Few myths from the Greek canon have enjoyed as long a life as Homer’s Odyssey. Though written centuries before the contemporary era, retellings of the work continue to exist. Other poets, such as Keats and Pound, make reference to the poem in their own work, and James Joyce, in his Ulysses, uses its thematic and structural elements in his own modernist novel. A uniquely intriguing example, however, lies with the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Released in the year 2000, the film details the story of three escaped convicts in Mississippi, and is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression. While these three men journey towards home, the film reveals itself as a clever update – and reference to – Homer’s Odyssey. The richest link between the two, however, are the examples of cultural context as displayed in narrative and character.
Perhaps the most important element shared between the film and the source material are these narrative similarities. In Homer’s Odyssey, a war-weary Odysseus is working his way home after the events of the Iliad; in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, three convicts are running towards home after their escape from a chain gang. This constitutes a basic alignment of plot, as homage and reference are likely to use. However, the richest portions of this relationship moves beyond simple resemblance; both are stories about redemption and return, and both take place in times of crisis that are uniquely relevant to their cultural contexts. This is perhaps best illustrative of the deeper connection between the two works.
While some similarities are only natural given the relationship between them, a strong example of this link can be found in each story’s respective social context. Firstly, the Odyssey follows a warrior king after a period of violent conflict. In this, there are numerous qualities of then-contemporary Greek society; a monarchic power structure, for example, is evidenced, as is the relatively bellicose nature of Ithacan society[footnoteRef:1]. The various mythological references in the text, too, also illustrate a generalized version of the Greek religious tradition, which holds a deep reverence for the mysterious and inexplicable. [1: 225. Belsky, Scott. “The Poet Who Sings through Us: Homer’s Influence in Contemporary Western Culture.” College Literature 34, No. 2 (2007): pp. 216-228.]
O Brother, Where Art Thou? Is similar in that, just as the Odyssey profoundly Greek, the film’s narrative context is deeply American. The choice to place the film in Mississippi, for example, affords the film the ability to frankly discuss race and class relations of the Depression era[footnoteRef:2]. Arguably no other time – except, perhaps, the Civil War period – offers such a rich background against which a narrative may investigate the strain of such relations in the United States. That the protagonists are escaped convicts remains true to this logic. These characters, as escapees, simultaneously fulfill both the American fixation with outlaws and the archetype of the American everyman[footnoteRef:3]. [2: 44. Content, Rob, Tim Kreider, and Boyd White. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Film Quarterly 55, No. 1 (2001): pp. 41-48.] [3: 573. Heckel, Hartwig. “Back to the future via Ithaca, Mississippi: technology and function of Homeric reference in ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’’ International Journal of the Classical Tradition 11, No. 4 (2005): pp. 571-589.]
Many initial reviews noted this trend, as many characters in O Brother, Where Art Thou? are indeed analogous to ones appearing in the Odyssey. Everett, arguably the film’s central character and one of the three escapees, is a clear representation of Odysseus; he is more or less the leader of the group, and in his absence, his wife has been courted by another man[footnoteRef:4]. Delmar and Pete, the other two convicts and primary characters, represent the soldiers that accompany Odysseus. Perhaps a more rich example, however, is Big Dan Teague, a Bible salesman with an eyepatch. While it is clear that this character is meant to portray the cyclops due to his one eye, there is something deeper at work[footnoteRef:5]. The cyclops is noted in the Odyssey as being a shepherd; indeed, when Odysseus goes into the cyclops’ cave, it is because he “had gone afield, to pasture his fat sheep.”[footnoteRef:6] Big Dan Teague, as a Bible salesman, may also be characterized as some kind of shepherd. Though his motives are crooked and based in profit, his product is the Lamb of God. This comparison furthers the aforementioned note of cultural context, as both Teague and the cyclops are figures deeply illustrative of their cultures of origin. The cyclops is a mythical creature, humanoid but derived of the pantheon’s will; Teague is an American scumbag, a capitalist predator with a fundamentalist’s mouth. [4: 45. Content, Rob, Tim Kreider, and Boyd White. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Film Quarterly 55, No. 1 (2001): pp. 41-48.] [5: 45. Ibid.] [6: 151. Homer. The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.]
This line of comparison is perhaps the most intriguing offering from the Coen brothers’ film. Rather than retell the Homeric Odyssey in Mississippi by reusing Homer’s images and plot, O Brother, Where Art Thou? thoroughly recontextualizes the narrative and characters into its own framework. It is through this framework that certain traits of the original text – namely its “Greek-ness” – begin to emerge, as through the ways in which the Coen brothers make the poem American, the source material’s cultural qualities are more deeply illuminated. The film is, then, no simple retelling, but something between an homage and adaptation. It is a profoundly American story fashioned from a profoundly Greek tale.
- Belsky, Scott. “The Poet Who Sings through Us: Homer’s Influence in Contemporary Western Culture.” College Literature 34, No. 2 (2007): pp. 216-228.
- Content, Rob, Tim Kreider, and Boyd White. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Film Quarterly 55, No. 1 (2001): pp. 41-48.
- Heckel, Hartwig. “Back to the future via Ithaca, Mississippi: technology and function of Homeric reference in ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’’ International Journal of the Classical Tradition 11, No. 4 (2005): pp. 571-589.
- Homer. The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.