Most adaptations come with a price tag. The owner of the original usually licenses the work to the people making the adaptation. The more popular the original, the higher the licensing fees, usually because of bidding. But not all works are owned. Public domain allows anyone to publish or adapt the work, but the risk is that the general audience hasn’t heard of the story. Myth and legends bypass the problem. Myths transcend time and details fade from the general audience. Names and deeds are recognized, but specifics fall by the wayside.
Out from the mists of time comes Heracles, Born from one of the many trysts between Zeus and a mortal woman, Heracles is best known for his Twelve Labours and the enmity Hera, Zeus’s wife, had for the demigod. Hera hated Zeus’s infidelities and the offspring produced by them, and Heracles was no exception. The goddess sent two snakes to kill the infant Heracles, but the boy, already showing hints of the strength he’d have when he’d grow up, strangled the serpents with his bare hands. The Twelve Labours came about as Heracles atoned for killing his wife, Maegara, and his children in a fit of madness caused by Hera. The Oracle of Delphi sent the hero to serve King Eurystheus. The king, though, was a worshipper of Hera and set quests that were meant to kill Heracles. From defeating the Nemean Lion and slaying the Hydra to cleaning the Augeus stables and stealing Queen Hyppolita’s belt, Heracles completed each task.
The myths of Heracles have been adapted as movies, cartoons, and TV series; a version of him appears in Marvel Comics as Hercules. His adventures are of one man against the classic monsters, making for an easy pitch. And without license fees, a syndicated series can easily use the character for no added cost. Thus, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was born.
With the expansion of cable in the Nineties, stations found that there was more air time than programming. While reruns could fill time, first run syndication, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, could bring in viewers. Universal Television created its Action Pack set of movies, which included the Bandit movies, TekWar, spin-off Midnight Run movies, and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Hercules started with five movies, the first airing in January of 1995 – Hercules and the Amazon Women, Hercules and the Lost Kingdom, Hercules and the Circle of Fire, Hercules in the Underworld, and Hercules in the Maze of the Minotaur. The latter turned out to be a clip show, featuring scenes from the previous movies as the studio prepared to turn the movies into a regular TV series. In the pilot movies, Kevin Sorbo starred as Hercules, half man and half god with Michael Hurst as Iolaus and Anthony Quinn as Zeus, father of Hercules.
The movies showed Hercules after his Twelve Labours, settling down with a wife and family. His main nemesis* for the pilots was Hera, the wife of Zeus, who despised Hercules because of the attention he received from his father. Zeus, though, was starting to realize that he had made mistakes, though he cared for Hercules, again, setting off Hera. Once the TV series began, though, having Hercules settled down meant limiting the wandering. Just as in the myths, though, his family died, though directly by Hera’s hand.
While Hera and Zeus were the main gods who appeared in the movies, others began appearing in the TV series. Ares, god of war, was the first, though Kevin Smith would take on the role after appearing in the spin-off, Xena: Warrior Princess**. Other gods appeared, some as antagonists, such as Hades and Deimos, others as Herc’s friends, like Aphrodite and Nemesis. The show put a new twist on the characters; Aphrodite, as portrayed by Alexandra Tydings, came across more as a Valley Girl than a goddess, but her vanity was still in force.
Over the course of the series’ six seasons, the show took liberties with its format. Mirror universes, time shifts, and, over in the spin-off, Xena, musical episodes were toyed with. In the setting, Hercules would live until the modern day, becoming Kevin Sorbo, who played Hercules on a TV series. To say that the show took liberties with myth, history, and reality would be understating things. Hercules became its own entity, borrowing from myth and legend but going its own direction.
Hercules: The Legendary Journey paid lip service to being a proper adaptation. The series started with the myth of Heracles, taking the character but putting him on a new course separate from the legends. Goes to show that an accurate adaptation isn’t always the best choice.
* As opposed to Nemesis, the bearer of divine retribution, who also showed up in the series.
** Xena began airing September 1995, though the character was first introduced in Hercules.