WARNING!!! Beyond this place, there be SPOILERS!!!
Spartan warrior-king Leonidas receives an edict from the god-king Xerxes of Persia: Submit to Xerxes’ lordship or face the largest army ever seen on earth. Submission is not in a Spartan’s vocabulary, so Leonidas makes plans for battle. But the Oracle decrees that Sparta must not fight, and by Spartan law, Leonidas must obey the Oracle. So he and his personal guard of three hundred soldiers decide to “take a stroll,” ending up at a coastal pass called the Hot Gates. There, the three hundred Spartans and other Greeks engage the Persians, mercilessly smashing wave after wave of Xerxes’ forces. But a spurned Spartan warrior reveals a weakness in Leonidas’ defense, which Persia will certainly exploit. Undeterred by certain defeat, Leonidas and his three hundred vow to stand and fight to the death.
Frank Miller gives the story of Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae a mythical treatment in his graphic novel 300. I haven’t read many graphic novels or comic books, but I sense that Miller portrays Leonidas like the superheroes of those media. His Spartans are the stuff of legend – fearless, seemingly invincible men who need no armor; only weapons, scarlet cape and optional leather thong – but with deep angst that is resolved only through conflict with an equally invincible foe. The 2007 movie version takes things higher. The Spartans are indeed superheroes: Physically buff men fighting in battle with balletic movement (thong required here) in a magically realistic world.
Rarely does the movie version deviate from the novel’s structure. Much of the visual action is taken directly from Miller’s artwork, but the benefit of motion and visual effects manipulation add to the mythical atmosphere. Battle scenes are ramped up, as is the level of violence and bloodshed. The movie adds a subplot, built from some passing moments in the novel: Sparta is sold out to the Persians by the Oracle and a traitorous councilman, the latter who complicates efforts by Leonidas’ queen to send reinforcements to her husband. This adds little to the main plot, but doesn’t derail the movie, either. If anything, it underscores the relationship between Leonidas and his queen, and redeems him of his defiance of the Oracle.
The movie and novel differ most in the portrayal of Leonidas. Book Leonidas is a hard king, who addresses his soldiers as “children” and is quick to mete out discipline. Movie Leonidas is no softie – he is king of a patriarchal society, after all – but he regards his men more as fellow soldiers and countrymen than subjects. Leonidas seeks and trusts the counsel of his wife (her role is greatly expanded from the book), showing the depth of their love and commitment. Movie Leonidas is a family man, fighting the Persian threat for his family, homeland and freedom. Book Leonidas is a Spartan warrior who fights fearlessly out of duty, and for honor and glory. His humanity is not apparent as his movie counterpart, though his expression suggests that, beneath the hard, cool exterior, he wonders if he will attain his glory and immortality.
300 on page and on film are close to exact in nature. Naturally, the graphic novel follows the conventions of comic book heroes, while the movie employs magic realism to raise the Spartans to mythical proportions. The differences in Leonidas’ portrayal set the two apart; though in the end, in both book and movie, Leonidas proves to be a hero, and a Spartan.
The graphic novel of 300 is available through PINES.
Frank Miller recommends these titles on the Battle of Thermopylae that are also available through PINES:
The Hot Gates by William Golding
Thermopylae: The Battle for the West by Ernie Bradford
The Western Way of War by Victor Davis Hanson
Visit www.darkhorse.com to see other comic and graphic novel titles from 300’s publisher.
300 Spartan Warriors website is a resource that includes information about the Battle of Thermopylae, including ones for separating the facts from fiction of the book and movie.