Helen of Hell: The Destined Wifedom in The Boy Next Door

Helen of Hell: The Destined Wifedom in The Boy Next Door

Nobody has ever questioned the beauty of Jennifer Lopez, but such allure comes with potential tragedy in her role in 2015’s The Boy Next Door, through her similarities with the infamous Helen of Troy. So much more than a “bad movie”, Lopez’s film offers a potent understanding of the dangers of forgiving men who don’t deserve it – Lucy-Jo Finnighan tells us why.

No man or woman born, coward or brave, can shun his destiny.

This is a quote from Homer’s Iliad, and a central theme of the 2015 film The Boy Next Door. Directed by Rob Cohen, the film focuses on high school English teacher Claire, played by Jennifer Lopez, who after being scorned by her cheating husband, sleeps with her soon to be student and next-door neighbour, Noah. Things go south when Claire attempts to end the relationship, and Noah reveals that he has no desire to let Claire go. 

Homer’s epic poem kept the film in notoriety a while after its release, thanks to the scene in which Noah gives Claire a perfect first edition copy of the Iliad as a gift  – despite the fact that the Iliad was told orally until the 10th century. But beyond the clunky physical inclusion of the tale, its presence in the script adds context to certain characters. Noah is textually aligned with the hero Achilles constantly. He refers to himself as a hero until the very moment he dies, and admires many of Achilles’ flaws, such as pride and anger. But while not immediately obvious, when taking a second look at the film, there is an obvious connection between Claire and Helen of Troy. 

Helen of Troy, notoriously the most beautiful woman in the world, the face that launched a thousand ships, plays a major part in the Iliad. The tale covers the Trojan War, caused by the abduction of Helen by the Trojan Prince, Paris. Although whether she was abducted or simply chose to leave has been debated throughout different interpretations of the story. Some scholars assume that she was unhappy with her current life and husband Menelaus, and was seduced to follow a new relationship, which quickly soured when the war began, and Helen saw the consequences of her decision. At one point, she growls to Paris, “You've come back from the fight. How I wish you’d died there, killed by that strong warrior
who was my husband once.”

But Paris does not care, wanting her despite her rejections: “Don’t mock my courage with your insults. That’s how sweet passion has seized hold of me, how much I want you now.” 

In The Boy Next Door, things aren’t that different. When Claire spouts hatred for Noah and love for her husband, Noah responds: “You see the proof of our love as a threat to [your married] life. But I see it as a promise for a better one.” Claire’s entrapment isn’t so far from Helen’s.

It’s easy to compare the two characters physically; who would doubt Jennifer Lopez’s beauty? But the most poignant similarities between the two are their tragic flaws, and the consequences those flaws lead to, and what this means within the wider discourse of wifedom in media.

Claire, like many significant Greek literary figures, is flawed. Like Helen, she commits adultery – by sleeping with someone who is about to be her student, no less. And, like Helen, this leads to tragedy. Her sleeping with and then rejection of Noah leads to her best friend being murdered, and her barn being burnt to ashes with her husband inside. All because she slept with another man. 

Helen is often discussed in a negative light, both by the characters in the Iliad and by scholarly discourse. Many Trojans resent Helen, saying, “Yet lovely as she is, let her sail home, not stay to be a bane to us and our children.”

Obviously, Helen did not singlehandedly start the war. But the story only takes pity on Helen because she takes the blame. She tells Paris’ father, “I wish I had chosen death rather than following your son, leaving behind my bridal chamber.” She abhors her actions, believing herself responsible for the war, and wishes for death. And what is most poignant in her confession is that the main cause of her concern is about leaving her original marriage. 

Because of her running away from this relationship, as says historian Bettany Hughes, “Helen of Troy has been remembered, judged, and hated, by every age. Euripides calls her a ‘bitch-whore’; she is Shakespeare’s ‘strumpet.’” 

According to academic Ruby Blondell, the 458BCE play Agamemnon implies that Helen’s desertion is the worst crime any wife can commit: “Killing a husband is less heinous than abandoning him.” It may seem as though any suffering Helen underwent during the war was her punishment for straying away from her role of a virtuous wife. Ancient Greek literature justifies this interpretation, as the war seemingly ends with Helen returning to Menelaus in a restoration of domestic harmony. Does The Boy Next Door wish to say the same about Claire?

In ‘Helen in the Iliad’, Hanna Roisman argues that Helen’s fault lies in her beauty rather than her actions. Claire, or rather, Lopez, was often regarded by viewers in a similar manner. The Wrap claims the film presented Lopez, “as the ultimate MILF, a goddess of the hearth.” To many reviewers, the fatal aspect of the film was that she was simply too attractive to play an English teacher. Her only worth lied in her beauty.

One of the reasons Claire cheats is because she is currently going through a divorce after her husband, Garret, had a long-term affair. He reluctantly admits guilt just once. Claire, however, admits immense shame after her affair. It is why she chooses to forgive Garret, admitting, “We’ve all done things in our lives that we wished we wouldn’t have.” 

Claire follows a trajectory like Helen’s, admitting regret while her other partner, Noah, rages war around her. It only ends when she returns to Garret, saying as the film ends: “We’re going home.” It’s a supposedly happy ending. Until she returns to her original marriage, a marriage in which she was miserable, she is punished. 

In real life, women who are single or divorced are often made to feel shame in a way that men aren’t. While adultery is undeniably terrible, both the film and poem imply that a woman being with anyone other than her originally destined husband is worthy of punishment. According to both texts: “No man or woman born, coward or brave, can shun his destiny.”

Claire is the Helen of her own hell. Both women are beautiful. Both are blamed. And both are trapped in their own warzones, for pursuing a path that strayed from their original destiny.

Lucy-Jo Finnighan (@lucyjofinnighan) is a script consultant and Film/TV journalist based in the North of England. She specialises in "So-Bad-They're-Good-Movies" and spends most of her time writing articles about those movies for Screen Rant.

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