On the left, a panel from Frank Miller's graphic novel "300." On the right, the scene as it appears in the film.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Note: This article includes details about the legendary tale told by Frank Miller in his graphic novel and in the film "300." These events are central to the film's plot and its ending.

­

In 480 B.C., a small army of 300 Spartan warriors led by King Leonidas held off 100,000 Persian invaders under the command of King Xerxes at a narrow canyon called Thermopylae. Twenty-four centuries later, the story author and illustrator Frank Miller captured so vividly in his 1999 graphic novel has been realized on screen as "300" by director Zack Snyder—a Herculean task that would have been impossible without a modern-day army of artists, technicians, stunt people and trainers.

In this article, we’ll look at how the movie came from a graphic novel to the big screen, the casting of the major characters, the logistics of filming, separating the myth from history and bulking up for the dynamic fight scenes.

“When I was a little kid I saw a film version of the story, a much tamer one. The story has haunted me ever since,” recalls Frank Miller. “It defined everything a hero was. I told myself, ‘When I’m good enough I’m going to do this story.’ I never intended it for a movie. But I was impressed by Zack’s enthusiasm for it.”

Snyder, a commercials director about to start shooting his debut feature "Dawn of the Dead," got over his fan-boy nerves about meeting Miller and clicked with the author when they met. “We had a lot of the same esthetic and ideas and next thing we knew we were meeting with Warner Bros.” One problem: the studio had already produced two sword-and-sandal epics, "Troy" and "Alexander." “But to their credit,” adds Snyder, “they thought Frank’s perspective compared to the Hollywood sort of epic might be worth doing, and [supported] my passion for it.”

Using Miller’s graphic novel as his bible, Snyder shot some test footage that brought the visual style in focus for the studio. As for the script, adapting Miller’s work proved “incredibly intimidating” for big fan Kurt Johnstad, the screenplay’s co-author (with Snyder). “He’s the Holy Grail of that world and we were very aware of that,” says Johnstad, who held his breath until Miller gave the script his thumbs up.

In translating "300" to the screen, Snyder’s mandate from the studio, according to producer Bernie Goldmann, was “to create a world that you hadn’t seen before, to reinvent the epic movie and do it much less expensively,” about a third of the cost of "Troy" and "Alexander," and that meant no big, marquee names. In the next section, we'll look at the casting of Leonidas, the leader of the Spartans, and Xerxes, the Persian king who claims to be a god.