern day.”

The film is based on a series of books by Rick Riordan, so if your child enjoyed the films there are plenty of books that continue the story and introduce more gods and creatures. The author’s website offers resources where kids can learn more about the heroes from the book, gods and lesser-known creatures.

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Peter Spain

Peter Spain

Peter Spain is a contributing writer for Learning Liftoff and a manager at K12. A graduate from George Mason University, Peter has worked for several years in the education and entertainment industry. He strives to make learning fun for children by contributing to the games and activities section of the site, and keeping an eye out for advancements in edutainment.

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