Odysseus and Ulysses
Modern renditions of classics are notorious for misrepresenting the cherished old works they try to depict, but when they are successful they add modern twists and embellishments while still maintaining the timeless message. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coen brothers honor Homer’s epic, the Odyssey, with an insightful adaptation. The directors artistically implant messages about honor and trust using symbolism and positioning in ways that mirror the format of the epic and create a worthwhile viewing experience for students trying to supplement their education.
Odysseus remains a timeless hero in society not only because of his journeys, but also his larger than life persona and the respect he commands from everyone he meets. Ulysses adopts this mindset in his travels, refusing to be defined as a person based on the situation he is in at any given moment. The symbolism frequent in O Brother, Where Art Thou? adds depth to Ulysses by emphasizing how his care about appearances affects his experiences and decisions. After escaping from jail, Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar are hungry, tired, and have no way of getting to the treasure. Ulysses stops at a store for a car part and some hair pomade, but refuses to accept any brand other then his own, claiming, “I don’t want Fop, goddamn it! I’m a Dapper Dan man!” This refusal to settle for what Ulysses views as a lesser substitute is reminiscent of Odysseus’ determination to reach Ithaca, though on a much more limited scale. Ulysses believes that accepting anything less than what he wants will be a concession of weakness and will demote him to a less honorable status. Odysseus behaves the same way throughout his journey. Calypso expresses her strong desire to keep him on her island indefinitely. While Odysseus does not view this as an entirely unpleasant situation, he knows that his true wish is to finally reach Ithaca and his wife, and therefore implores Calypso to let him leave. Although honor is extremely important to both men, they are willing to admit slight defeats at the chance of a greater opportunity to redeem themselves. In a final, desperate attempt to win back Penny, Ulysses and his men dress up as a band of old men, complete with beards. Ulysses promises that he’s “just gotta get close enough to talk to her.” A bedraggled old man does not match the type of appearance Ulysses traditionally likes to maintain, but he sees the chance it gives him to reunite with Penny and sacrifices the less important aspects of his nature in order to achieve his goals. Odysseus exhibits the same ability to make sacrifices when he spends years at his home in Ithaca, enduring harsh, humiliating treatment from the suitors. Although it pained him to undergo that type of disrespect in his own home, he knew that in order to succeed in his plan he would need to bide his time until he was ready to defeat the suitors. The symbolism evident in the old man disguises represents the patience and sacrifices the men make towards a greater long-term goal. Honor is a major driving force for the adventures of these men, but they still realize when a greater cause is worth a meager sacrifice.
Other sacrifices are made on such adventures when a great amount of trust is required to succeed in the goals of the group. The Coen brothers use subtle positioning throughout the film adaptation to signify who the men trust to lead them throughout their struggles. At the start of their travels, an order needs to be established to prevent conflicts. This issue is addressed quickly, when Pete asks Ulysses, “Who elected you leader of this outfit?” No formal leader is established at this point, but it soon becomes clear whom the men look to for guidance. Ulysses gains their trust quickly, and this is expressed not only through actions but also through the subtle ways Ulysses fulfills common leadership roles. When the men steal a car in order to seek the treasure, Ulysses is the driver. This subtle cue incorporated by the Coen brothers subconsciously places Ulysses in a leadership role. This reflects Odysseus’ position in relation to his crew. Both men are looked to for the decisions of the groups as a whole, and both use this power to help their men escape dangerous situations. Ulysses used his guidance abilities to help his men out of the burning barn at the Hogwallop’s when they were “in a tight spot,” just as Odysseus uses his wit to devise a plan to escape from Polythemus’ cave. Ulysseus is placed in the center again as the lead singer for the Soggy Bottom Boys’ hit song, “Man of Constant Sorrow.” He is clearly a leader in this position, and becomes the face of their fame. Odysseus mirrors this role in his tale, as well. As leader of his crew, Odysseus is the name people wonder about when they talk about how long it has been since their return. Odysseus represents many men, but is the only one remembered for their journey, just as the lead singer so often steals the spotlight from the entirety of a band.
Students reading the Odyssey would do very well to supplement their reading with this modern adaptation of the Greek classic. While still possessing artistic differences and interpretations in the plot, the film does exceptionally well portraying Ulysses as a hero with inner conflict regarding whether to protect his crew or further his personal goals. Odysseus faces these crossroads frequently in the Odyssey, the classic example being the choice he faces on Circe’s island. Upon discovering that Circe had turned his men into pigs, Odysseus must choose to brave the possible danger that the witch brings, or to leave his men there and flee towards Ithaca. He remains loyal to his men and helps liberate them, forming a valuable connection with Circe along the way. The film adaptation excels at demonstrating this conflict of character Ulysses frequently suffers from, although Ulysses, like Odysseus, manages to come through in truly desperate times. When the men stumble upon a KKK gathering Ulysses immediately spots Tommy, their old accompanist, lined up for a lynching. He does not hesitate in his decision when Pete whispers, “We got to save him.” Infiltrating a KKK meeting is a potentially life threating risk for Ulysses to undertake, but his loyalty to his companions drives him, like Odysseus, to taking that chance. The film adaptation, like the book, helps portray the lengths to which the main characters will go to where they are headed, and scenes like this, which offer character change, are crucial to the development of the story and necessary to show in class. The crew can also hinder Odysseus, which adds to the dynamic he maintains with his companions. When the crew is gifted with wind to aid them on the trip back home to Ithaca, the crew soon grows restless and mutinous and decides to investigate the bag with the wind in it. The wind comes roaring out, and their closest chance to reaching Ithaca vanishes in front of them. Ulysses experiences similar setbacks as a result of his men. After the men escape from prison they try to jump on a train for fast passage to the treasure. Two of them get up, but one trips in the attempted jump and drags all three of them off of the train. The incompetence of the crew in this situation is necessary to developing an understanding of the relationship between Ulysses and his men. A huge part of understanding the Odyssey is appreciating how much aid Odysseus receives from companions, and realizing his hesitation to trust many. Many scenes in O Brother, Where Art Thou? expand on this relationship and display it in more distinct terms than may have been offered in the Odyssey, creating an ideal work to be offered to students for enhanced learning.
Homer’s The Odyssey remains so popular to this day in part because of its flexibility to adaptation within many different environments, as masterfully demonstrated by the Coen Brothers in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Both the positive and negative aspects of the relationships and characters developed in the film create lasting impressions about the characters that would prove more difficult to express solely through the book.
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