O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? A Coen Brothers Odyssey

I am a man of constant sorrow,
I’ve seen trouble all my day
I bid farewell to old Kentucky,
The place where I was born and raised

-O’ Brother Where Art Thou

“Be strong, saith my heart; I am a soldier;
I have seen worse sights than this.”
― Homer, The Odyssey

In this piece, I set out to discuss the similarities and differences between the Coens’ O’ Brother, Where Art Thou and Homer’s The Odyssey. ”Sing to me O Muse . . . “, the line at the beginning of the film, is the first line of the Odyssey and the credits state that it is adapted from Homer’s The Odyssey. But just how closely does the film’s narrative tie into the Greek poet’s tale? And, if you’re woendering where the title for the Coen Brothers film comes from, well the title of the film is related to the Preston Sturges film “Sullivan’s Travels,” released in 1941 and not the Odyssey.  Before I dive into the similarities of the two texts, I believe that it is best to give a summary about the tale of the Odyssey:

First off, The Odyssey is in fact a sequel; to Homer’s Iliad (yes, an I know that sequels aren’t as good as the original piece of text but in this case, this is an example of the sequel being better than the original). The poem mainly focuses on the Greek hero Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myths), king of Ithaca, and his journey home after the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. In his absence, it is assumed Odysseus has died, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus must deal with a group of unruly suitors, who are seeking her hand in marriage. Upon his journey home, Odysseus encounters beautiful sirens who lure his crew to death, a cyclops who wants to kill him and a lotus plant which when digested causes amnesia.

O Brother.jpg

Now upon researching, I discovered an abundance of references to The Odyssey throughout O’ Brother Where Art Thou, which was a pleasant surprise. However, this realisation did not make my job any easier! There were in fact more than I actually first realised, and sadly I can’t list them all in great detail or else this would make for a very long article! Instead I want to focus on the main plot points in the film and compare them to the poem; so we can analyse the similarities between the texts.

First off I want to discuss the main character of both O’ Brother Where Art Thou and the Odyssey.  The Coens’ film follows the character of Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), who is returning home after escaping from incarceration in Mississippi during the Great Depression. He is chained to two other prisoners, slow-witted Delmar (Tim Blake Neslon) and hot-tempered Pete (John Turturro), so the three must escape together.

As previously mentioned the Roman’s name for Odysseus was Ulysses, and the character of Odysseus has the same personality and characteristics as Clooney’s character in O’ Brother Where Art Thou. Both men are cunning, quick-witted, fast-talking and reckless in their decision-making, but they are loyal to their companions and they are likeable rogues even if sometimes their own selfish needs for attention place others at risks. Perhaps the most obvious difference in the two versions of the story is the fact that Odysseus is a famous king and warrior, while Everett aka Ulysses is a convicted con man who has escaped prison. Odysseus is often forthright about his identity and purpose, unless he is absolutely required to lie, while Everett tends to operate in the opposite manner. Normally, he is lying, unless it is absolutely necessary to tell the truth. Both characters are arrogant and self-centered, but Odysseus assumes his status as king and soldier provides him this right, while Everett just assumes a high status, with little reason or justification. The pride of both characters is made manifest through the presentation their fastidious nature. It is also worth mentioning that the name, Odysseus’ means “trouble” in Greek, referring to bother you again the giving and receiving of trouble—as is often the case in his wanderings trouble by name, trouble by nature!

A good example of how similar these two heroes are is in the following scenes. In the Odyssey, Odysseus requests that his men tie him to the ship’s mast just so he can hear the siren’s song, despite knowing that the sirens’ song is so powerful that it can drive men crazy, this is simply because our hero wants to be the only man alive to boast that he’s heard the siren’s song and has managed to survive the encounter. In O’ Brother Where Art Thou it is Everett who addresses the three siren like women washing clothes beside the river, he talks on the behalf of the group and accepts their alcohol. The women’s song distracts the men and causes them to temporarily abandon their ”quest” and being by the water, they are essentially lure them to a metaphorical watery grave. Although the characters in the Coen’s film have a better fate than Odysseus men, and luckily wake up from their hypnotism to quickly go back on their journey.

the sirens

Certain minor and supporting characters which appear throughout the film are similar to the characters featured in the Odyssey.  Homer (the blind poet himself) makes an ”appearance” as the blind radio man who records the Soggy Bottom Boys song, ”Man of Constant Sorrow”. Another character to mention would be George ”Baby Face” Nelson can be seen as an interpretation of Hermes the Greek God of thieves. Baby Face Nelson was a famous bank robber of the depression era, therefore a thief. Perhaps one of the most recognisable characters from the poem and the most memorable in the film is the Cyclops who is represented by the character of Big Dan Teague (John Goodman) who has one eye, just like the Cyclops. In the poem, Odysseus and his men are captured by the cyclops who wishes to eat them. The hero escapes by blinding the cyclops which is a similar fate that occurs to Big Dan, and by disguising themselves as sheep. Ulysses, Pete and Delmar end up dressing like members of the KKK in order to escape from Big Dan. Thankfully, our merry band of heroes manages to escape the evil clutches of the Klan and continue on their journey.

Goodman aka Cyclops

Both the Odyssey and O’Brother end in a similar fashion. Throughout the poem, Odysseus is driven by the need to get home after discovering his wife is being forced to remarry. A group of 100 potential suitors have arrived at Odysseus home, and are refusing to leave until Penelope picks a husband. In the case of O’Brother, the character of Vernon T. Waldrip (Ray McKinnon) is courting Penny (Holly Hunter) while Everett has been away. In order to confront his wife, Everett dresses as a hobo, which is the same event that occurs in Odyssey. In the film, the men launch into “Man of Constant Sorrow”, which gains Penny’s attention and she watches as the entire audience rises to its feet and cheers, recognizing them as the elusive Soggy Bottom Boys.

In the Odyssey, our hero decides to take on the challenge that Penelope has set out for the suitors in order to win her hand: the man who can string the bow and shoot it through a dozen axe heads would win. Odysseus takes part in the competition himself: he alone is strong enough to string the bow and shoot it through the dozen axe heads, making him the winner. The difference between the texts is the amount of violence, in the poem Odysseus slaughters the suitors, but O’Brother doesn’t show Everett slaughtering Vernon, which is probably a good thing as the tone of the film would be seriously effected by this act. Both the poem and the film ends happily, with the family unit being reconnected, and the main heroes have developed as an individual, and ultimately become a better man. 

Clooney Soggy Bottom

What makes O’Brother so good, is the fact that the Coen’s take inspiration from the Odyssey but put their own spin on the tale, and create something which is unique but also is quite faithful to the original text. It is a great film which hopefully promotes the poem which it is based loosely upon, and brings it to a new generation. The Coen’s appreciation for the Greek myths and the films/stories that have come before is what sets them apart from other filmmakers, and that’s why I love them! So, I have reached the end of my essay, so I will end on one of my favourite quotes from the Odyseey “There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”

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2 thoughts on “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? A Coen Brothers Odyssey

  1. Hmmmm…maybe I need to give this movie another go…I switched off about a third in. I’ve heard so many positive things about it that I should probably give it a chance…

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