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To the extent that there are similarities between Homer’s epic story The Odyssey and Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2000 film “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?” this is no coincidence. While the genesis of the story of escaped prisoners encountering all-manner of adventures on their quest to return home was not consciously based upon The Odyssey, the brothers recognized the similarities in plots and adapted their screenplay accordingly. The following quote from an interview the Coens did provides the background:
“We didn’t really start with Homer,” Joel explains. “We started with the idea of these three fugitives escaping from the chain gang and Homer suggested itself later when we realized the movie was essentially about the main character trying to get home and having this series of adventures along the way.” At this point they remember this old Greek writer called Home. “We never actually read it,” Ethan interjects. “But we read the comic book version of The Odyssey and tarted the movie up with the Cyclops, etc.” [www.darkhorizons.com/features/217/o-brother-where-art-thou]
Once the decision was made to expand the parallels with The Odyssey, the Coens made the requisite adjustments in their screenplay, starting with the name of the lead character, Ulysses Everett McGill, “Ulysses,” of course, being the Latin name of the war hero Odysseus whose adventures during his long trek home following the Trojan War is the protagonist of Homer’s story. The similarities go way beyond the protagonist’s name, however, as suggested by the Coens in the above referenced interview. Characters and events that occur throughout the film have parallels in The Odyssey. Just as Odysseus’ grown son, Telemachus, believes his father to be dead, a casualty of war, so do Ulysses Everett McGill’s daughters believe their father to have perished or, to be more precise, to have been “ran over by a train.” Similarly, Odysseus’ presumed “widow,” Penelope, has her parallel in McGill’s “widow,” Penny [Penelope-Penny, get it?]. Both women have suitors, all believing the husband to be deceased, but Penny’s suitor is considerably more attractive an option than Penelope’s army of would-be suitors. The film’s character of Big Dan Teague represents Homer’s mythical Cyclops, the one-eyed giant and shephard that devours humans that cross its path. Big Dan similarly has only one eye, works as a shepherd, and has a voracious appetite: “I’m a man of large appetite, and even with lunch under my belt, I was feelin’ a mite puckish.”
Other similarities or parallels abound. Just as Odysseus disguises himself as a homeless beggar in order to observe his wife and her surroundings, so does “Ulysses” McGill disguise himself as a homeless beggar to secretly observe Penny. The God of the Seas, Poseidon, torments Odysseus throughout his journey; the prison warden tracks McGill throughout his. There are more such parallels, but this should provide the basis for further discussion.
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