Essay on Myths in Modern Adaptations: ‘The Penelopiad’, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’

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Transformations of myths have materialized over centuries and are dependent on the source material for the provision of commonality between storylines, themes, characters and motifs upon which they ultimately traverse. Through these adaptations and re-interpretations of myths to contemporary frameworks, audiences can engage with and appreciate the rewriting undertaken by the adaptive text, whilst simultaneously enjoying the underlying congruity between them. This congruity finds its most powerful expression through the reworking or challenging of pre-existing notions, themes, overarching stories or character archetypes existing in a myth. Thus, it comes to no surprise ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer has exerted considerable influence for a plethora of inspired adaptations, thus becoming a visage of such appropriative practice. Most notable of these appropriations are ‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood, a novel providing the perspectives of both Odysseus’s wife Penelope and their 12 maids who are executed preceding the culmination of the original story, and the film ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, written and directed by the Coen Brothers, and is a modern-day interpretation of Homer’s ancient epic. Elements of ‘The Odyssey’ are conceivably enhanced in both texts’ reinterpretation, defining the purpose of the conveyance of meaning in both texts thus how they engage different audiences whilst remaining faithful to the source’s original material. Similarly, the film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, is rich in allusion and a piece that curates a significant amount of classical mythology by imbedding it into its story. The adaptations of these stories provide an elucidation of various myths throughout each of their reinterpretations respectfully; hence, providing evidence to support the idea and scholarship of adaptation as a literary device and its importance in a cross generational and cross-cultural context.

In ‘The Penelopiad’, Atwood transforms the classic nature of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ by means of demythologizing burlesque and tragical conventions present in the Greek epic. It is without saying, however, that in spite of obvious differences, ‘The Penelopiad’ also displays significant similarities in terms of narrative techniques and thematic concerns to its historic counterpart. Apparent in the title, Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’ explores the perspective of Penelope, wife to the poignant character Odysseus from ‘The Odyssey’, and upon doing so, introduces a multitude of facets to her character, absent in the original version. This disruption of the primordial nature of ‘The Odyssey’, predominantly its legacy in the literary canon, is achieved using the guise of a contemporary narrator who, throughout the novel, reaffirms major events pertaining to the transmitted myth of ‘The Odyssey’ and mythicizes ones that are unaccounted for, thereby constructing a divergent perspective within the same story. “Where shall I begin? There are only two choices: at the beginning or not at the beginning… but since there are differences of opinion about that, I’ll begin with my own birth” (Chapter 2). Here, Atwood foregrounds the oral nature of Penelope’s narrative by bypassing the world’s genesis and instead focusing extensively on the narration of her genealogy, thus challenging the traditional framework of a heroic epic.

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Additionally, Atwood’s employment of gender as a literary technique destabilizes patriarchal grounding on the exclusion and suppression of female traditions. In a passage, Penelope admits she “turned a blind eye” to Odysseus’s negative traits of “slipperiness…wiliness…foxiness” in order to have her “happy ending”. These exerts, whilst providing female agency and thereupon denouncing the dominant masculine discourse in odyssean narratives, also subverts audiences’ expectations by introducing complexity to the relationship of Penelope and Odysseus, who was subject to a seemingly perfect portrayal in their mythological versions.

As a post modernistic reworking of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’, Atwood, through her writing, dislodges the dominant discourse expressed through the dimensions of gender, by means of demythologizing conventions present in the Odyssean narrative, revealing the many aspects of adaption and reinterpretation as a literary device, especially for contemporary audiences.

In contrast, the film ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ by the Coen brothers blurs the parameter between the original source material and their adaptation through overtly claiming inspiration from Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ and imbedding said inspiration into their film. Additionally, the body of classical allusions creates an obvious deployment of irony and parody in the film when recast to the Depression-era Southern Baptist context. Through this juxtaposition, the Coen brothers effectively enhance the original ambience of ‘The Odyssey’ and use the past as a mechanism for interrogating a multitude of issues prevalent to that time. Issues such as slavery, class, racism and corruption are explored amongst the fundamental themes of power, family, friendship and the journey home in ‘The Odyssey’. The story is also reminiscent of the Homeric journey, as it adopts similar narrative devices and corresponding imagery as the titular character, Ulysses struggles to return home to his wife Penny, who is besieged by suitors, but stuck in the predicament of his convict status. He proceeds to escape, however, along with his party of two other convicts tying to return home. From its onset, both Coen’s attempt to subvert the audience’s expectations of the convicts, based on preconceived notions of how a convict should look and act, thus challenging our idea of bad vs good. The Coen brothers do this by utilizing a multitude of techniques including varying camera angles, visual symbols, repetition and stylistic methods to shape the audiences viewing experience. At the start of the film, the position of the camera reflects the viewers skepticism about the men; are constantly viewing them at their level, however, manipulates the scenes towards the end to reflect the opposite. Instead of camera shots making the three main characters deliberately seem small, the scene of Everett, Pete, and Delmar performing the popular song represents their final success. By placing the crowd downwards of the camera, it is implied that the men on stage are now the ones that are in power. This redemption coincides with the eventual return home alike that of Odysseus’s, reinforcing the presence of its influence in ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’.

Guillermo Del Toro’s 2006 film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ tells the story of a young girl, Ofelia, and her journey undertaking a series of tasks set to her by a fantastical faun she encounters in the woods, concomitantly reflecting the harsh realities of post-civil war Spain upon which the context is established. Despite this, Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ abounds with subtle and clear religious and mythological references, further enhancing an already rich palate by providing depth and context to an already genre-defying film. From its onset, the film is launched into allusion with a short story about a young princess who is held captive in the underworld, escaping into the human world. On an artificial level, the short story is significantly reminiscent of Plato’s allegory of the cave, being one of many paradigms of myth and folktale being employed as both a symbolistic and narrative driver, enhancing the underlying structure of the film’s entirety.

The most prominent and memorable elements of mythological and cultural symbolism is expressed through the character of the Pale Man, who, as stated by Del Toro himself, derives great influence from Francisco Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, a painting depicting the Greek Titan Saturn devouring his son, evident in its title. This link is clearly established in the film through the use of imagery depicting the Pale Man’s lair being adorned with paintings of him eating children, akin to Goya’s painting, and a pile of children shoes collecting dust in the corner.

In conclusion, such works of adaption or appropriation require complexity and even awareness of the literary canon on behalf of the reader or spectator receiving the recreated text. Mythology is just one of many paradigms to the dialogue and scholarship regarding recreation and why it is important to reinterpret things to engage different audiences in a climate of cross generational and cross-cultural readership, as these literary devices ultimately enhance and reimagine stories told for thousands of years but deliver the underlying meanings and teachings of their historic counterparts, defining its importance in our world today.

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Essay on Myths in Modern Adaptations: ‘The Penelopiad’, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from
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